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Portland English Teacher Makes Muslim Students ‘Feel Super Comfortable’

Bobbie Gottschalk
Seeds of Peace
Ekhlas Ahmed

In the wake of this weekend’s murder of two imams in New York City, Muslims across the country are feeling the rise in tension.

In the third installment of our series of profiles of Muslims who have made Maine their home, a Portland educator who is building bridges. To read the first, about author and educator Reza Jalali, click here. To read the second, about Lewiston businesswoman Shukri Abasheikh, click here.

In a small, green hut, nestled in the pristine woods of Otisfield, Maine, Ekhlas Ahmed leads an interactive group warm up for a cohort of 16 high school students.

Ahmed is spending several weeks leading discussions at the Seeds of Peace summer camp. The sessions are part of an initiative started 16 years ago that brings together young people from across the state, which was designed to teach them leadership skills and create lasting relationships.

“We talk about religion, we talk about immigration,” she says. “We talk about all of those things, identities, that they hold so close but have nowhere else to talk about except here in dialogue.”

These are themes with which Ahmed is very familiar. Her family became refugees in 2003, after a civil war broke out in Sudan. They fled to Egypt for two years, before being resettled in Portland, Maine. Ahmed was in eighth grade at the time.

In high school, she worked hard to learn English, navigate contrasting cultures and graduate with honors. Ahmed also co-founded the Darfur Youth of Tomorrow, an organization that raises awareness of the genocide and creates a space for survivors to gather, reflect and support one another.

“The main reason we started this is because we saw, as I said, the need for a sacred place for so many people that needed it, especially women and girls that have been in the conflict,” she says. “I feel very proud because I wish that I had a place like that — I had a sacred place to go to reveal or someone to talk to about so many issues or things that I have encountered.”

The Darfur Youth of Tomorrow has taken Ahmed to a number of different places, most recently to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., where she was invited to speak about the genocide by the UN Refugee Agency and read a poem about her homeland.

Here in her new home, Ahmed teaches English at Casco Bay High School, her alma mater. She also runs a program called Make It Happen, which prepares multilingual students for college.

For Farhiyo Hassan, a rising junior at Casco Bay High School, Ahmed’s presence means a lot to students like her.

“Going to class every day to a teacher that looks like you, and that can relate to your struggles, and that is an image of success — you know, like, it’s inspiring. It just made me want to go to school and made me want to stay in school and do well. Because if she can do it, then I can do it,” she says.

“She has a professionalism or a way of knowing that they’re gonna have to work harder than her. She is not going to bail them out, she not gonna do the work for them. And yet the trust is still there,” says friend and Casco Bay High School colleague Kevin Murray. “She just does an awesome job of making girls who are wearing hijabs and dressed up feel super comfortable. I see them gaining confidence in major, major ways and being less insecure about who they are and how they dress.”

One of Ahmed’s first initiatives was Abaya day, which was devoted to celebrating differences by encouraging Muslim students to wear their traditional attire.

And despite concerns about a rise in anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S., Ahmed says she is confident that she can change minds.

“Because I have a very strong belief that a lot of people that have negative stereotypes about Muslims and immigrants maybe haven’t met one yet,” she ays. “I think it’s my job to educate them and tell them that I am a Muslim and I am black and there is nothing wrong with that.”