It was a festive night at the Muslim Educational Trust. Parents arrived with arms full of flowers, balloons, and trays of food. Students in their cap and gowns posed for photos and snapped selfies with their friends.
The group of 18 Oregon Islamic Academy high school students includes just three seniors this year. Omar Rasheed, Salma Bashir, and Ahmed Al-Dulaimi are saying goodbye to the close-knit community.
Two of the three seniors are staying close to home for college, but 18-year-old Rasheed is preparing to move across the country. He’ll leave Oregon this fall to study computer engineering at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.
Rasheed remembers going to public schools in Portland before he enrolled at the Oregon Islamic Academy in third grade.
His mother Rania Ayoub, who is also the public relations director at the Muslim Educational Trust, said he often felt out of place among his white peers. Sometimes he’d come home asking why they didn’t have a more “American sounding” name like Johnson.
“I really had this feeling that he was struggling to find his identity,” said Ayoub.
Once he started at Oregon Islamic Academy, she saw his confidence grow. He made new friends and started playing soccer on campus.
“I could tell right away in his personality and his interactions with everyone that he fit in,” said his mother Ayoub. “I’m just very grateful for the school. Omar’s been here for 10 years. This is home for him.”
The academy in Tigard, Oregon is unique. It’s the only Islamic high school west of the Mississippi. The school incorporates Arabic language classes, Islamic religion studies, and an all-school midday prayer service.
“They’re comfortable being who they are,” said Sahar Bassyouni, the Oregon Islamic Academy Director.
The school serves about 150 students from preschool to 12th grade. This year’s graduates are the school’s seventh graduating senior class.
As the only Islamic-based school in Oregon, students have had some difficult conversations in the classroom. After the stabbings on a MAX train last month, the Muslim Educational Trust held a memorial for the victims. Bassyouni said students have been discussing what spurred the violence, a man spewing anti-Muslim hate speech at two young women on the train.
“It’s a very important conversation we need to have with our kids, to not shy away from who you are and to step up and stop any bullying or hateful speech, no matter who it’s directed towards,” said Bassyouni. “Today it’s Muslims, tomorrow it’s going to be someone else.”
Standing together as a community is part of what makes this school special, says graduating senior Salma Bashir.
“It’s not so much just a school, but a community,” said Bashir. “These people are basically family to me.”
After walking the stage and receiving her diploma, Bashir’s brilliant white headscarf was covered with flower lei, and she held a bag of gifts and cards from her friends.
She says being a student here has strengthened her own relationship with her Muslim faith.
“I just feel very at home,” she explains. “I feel like I can really say and do the things that are important in my life.”
Bashir has been a student at Oregon Islamic Academy for the past 15 years. She knows it will be difficult leaving her small school and transitioning to life at a university. She plans to study at Lewis & Clark in the fall.
“I’m a little bit nervous about it because I’ve grown up here. I’m going to a small liberal arts school, but it’s going to be bigger than what I’m used to,” Bashir said. “I really have to get out there and make connections.”
As the ceremony winds down, teachers walk through the crowd with another cultural tradition: breaking fast. Platters of dates are passed around as the graduates and their families celebrate a special night during the holy month of Ramadan.