UPDATED — Monday, Nov. 16, 6:39 p.m.
A Muslim student at the University of Connecticut was the target of discrimination following the terrorist attacks on the city of Paris on Friday that killed more than 129 people and left 350 more wounded.
Mahmoud Hashem woke up Saturday to see his name tag outside his door in Nathan Hale Inn, where the university houses some of its students, vandalized with the words “Killed Paris” underneath his name.
“I cried, actually,” Hashem said about his initial reaction to the bigotry. “I didn’t think I could do anything, so I just tried to keep calm.”
“The alienation that he felt from this is huge,” Hashem’s friend and UConn senior Ahmed Ouda said.
Soon after seeing the intolerant remarks, Hashem notified a residence hall director of the incident, who then followed standard procedure by calling campus police.
“He [Hashem] didn’t think it was a big deal initially, but once he told me, I knew it was a hate crime,” Khaled Hashad, Hashem’s friend and UConn senior said.
University police were made aware of the incident around 2 p.m. on Saturday and an investigation is still ongoing, university spokesperson Stephanie Reitz said.
“The police told me that it’s so hard to find the person because there’s just one camera in the lobby of the hotel and a lot of people come and go,” said Hashem, who added that he believes that university police have done everything they can up to this point.
UConn deputy police chief Hans Rhynhart, the department’s spokesperson, was not available Saturday or Sunday to comment on the incident or pending investigation.
"This hurtful act is clearly unacceptable, and contradicts UConn’s values as it works to provide a welcoming environment for all students on all of our campuses," Reitz said in a statement issued by the university following the incident.
University associate vice president for Student Affairs Elly Daugherty said the university follows a “three-piece protocol” when responding to hate crimes such as this. The protocol includes contacting university police, Residential Life filing a report of the incident to the Office of Community Standards and the Office of Student Affairs meeting with the affected students to assess what they need and how the university can support them.
Hashem, whose family is based in New Haven, Connecticut, has had a green card for four years and recently transferred to UConn from a university in his native country of Egypt to study civil engineering.
“If you ask anyone who knows Muhmoud, they’ll say nothing bad about him,” Ouda said. “He’s one of the nicest people on campus.”
Though Hashem’s distress from the remarks still lingers, he said he has found solace in the overwhelming support he has received in Storrs and beyond.
The support from family, friends and strangers eventually almost made Hashem shed happier tears on Saturday, as he responded to kind comments on Facebook by saying he was going to weep from all of the support.
In the released statement, Reitz said that the university “is working to provide support to the student and impacted community.” However, members of UConn’s Muslim community and other minority groups believe that the administration needs to show more interest in preventing similar discrimination in the future.
Hashad said that although it is easy for many to dismiss and overlook the incident as “some drunk kid who wrote something stupid,” he believes the incident to be a highly vivid example of the everyday discrimination experienced by Muslims and other minorities on campus.
“This is not an isolated incident,” UConn senior and chemistry major Omar Allam said. “Racism is real here at UConn. People have to first acknowledge that it exists.”
The vandalism becomes one of a few widely publicized incidents of racial and ethnic intolerance on the Storrs campus over the past 15 months. In September 2014, white members of a fraternity were reported to police for yelling racial epithets during a confrontation with women from a black sorority. Last April, the words “Black Lives Matter,” painted onto the school’s “spirit rock” on which student groups traditionally paint messages, were defaced to cover up the word “Black.”
Both incidents were covered by local news outlets, inspired university investigations and earned the administration criticism from the student body for its perceived apathy in cultivating campus-wide tolerance of minority groups.
In Spring 2013, UConn President Susan Herbst formed a Diversity Task Force, which served to “review, assess, and recommend strategies to improve diversity” on campus, as well as demonstrate the university’s “desire and commitment to become a more diverse, tolerant, inclusive and equitable community,” according to a report from the task force.
In its latest report published in August, the task force made recommendations of initiatives to the administration to improve tolerance and inclusiveness based on research of UConn’s campus diversity. Among the initiatives included “significantly expanding diversity fundraising,” as well as hiring a Chief Diversity Officer and forming a Diversity Council.
In an e-mail distributed to all university students and staff on Nov. 9, Herbst spoke on the topic of campus diversity at UConn in the wake of racial intolerance displayed at the University of Missouri by writing the following: “Discussing the value of fostering diversity at every level is important. What is more important, however, is taking action to achieve that goal. As a university, we must ensure that people of every background and walk of life can call UConn home and that all opportunities and advantages found on all of our campuses are open to everyone. We cannot rely on chance alone to bring that about – it requires thoughtful, proactive effort.”
Despite the administration’s efforts to promote a more accepting campus culture, many students point to incidents such as this as reason for more action to be taken.
“There is this institutional tolerance of racism on this campus and other campuses as well,” Allam said. “Incidents like this degrade our sense of security on campus.”
Although Hashem was quickly notified by the Dean of Students Office that the university would hold a residence hall meeting with other students on his floor to discuss the incident, many students say that discussion has become insufficient and that more concrete action is necessary to mitigate future intolerance.
“We always have conversations, but it doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t go beyond talking about it. We need action,” Hashad said. “I don’t feel any safer on campus than I do outside of campus. Campus should be a safe-haven for minorities.”
Specifically, Hashad said that the university should implement diversity training similar to the “AlcoholEdu” training currently administered to all incoming students, in addition to campus-wide events celebrating and promoting diversity and tolerance.
“The root of the issue is that whoever did it is kind of ignorant and uneducated,” Hashad said. “So given that UConn is first and foremost an educational institution, we have the power of knowledge to spread it to those who need it.”
In addition to educational diversity training, UConn sophomore and chemical engineering major Jesus Morales Sanchez says that the administration needs to mend their relations with underrepresented groups by striving to have greater visibility among the university’s cultural centers. Sanchez added that many administrators could stand to consider what it means to be a minority on a majority white campus.
“It is only through education that one can truly learn to be empathetic,” Sanchez said about the administration and student body’s compassion for minority groups.
“The more we make our campus aware of it’s diversity and the responsibility we have to welcome all of our students, staff and faculty, the better,” Daugherty said.
Other students at UConn, including senior human rights and sociology double major Allie Leveille, said they believe that any real change towards racial tolerance starts and ends with the student body, as it has with the recent social activism occurring at the University of Missouri and Yale University following acts of racism.
“The student body does not feel as compelled to collectively demand change,” Leveillee said about UConn’s campus in comparison to other schools, such as Missouri and Yale. “I truly wish I could have confidence in our administration to handle this hate crime properly.”
“Our voice amplifies with numbers,” Ouda said about the student body influencing positive change and racial tolerance. “Nothing is going to change on campus if we don’t speak up.”