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Amidst loud RNC protests, Muslim girl's quiet message stands out

CLEVELAND – In a park loaded with hundreds of people, most of them thrusting signs to the sky or cameras into faces, she stood alone.

Sondos Mishal wasn’t actually alone; she came here with a small group of adults from Progressive Democrats of Summit County, where she lives just south of Cleveland.

But Sondos, who is 17 and Muslim, stood out. Not because she carried a creative, colorful or touching sign to protest Donald Trump’s stance on immigration. Others did – for example, “No One Puts Their Child on a Boat Unless the Water is Safer than the Land” – but that wasn’t Sondos’ strategy. The only thing in her hands was a small brown leather purse.

Nor did she stand out because of the pink head covering – called a hijab – that she wore. Well, in fairness, she did probably catch people’s eye for it. “When people see the head cover,” she said, “that’s a guarantee they’re Muslim.”

But see? That’s her issue: Sondos knows people notice her because she’s Muslim. She feels like people are noticing her, and her family, more nowadays, and she pins it to Trump’s comments (which he has since softened) about banning Muslims as a way to combat terrorism.

So she came here to talk. Not to scream or chant. Just share her story. That’s how she, and other Muslims who came separate from her, stood out: Sondos was a quiet protester. She stood near the back of a large and loud crowd, far enough away from the stage to share her story with anyone who would listen.

Many did. Over the course of a couple hours, Sondos did interview after interview, answering questions about what she feels is Trump’s adverse effect on her life and that of other Muslims.

“I wanted to show people how Muslims are – just ordinary people,” said Sondos, whose shy smile reveals her braces. “We’re not the image Donald Trump is giving off to everyone in the media. We’re just like any regular citizen. The only difference is just our belief. He’s categorizing this giant group of people as terrorists – all these negative things – and it’s affecting our daily lives.”

[Gallery: Republican National Convention: Day One]

Amidst days and evenings full of protests here that range from Black Lives Matter activists to people who want to abolish capitalism, some Muslim groups have adopted a quieter approach that tugs at empathy, not anger.

As Sondos shared her story, representatives of the Washington, D.C.-based Council on American-Islamic Relations circulated in the crowd and handed out packs of faux-medicine called “Islamaphobin.” The packaging claimed it treats “Blind Intolerance, Unthinking Bigotry, Irrational Fear of Muslims” and – here the Republican National Convention kicker – “U.S. Presidential Election Year Scapegoating.”

Though in reality it contained simply a 12-pack of sugar-free chewing gum, the labeling on the orange box of Islamaphobin fully resembled that of over-the-counter pills, complete with a warning label: “Those who already believe in religious diversity, tolerance and mutual understanding should not use this product. For those who hold bigoted stereotypes of Muslims and subscribe to Islamaphobic conspiracy theories, use of this product may result in feelings of remorse or guilt.”

Rose Hamid, who was born in Buffalo but has lived in North Carolina since 1987, hands out flower pens with the group "Salam I Come in Peace" during protests outside the RNC in Cleveland, Ohio, Monday, July 18, 2016. (Photo by Derek Gee)

Rose Hamid, who was born in Buffalo but has lived in North Carolina since 1987, hands out flower pens with the group "Salam I Come in Peace" during protests outside the RNC in Cleveland, Ohio, Monday, July 18, 2016. (Photo by Derek Gee)

Meanwhile, a Buffalo native was handing out green pens fashioned with a red rose on top to promote her Muslim-understanding initiative.

Rose Hamid, a 56-year-old flight attendant who now lives in Charlotte, was reaching out to passersby on the Cleveland Mall with her son and nephew, who are both 24. With her family, she started an initiative called “Salam, I Come in Peace,” which aims to create a dialogue between people who are Muslim and people who aren’t.

“There are so many people who have some fear about it – we’re hoping one-on-one contact will ease that,” said Hamid, who is hoping this week to track down RNC delegates at official events “so we can have those kinds of sane conversations. Not amongst these protesters.”

Hamid’s point is solid: Delegates here in Cleveland tend to shy far away from protest zones. But the media doesn’t, and as 17-year-old Sondos showed, simply telling your story will grab attention.
A soon-to-be high-school senior who is the fourth-oldest child and only daughter in her family, Sondos moved to the United States from Palestine at age 8. Once she learned English – which took a year and a half – she started to feel at home. But Trump’s message, she said, is taking away that sense of safety and security.

[Related: Live coverage: The Republican National Convention in Cleveland]

Before Trump, she said, people would occasionally shoot her a dirty look. Or sometimes they wouldn’t talk to her.

Today, she’s more concerned for her safety.

“It’s affected me personally,” she said. “My family is always worried. I have to go around with this slight fear because my family is like, ‘Don’t be out alone and don’t be out at night.’ That’s hard in your everyday life. I’m a student. If I’m out studying, when I get home late, I always have in my mind, ‘I might be in danger right now.’ ”

Last month, Sondos said, her cousin was followed by a man for 40 minutes. “(Trump) has legitimized these negative views that people had before,” she said. “He made them more real.”

Her anti-Trump message may not be airtight – racism against Muslims precedes even the 9/11 attacks – but here’s a lesson from Cleveland that Sondos proved: Share your story softly and directly, and people will listen.


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