Dear community member,
It can sometimes be hard for many of us to grasp what it has been like for the young people who have spent most of their lives in the post-9/11/01 world. A Muslim kid growing up in the Dallas suburbs, Osama “Sammy” Yaish turned 11 on that tragic day. When the day started, he was excited about going to the office to participate in the morning announcements on his birthday. Suddenly, everyone was ordered back to class. A television was rolled into the classroom, and Sammy watched the news coverage of the attacks with his 6th grade classmates, feeling more curiosity than fear.
A few years later, the impact of 9/11 became more personal. In middle school the carefree life full of soccer games and traditional religious observances with his family and Muslim community became clouded with sadness. When he met people for the first time, Sammy remembers seeing terror in some people’s eyes when he introduced himself as Osama. Some of the worst days were when he had substitute teachers at school.
“The teacher called my name, and I remember sinking into my chair. The kids started laughing,” Sammy recalls. One of the athletes in the class said, “Hey, check his birthday too,” which brought an even bigger laugh from the class as the teacher’s eyes widened. Later, the lesson was progressing normally, or so Sammy thought. He was listening intently when the teacher suddenly turned on him and ordered him to turn his desk to the wall. “I remember holding back tears until I couldn’t stand it anymore, then I stormed out of the class,” he said. The teacher’s actions opened a geyser of pain that flooded Sammy’s young life from that point on.
It was not just humiliating; it was heartbreaking for the young teen. Sammy remembers thinking, “You don’t know me. If you just knew me as a human being, you would think differently.” Others’ perceptions of him caused a “deep sense of loneliness,” so by the time he was in high school, Sammy was thinking more and more about legally changing his name, which he did a few months before graduation with his parents’ blessing.
“All I wanted to do was just go back out into the world and not feel anxiety everywhere I went, not have to be hyperconscious of my own words, my thoughts, my deeds, every type of nonverbal behavior…It was mentally, physically, and spiritually exhausting. I felt lost. I didn’t know who I was anymore.”
Sammy remembers wanting to finish high school as soon as possible, which he did at age 16, then he walked across the graduation stage with a new name and a new outlook. Later, in college, Sammy walked to his first class. Inside, he was preparing himself mentally and feeling a familiar tension in his chest as the college professor read name after name on the class roll. Then, he felt slightly shocked and incredibly relieved when his name was spoken “Sammy Yaish,” and without reaction or comment, the teacher moved on with the class as normal.
Sammy went on to a successful career in media in Washington D.C. but says he struggled with a deep identity crisis that lasted until recently when he gained the maturity and perspective to start asking questions about his purpose in life. With no fallback plan, Sammy quit his job in D.C. to pursue an authentic life, embracing all that he is and all that he was. Today, his focus has shifted away from his own pain, and Sammy says he feels more hopeful than he has in years.
Now, he is trying to help others, especially young people, who experience bullying and discrimination. “It’s a strange feeling to be in love with an experience that you wish had never happened. I know I would not be who I am today unless I went through every single experience I went through as a kid,” so this year, for his birthday on September 11th, 2021, Sammy is getting his name back and reclaiming his identity with pride. The legal process is well underway.
“I ran away from my name and had all these experiences as Sammy, so I know how to come back to myself as Osama,” he says. As he reflects on the past, it is almost impossible for Sammy to talk about it without shifting his thoughts to the future. “How can I use what I went through so that we can, not only alleviate the suffering of young Muslim kids…(but) how do we uplift everybody (including) the ones who hate on us? Changing just one person’s life will create a ripple effect.”
“What if we – (the Muslim community) who know better than most what it means to be judged by your faith, color of your skin, your gender, your beliefs, what you wear – what if we could be the light? It’s up to me to show patience,” he says, “to show compassion, to show understanding, to find common ground where it does exist and build it from there, but that can’t happen if I’m reciprocating (hate).”
We’re proud to have someone like Osama “Sammy” Yaish working on our CAIR staff as Community Outreach Manager. Thanks to our many supporters, CAIR is moving the country toward unity, peace, and equality. But first, it’s important to remember and reconcile. Year after year, CAIR is empowering our community to overcome the wounds of the past and face the future with hope.
Your CAIR San Diego Team