Students hold demonstration against discrimination, intolerance

UConn student Mahmoud Hashem (center) speaks on the back steps of the Wilbur Cross building during a demonstration against discrimination and intolerance on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. (Rebecca Newman/The Daily Campus)

On Saturday, Mahmoud Hashem, a Muslim student at UConn and resident of the Nathan Hale Inn, learned that his name tag outside of his dorm room had been vandalized with the words, “Killed Paris,” written underneath his name. On Monday, he stood before over 300 university students, faculty, administrators and media members in a public demonstration against the discriminatory remark.

“I just want to tell that guy [who vandalized Hashem’s door]: I’m not a terrorist. I don’t do that. I love America, I come to live in America, I love the people here, so don’t treat me like a terrorist,” Hashem said on the back steps of the Wilbur Cross building, in front of a large crowd that spread into the nearby lawn and sidewalks.

The event, which was endorsed today through an email from university President Susan Herbst’s office, was well-attended with concerned students and faculty, but also with administrators and other parties like Athletic Director Warde Manuel, Chief of Police Barbara O’Connor, university Master Planner Laura A. Cruickshank and Herbst’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Michael Kirk, among others. 

“A demonstration against discrimination and intolerance will be held today at noon in front of the Wilbur Cross Building on the Storrs campus. I urge our students, faculty and staff to attend and participate, if you are able to, to show support for this important and just cause,” read Herbst’s email, sent at 9:45 a.m., nearly two hours before the event.

Herbst was not present at the event herself because she had a previously-scheduled meeting with the Board of Trustees chairman in Hartford regarding the university’s pending budget cuts, according to university spokesperson Stephanie Reitz. 

Ahmed Ouda, a friend of Hashem’s and a member of the Arab Students Association – a co-sponsor of the demonstration along with the Muslim Students Association – led off the rally with a call to the university for action. 

“Mahmoud wanted for nothing more than to put the whole thing behind him, but he has chosen to champion the cause of social justice, because he has now felt the pain that so many marginalized groups have suffered from,” Ouda said. “We urge the University of Connecticut to give serious thought to bolstering its resources when hate crimes occur on campus. Additionally, we ask that there be diversity and tolerance classes, just like there are classes on alcohol, Sex Ed, and campus safety.”

Omar Allam, president of the Arab Students Association, spoke to dangerous stereotyping and the meaning of the demonstration itself.

“We want to educate the people that, Arabs are not all Muslims, they’re not all terrorists, they’re not all belly dancers, and we felt that we failed here on campus because we saw this (the incident),” Allam said. “But seeing this (Monday’s demonstration) makes me really happy that we as students have a voice, and seeing all the news here just makes me feel really empowered that we as students can make a change here on campus, and let us be a model for the rest of the United States.”

Hashem’s speech recalled what happened when he discovered the offensive vandalism on his name tag. At first, when his roommate told him about what happened, Hashem thought he was joking. When he went to look himself, he was hurt, but afterwards he was appreciative of all the support he received. Hashem also recounted his father telling him that he needed to shave his beard following the attacks in Paris.

“My father told me I have to shave it because someone is gonna hurt you,” Hashem said following the event. 

A procession of speakers took the stage, a couple echoing Hashem’s experience with his father. One student said that her mother had texted her not to go out in public after the attacks. Another lamented the apparent discrimination against people with “turbans” and “long beards.”

UConn students and staff look on during a demonstration against discrimination and intolerance on the back steps of the Wilbur Cross building on Monday, Nov. 16, 2015. (Rebecca Newman/The Daily Campus)

Reda Ammar, a professor of computer science at UConn and faculty advisor for the Muslim Student Association, took the platform as well. 

“This is my second event in my career here. I don’t like to have more,” Ammar said. “This is my second event to stand in front of the people who talk about Islam isn’t peaceful. It’s very peaceful.”

Celena Stoia, the President of UConn’s Residence Hall Association (RHA) offered words on racism in residence halls. 

“I would just like to make it known that, to the residents of the University of Connecticut, we do not condone nor support racism in any way shape or form,” Stoia said. “We are a better university than this…if you would like to voice your concerns or if you feel unsafe living in your residence hall, you can voice that to us.”

Students of all backgrounds attended and spoke at the event. 

“The diversity I see here is such a beautiful thing,” Julian Rose, a student activist said. “I think often times when issues like this happen we question, ‘where’s my place in activism when I don’t identify with the group that’s being attacked?’ and I think it’s right where you are, and even on this stage. I don’t identify as someone from the Muslim community…I don’t look Arabic, and so I don’t necessarily feel those attacks, but I do feel them personally because they root from the same attacks on black lives.”

“To characterize someone as a killer based on their own name is unspeakable,” Rose added.

An uncomfortable and unexpected situation arose when Yamisha Bell, who is a part of the New Jersey chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement and is a first-year graduate student in UConn's higher education and student affairs program, spoke about the similarities between Arabs and blacks facing political violence. 

Bell was interrupted by two university students as she spoke to the crowd about the relationship between Ferguson protesters being maced and how Palestinians were tweeting at the time telling those who were maced to use milk to alleviate the pain. 

“Hey! Bullshit!" the students, one of whom later apologized and identified himself as Jewish, shouted at the time, cutting into Bell’s speech and casting confusion about the crowd. Campus police led one of the students away from the event.

This occurrence did not take away from the rest of the demonstration, which Allam and Hashem considered a success.

Allam expressed his approval of Herbst’s email, calling it “a step in the right direction.” Hashem, seemingly overwhelmed after the event, had six words to sum up how he felt. 

“I’m so happy right now, actually.”

CORRECTION (Nov. 15) – An earlier version of this story said UConn president Susan Herbst did not attend the demonstration because she was at a meeting with the Board of Trustees in Hartford. She was actually at a meeting with the Board of Trustees chairman, not the full board.


Sten Spinella is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email atsten.spinella@uconn.edu.