LOS ANGELES - “Have you ever been called a racist name?” Mustafah Hawari, 17, asks Yuka Ogino, 23, a Japanese-American coordinator at the Bridging Communities Program.
“Yes, I have,” she tells Hawari and the small group of students sitting on the floor at a mosque in Anaheim, California.
The students, most of them Muslim or Japanese-American, spent five Saturdays this spring talking about tolerance and identity in the program organized by the Japanese American Citizens League, the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress.
Started in 2008, the program draws on the Japanese-American experience of Word War II internment and redress in the 1980s to teach the youth of both communities about activism and civil rights. It also gives students a chance to share their cultures with each other.
The first session in February brought students together at the annual Day of Remembrance for the executive order that ultimately led to the internment of more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans during the war.
The theme of this year’s gathering was “September 11: 10 Years After.” In a speech at the session, Norman Mineta, former U.S. transportation secretary, shared his memories of the terrorist attacks in 2001.
An internee during World War II, Mineta appreciated that then President George W. Bush spoke out against discrimination after the attacks.
Muslims, and those believed to be Muslim, became the target of discrimination and hate crimes in the wake of the attacks initiated by al-Qaida, which sees secular Western culture as the enemy of Islam.
Mineta later met with the students and told them, “You can’t allow something like this to make you bitter,” as he described the desolate landscape at the Heart Mountain War Relocation Center in Wyoming where his family was sent in 1942. He said he returned to his community with a desire to help his fellow Japanese-Americans overcome discrimination.
“It was eye-opening that someone so famous went through so many struggles. It made me think I want to be like him, that maybe I can be as good,” said Rafee Masud, 17.
During the program’s next session at the Islamic center, students had a chance to share their beliefs with each other and ask questions.
“I was kind of surprised at first about some of the traditions, because I’m kind of a feminist. But I understood when they explained them. I think it’s a beautiful religion,” said Rena Ogino, 16, alluding to Islamic traditions that preclude women from casual dating or performing prayers during their menstrual cycle.
The need to create this kind of understanding was something Zawar Jafri, 19, wanted to convey to his fellow students in the program.
During the discussion session at the mosque, he spoke with outrage of an incident the month before in which Muslim-Americans attending a charity event were met by protestors chanting “Go back home.”
The program arose from the same need for understanding, after CAIR staff saw similarities between the struggles of the two communities.
“The things that we hear, the things that we face in terms of the challenges of organizing are very similar to the Japanese experience,” said Affad Shaikh, civil rights manager at CAIR and one of the program’s advisers.
To learn more, CAIR spoke to former internees and organized a trip to the Manzanar National Historic Site. The U.S. government forced 11,070 Japanese-Americans to live in an internment camp at Manzanar during the war, fearing they might collaborate with the Japanese military.
Teens of Japanese descent were not as easy to recruit as their Muslim-American counterparts, partly because their lives are removed from the experience of the older generation and they don’t see as much discrimination against their communities now, said NRR and JACL organizers.
And yet the participation of Japanese-American students has had an impact on the community as the teens learn about Japanese-American struggles for civil rights, says Kathy Masaoka, one of the program’s advisers and a director at NCRR.
“It was the first time I had to explain who I was and how I came to be that way,” says Cora Orsmeth, 19, a Japanese-American alumnus of the program. “Articulating that made me realize how much my Japanese heritage has impacted me.”
For Muslim-American students, the experiences of Japanese-Americans offer hope.
At the mosque, another student had a question for Yuka Ogino. “Do you still experience racism to this day? I feel like it will take a long time for Muslims to be accepted.”
“I feel like my sister hardly knows racism, and she is only seven years younger than me,” Ogino explained just before the call to prayer echoed through the room, referring to her 16-year-old sister, Rena.