Endless Stories, Contagious Sadness, Familial Love from One Muslim Youth

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jackie-rossAs I write this, I'm watching and intently listening to a news report about thousands of Muslims who are returning from trips abroad not being allowed back into the country.

I live and worked in a city that has a large Muslim population. They came here and helped turn a rather dismal area into a vibrant and inviting place that is filled with restaurants, bakeries, stores of every variety and food stores filled with the most wonderful aromas.

Muslim teens here are far less likely to get into trouble with the law, as their families are tight-knit and take care of each other. However, as these teens become integrated into a terrible school system, some can't resist the invitation to smoke marijuana or become involved in petty crimes. It happens. When it does occur, these teens are treated like other minorities, being given public defenders because private attorneys are too expensive for the average Muslim family.

As social workers we are taught about cultural sensitivity toward other ethnic groups. Undoubtedly though, even with this training, if one were to be gut-honest, everyone has some kind of bias. It is kept under wraps, but it is there nonetheless, even as we desperately try to contain it. After all, we are human beings first, our profession is secondary.

When 9/11 occurred, a good friend, who is a policeman and went to the Middle Eastern area of town for lunch, strongly advised me in a very paternal way to stay away from there and didn't want me to go until he gave me the green light. I listened. I did so because I was overcome with grief, anger and fear.

And so it went for me for the next several years. Because I was not thinking clearly and objectively, and still held onto my fear and anxiety about Muslims, I was very grateful that I didn't have Muslim teen clients. That sounds horrible, but I believed I couldn't be objective.

Close to a decade ago, I opened and administered an adolescent component in an already existing outpatient service provider. I saw adult clients come and go, and had very limited contact with them. Sitting in the lobby three times a week was a Muslim woman with whom I exchanged pleasantries.

One day she knocked on my door and told me how she had observed my interaction with the teens I worked with. She told me a little about her life and that she was going to have her "two boys" come back to her. For the next two weeks I continued to see her in the lobby waiting for her counselor, and we continued to smile.

Two weeks later, I was brought to an emotional place I will never forget and will cherish forever. That woman told me her "boys" had come home from foster care. Her older one, then almost 17, was giving her a great deal of trouble, and she asked if I would talk with him.

She advised me not to expect him to communicate with me because he refused to speak with her. With some trepidation, I agreed to have her bring him to me. This American woman from Kansas who had converted to Islam brought me her son. He was also the son of her estranged Egyptian former husband.

Ameer sauntered into my office as I closed my door behind us. We sat down on the couch and I introduced myself, explaining why he was there. I gently explained some of what I was told about his behavior at home.

He glared at me, but within seconds started to tell me his story. He talked, he cried, and he softened into a sweet, young and confused teen. When he finished I looked at my watch and realized it was an hour and a half later!

His story and his life became intertwined with mine. He came religiously to see me every week for eight months, and I observed the changes. He had been in seven foster homes in seven years and found his older brother after he committed suicide. He was always honest with me.

I advocated for him to be removed from the bad high school he was attending, and put him into one of the best academy schools in the city. Two years later I sat at his graduation.

He smoked marijuana and told me when it occurred and why. Because he was not on probation, I had no legal hook to keep him and knew that the day would come when he would want to stop coming.

On the 20th day of the eighth month he had been seeing me, he explained that as much as he liked talking with me (he never called our sessions counseling), this was his last day. He had seen so many therapists and psychologists through the years that he just couldn't talk anymore because he was beginning to understand that our sessions were just that, counseling.

As I did with all the teens I worked closely with, I gave him my cellphone number, telling him to use it if he needed me, and he agreed. We said our goodbyes, hugged as we had dozens of times, and Ameer started to leave.

Then he turned to me and said, "I never had a grandma, would you be mine?” This was the moment that this Jewish social worker grandmother crossed the boundary line and inherited a Muslim grandson. Both our lives changed forever.

He was 18 when he left me that day and had not become involved in the legal system as a juvenile. He did so that year by being arrested for selling drugs. I was devastated, but justified it in my own mind because I knew what he faced every day living in poverty with his very ill mother.

I did not enable him, but instead advocated for him to get into the Adult Drug Court. They accepted him. Although he did well for awhile, he could not sustain it, violated and was incarcerated in the county jail. This was gut-wrenching for me as I knew full well the potential he had to succeed, but there were just too many roadblocks in his life to be able to do so.

He spent a week in the county jail, and I picked him up when his time there was over. Back to Drug Court he went. He called or texted me every night to maintain the connection, and as he put it, to "let me know he was all right," as they lived in a very tough neighborhood. He was doing well: going to Drug Court, got a job, was attending Narcotics Anonymous and was not smoking marijuana.

One early morning, though, he did not think before he acted, and after the deed found himself once again in the county jail. Again, my heart sank, and there was no getting him released on bail. This is where he lingered for 22 months.

As I write this, looking at the picture of him as a 17-year-old on my desk, my 21-year-old Muslim "grandson" is in a state prison, where he will be for 22 more months. He's lost his innocence, and since jails are not meant for rehabilitation he has not gotten the psychological services he needs.

I can only hope that he has not become too jaded or hardened, and that when he is released he will be as OK as he possibly can be. Of course I fear for him, but because I'm in a position to still advocate on his behalf, that is what I do, along with letters, emails and soon a visit.

This young man has had nine lives, no childhood as it should have been. During just a few years, I did more case management for this family (off the clock) than I had ever done — thousands of hours. The stories are endless, the sadness contagious, and the love that developed between us was truly familial as I served as, and continue to serve as, his "Gram."

People are people. Some good, some bad. During this very difficult time in our country when civil rights and social rights are being demolished, we must persevere and join together as one people, one country fighting against the horrors that are confronting us. If the president demands a Muslim registry, I will register as one to show my support for my "grandson" and my many Muslim friends.

Jackie Ross is an experienced social worker with urban, disenfranchised youth, a lifelong child advocate and community activist. She previously founded a 501(c)3 in New Jersey that served youth, families and other adults.