Muslim Girls Making Change spread messages through poetry

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

SOUTH BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — Four girls from Vermont are using their voices and powerful performance poetry to get their message out about being Muslim in America, stereotypes, and other issues near to them.

Five months after forming their slam poetry group, Muslim Girls Making Change is competing this week in the Brave New Voices international youth poetry slam competition in Washington, DC.

"We write poems about things that we can't keep inside of us anymore, so things that we care so much about," said Kirin Waqar, 16, of South Burlington, whose parents are from Pakistan.

With titles like "American Dream," ''Welcome" and "Chameleon" the girls address their parents' expectations coming to this country, the Syrian refugees and their own challenges balancing their American identity with where their family is from.

Like in the poem "Chameleon":

"We will never be white only pretend to be. We hide behind big mirrors and lies unsure of who we really are. African American or the other way around? Pakistani first, American?," they say. "Tears roll off our face. The droplets form a perfectly curved rainbow. Red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple, which one am I?" they say voices rising. "Which one are we. Maybe we're a mix. Maybe we are many. A combination of colors ... Maybe we are one."

Through the poetry, 15-year-old Lena Ginawi, whose father is from Egypt and mother is from Yemen, wants people to know that "whenever you hear the word terrorism I don't want the first thing you think about is Islam, because Islam to me is a religion of peace. Anything that these terrorists do has nothing to do with Islam," she said.

The group won a tryout in Vermont to compete in the Brave New Voices festival.

They not only have a powerful message and stage presence, but they are willing to discuss the issues they talk about in their poetry, answer questions and use that as platform for good and creating change, said Sarah Gliech of the Young Writers Project, which helped raise funds for the group's trip to Washington.

In middle school, Waqar said she tried to assimilate wearing American clothing.

Then at 15, she decided her religion was more important and started wearing a hijab.

Her attire eventually prompted questions and started conversations, "which was really, really amazing," she said.

"We'd talk about common stereotypes and like Muslim countries and culture versus religion, almost anything; it was wide range," she said.

She says she still gets stares sometimes when she's out in public and sometimes feels afraid if someone gives her a weird look.

Hawa Adam, who got the idea to start the slam poetry group, said a bigger challenge for her growing up was being black in a largely white school in South Burlington, where she said she felt some students made fun of her. She also was the only one wearing hijab at the school at the time. She now attends Burlington High School, which is more diverse. But, she says she feels segregated because most of her friends are either Muslim or black.

Muslim Girls Making Change is a way for her express herself and connect with other people, said Adam, whose parents moved to Vermont from Somali when she was 5 years old to escape the war.

"Because I know a lot of people come up to us after performances and say, "Like oh, yeah, what you said right there makes sense to me because my story is similar to that," she said.