NEW YORK (Reuters) - After years of being taunted as “bin Laden” and “terrorist” at school, Osama Al-Najjar attempted suicide last July at the age of 15.
Now 16, he is an extreme example of the difficulties facing some Arabs in New York, the city hit hardest by the attacks of September 11, 2001.
“They destroyed everything nice in our life with what they did to him,” said Suad Abuhasna, Osama’s mother, referring to racist abuse she said was heaped on her son while he was a student at Tottenville High School in Staten Island.
Osama is now officially known as Sammy. He changed his name in December to escape the stigma attached to the name he shares with al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.
“I just wanted to make his life easier,” said Suad, who immigrated from Jordan with her husband and four children in December 1999. Her eldest son has served in the U.S. Navy in the Iraq war.
Leaders of the Muslim community — which numbers about 600,000 in New York City and is among the fastest growing groups in the city, according to a Columbia University study — say Osama’s case highlights an increasing distrust and fear of Islam among Americans since 9/11.
“There’s become this culture of Islamophobia in American society,” said Arsalan Iftikhar, national legal director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
“Unfortunately, kids are not immune.”
Among the efforts in New York to bridge the gap between Americans and the Arab world is a new bilingual Arab-English school. But that too has faced opposition.
Fear of Islam and Arab culture has been evident in the divisiveness over the founding of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, a publicly funded Arab studies school scheduled to open in Brooklyn this fall.
Alicia Colon, a columnist for the conservative New York Sun newspaper, denounced the school as a madrassa, or Muslim religious school. Evoking images of racially motivated lynchings in the U.S. South of bygone generations, she urged opponents to “break out the torches and surround City Hall to stop this monstrosity.”
Parents of students at its original location — a building that houses an elementary school in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood — successfully lobbied to have it moved, complaining of overcrowding.
It’s not having an easier ride at its new location in the Boerum Hill neighborhood, which already houses two other schools.
“There are a number of parents that are concerned about (the fact that it is an Arabic studies school), but the majority is concerned about whether there’s adequate space,” said Tom McMahon of the parent teacher association at Boerum Hill’s Math and Science Exploratory School.
The controversy surrounding the Khalil Gibran school is nothing compared to what Osama Al-Najjar went through.
His mother says Osama became increasingly depressed under the incessant anti-Muslim jeering by teachers after entering Tottenville in the fall of 2004. The former junior high school honor student began to fail classes, got into fights, and ran away from home on a number of occasions.
“I didn’t want to stay in school after that,” Osama, a thin teenager with piercing green eyes, said while nervously chewing his thumb. He said his classmates were more tolerant than his teachers.
The school failed to halt the abuse despite repeated requests, his mother said. The school principal declined to comment.
“Harassment and bullying for any reason is not something we tolerate,” said New York City Department of Education spokeswoman Dina Paul Parks. She declined to discuss specifics of the case because of a lawsuit filed by Osama’s family.
The complaint filed in U.S. District Court in New York charges the city and the school with racial and religious harassment, which it says led to the boy’s suicide attempt.
Fearing for her son’s wellbeing, Suad withdrew him from school in March 2006 and kept him home. Still, the problems didn’t go away so easily, and on July 3, he tried to kill himself with an overdose of an anti-anxiety drug and later the same day tried to hang himself with a bathrobe sash.
“I was just sick. I wasn’t thinking straight. I had nothing else to take the pain away,” said Osama, who speaks Arabic but can’t read or write the language.
Despite the abuse, he is fiercely proud of his Arab heritage and insists that his family still call him Osama.
The Khalil Gibran school, which plans to admit about 60 sixth graders this fall, opens too late for Osama.
He now attends a program for kids with school phobias at a high school in Brooklyn and tolerates, if not enjoys, school.
“What I wish is that the same experience doesn’t happen to any other family,” Suad said.