Sacramento girl honored for embodying Muhammad Ali’s stand against hate

Yasmine Nayabkhil, 11, was given the Courage and Inspiration Award on Saturday for standing up against bullying. The Sacramento Valley Council on American Islamic Relations bestowed the honor.
Yasmine Nayabkhil, 11, was given the Courage and Inspiration Award on Saturday for standing up against bullying. The Sacramento Valley Council on American Islamic Relations bestowed the honor. smagagnini@sacbee.com

Against a backdrop of racial and ethnic tension in Sacramento and across the nation, Muhammad’s Ali’s daughter Hana Yasmeen Ali told a Sacramento audience Saturday night her father dedicated his life to promoting global peace.

“He taught us there were people all over the world taking a stand and fighting for what they believe but you don’t hear it because nobody knows their name,” said Ali, the champ’s second youngest daughter, at the Sacramento Valley Council on American Islamic Relations’ banquet “Advancing Justice, Challenging Hate.”

Ali could have been talking about Yasmine Nayabkhil, a sixth-grader from Natomas who received CAIR’s Courage and Inspiration Award before a multicultural crowd of 750 at California State University, Sacramento. She was described as “a symbol of resolve of Muslim Americans against discrimination and injustice.”

Yasmine was bullied mercilessly when she came to class last spring wearing her hijab, said CAIR civil rights attorney Saad Sweilem. She held her ground at school and later testified before both Assembly and Senate committees in favor of Assembly Bill 2845. The measure seeks to bolster anti-bullying victims by ensuring that school districts share local and state resources with teachers and administrators. The measure is on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

“This is the story of a brave 10-year-old girl whose father is a Muslim and whose mother is Christian,” Sweilem told the group. “She had Assembly members in tears.”

Last spring, Yasmine came to her fifth-grade class at Two Rivers Elementary School wearing her hijab. “Everything changed,” she testified. “Often people called me a terrorist, said I was an old woman and called me ugly … nobody else was being mean to anybody else and calling them names.”

Yasmine said her mother picked her up early from school after she broke down in tears. “Yasmine’s a very strong, courageous girl, and nobody on either side of her family wears a hijab. It’s something she chose to do,” said her mother, Valerie Nayabkhil.

“It’s what my heart told me to do,” said Yasmine, then 10. She said she had attended Two Rivers school since kindergarten and was elected student council representative for three years running. She returned to class the next day wearing her hijab. At recess when a helicopter flew overhead, one of the kids told her, “Look Yasmine, they’re coming to get you. You’re a terrorist,’” recounted Sweilem.

“I started to cry and the teacher told me to go in the back room,” Yasmine said. When the teacher asked her to explain to the class why she wore her hijab, Yasime asked why she had to explain her difference in dress when no one else had to do so.

“Again she went home crying, and we reached out to the (Natomas Unified) district,” Sweilem said. Sacramento CAIR Executive Director Basim Elkarra met with district officials and planned an approach to diversity training so teachers could better respond to bullying, Sweilem said. “I do give the school district credit,” he said. “They were very receptive.”

Yasmine, the only Muslim in her class, transferred to another school with greater diversity. She plans to become a human rights activist and said she’s excited about AB 2845 because it can benefit all students. “I hope that it’s going to encourage more Muslim kids to stand up for themselves. But I think teachers should be educated more about people of all religions,” she said in an interview. “I want teachers to learn how to handle situations just like mine, and there should be a strict no-bullying policy at all schools. It doesn’t matter if they’re Christian or Muslim.”

Reports of anti-Muslim bullying are becoming more common, Sweilem said. “It’s usually either hate speech or hijabs getting pulled.”

CAIR helped write the measure along with Asian Americans Advancing Justice and the Sikh Coalition.

“It’s good a thing for all children coming out of a bad situation,” said Yasmine’s mother, adding that she and her husband, an Afghan immigrant, teach both Muslim and Christian religions. “We’re proud of the choice she made on her own,” she said.

Yasmine, who received a standing ovation, said she was moved by Hana Ali.

Ali recalled that in 1979, her father was trying to start his World Organization for a Right to Live in Dignity.

“He wanted to get a jumbo jet dedicated to one cause – the human race. He taught us that service to others here on earth is the rent you pay for your room in heaven,” she said.

Her dad taught his children to respect all faiths. But people will always find something to be prejudiced about, she said, “so stand up for yourself, your faith, your beliefs and what is important to you.”

Stephen Magagnini: 916-321-1072, @SteveMagagnini