Editor's note: This article was first published on February 2009.
The only extraordinary feature of Staten Island’sTottenville High School, is its sheer size. This New Yorkan school, which accommodates 3,800 students, is almost like a mini-campus. During recess, the professionally-sized track and soccer areas brim with students who share laughter or gossip, or enjoy an informal game of touch football at the field. The school and its facilities easily fit the promise of educational enrichment in New York.
The school has recently adopted a new motto: “Responsibility, Respect, Scholarship, Success”—words that would have resonated with Daniel Perrin, the French Calvinist (18th century) who first inhabited the South Shore of the island (near the school) to escape religious persecution in his native France. The neighborhood is named in honor of Perrin, and this first generation of European descendants: the French Protestant (Huguenots - from the German Eidgenosse, meaning “a confederate, or patriot).
How ironic, then, that Huguenot, Staten Island, a community which was founded by political and religious exiles—and whose founder ostensibly stood against these trends—would itself become a case study in the role of an aggressor.
Like the high school that he frequented for two years, Osama Al-Najjar is ordinary in almost every respect. He enjoys playing basketball and football, just like most 16-year-olds. The one aspect, of course, that distinguishes Osama from his classmates is that he shares a first name with America’s most wanted criminal.
The name “Osama” is one of many names in the Arabic language that means “lion,” symbolizing strength or courage. For Osama, the name was always something to be proud of—until September 11, 2001. A famous New York Post headline summarized the popular sentiment: “Osama bin Laden. Wanted: Dead or Alive,” and since then, the notorious first name has changed his life for the worse.
“Of course there is some feeling of guilt, because we gave him that name,” says Suad Abuhasan, Osama’s mother.
For nearly five years, Osama lived with the near-daily episode of racial slurs and taunts at both junior high, and then high school—taunts such as “shouldn’t you be in a cave?” to “Oh my god, I found Osama!” The taunts directed at him in junior high had much less of an impact on him than his freshman and sophomore years at Tottenville. He was, at first, gradually coming to terms with the idea of being ridiculed in front of friends and classmates, and was cheerful enough to laugh along with everyone else. But, over time, and like any other sentient teenager, the racial remarks began to push this otherwise reserved student to the brink.
In March of 2007, he left Tottenville High and refused to return.
More than a year ago, the Al-Najjar family filed a suit against the New York City Department of Education, alleging that the school’s anti-discrimination policy was not enforced in Osama’s case. The most disturbing aspect for Osama is that the insults were not only coming from fellow students, but from members of the Tottenville teaching staff.
Osama contends that math teachers from two separate classes called him “bin Laden.” In another instance, his gym teacher gave roll call and came to Osama and said:
“I thought you were in the back of a cave somewhere!”
In other instances, as was the case in October 2005, the verbal abuse turned into physical abuse, and he was assaulted at his locker by two other boys.
Like any observant mother, Suad knew that something was wrong with Osama. She witnessed first-hand her son's gradual helplessness, and, even several months before Osama left Tottenville High, she sought disciplinary action against the discriminatory conduct directed at her son. Instead of addressing the racial taunts, the lawsuit, which was filed in Brooklyn’s Federal Courthouse and is still in the pre-trial phase, an assistant principal advised Suad to send Osama to an Islamic school, where he would “better integrate.”
Still, the verbal abuse that Osama faced at Tottenville High topped them all. In fact, Suad alleges that her son was so agitated by the insults that he was, at one point, suicidal. On March 28, 2006, after two teachers called Osama an “Arab terrorist” in front of his fellow classmates, the humiliated student ran away from the school, and was later found by police wandering the streets. That evening, as his mother attempted to console him, Osama broke a CD into halves and tried to slit his own wrist.
For Suad, who is an observant Muslim, the situation was very traumatic. The circumstances have, in fact, compelled her to quit a lucrative job in the financial services industry in order to attend to the “psychological stress” brought on by her child’s attempted suicide.
Today, Osama, who reluctantly goes by the name “Sammy,” undergoes psychotherapy sessions on a weekly basis, and attends a public school designed for traumatized children.
A documentary entitled “Being Osama,” detailing the lives of six Montreal residents with the name Osama, was aired on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in 2004. Ironically, one of the six “Osama” characters examined in the documentary was an Egyptian-Canadian named “Osama El-Naggar,” which bore a striking similarity to “Osama Al-Najjar.” The affirmation of similar stereotypes to the same name in two different countries is proof in itself that this is a common problem, says Angela Migally, a lawyer representing Osama.
Suad says that she is suing not to win money—rather she wants to ensure that New York enforces its anti-discrimination policy so that no other child will have to endure the abuse that her son had been suffering from. Indeed, as the defense team has already pointed out, the complaint “fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.”
“We think it’s a pretty solid case. We think it might even be settled before trial. But the problem is never really whether they want to settle, but how much they want to settle for,” says Migally.
“As part of the remedy, we deliberately left out a dollar amount because, per the parents' request, we are seeking institutional changes in the way administrators and school officials handle cases of student harassment based on race or ethnicity.”
The Education Bill of Students' Rights states more or less the same:
“Students have a right to be in a safe and supportive learning environment, free from harassment, discrimination, and bigotry.”
Related Links:“We’re Gonna Miss You, Osama!” (Cartoon)
A Catholic’s Thought on bin Laden’s Death
African American Muslims Fighting Islamophobia
Identifying US Islamophobia Makers