Messaging group provides Muslim students with means to coordinate safety

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Biology sophomore Samah Khalid avoided riding her bike for nearly a month after a car swerved into her lane as she was pedaling to her West Campus apartment one night, just days after Donald Trump was elected president.

“He was already going the wrong way (on a one-way road),” Khalid said. “While I was pedaling to the intersection he kind of revved toward me. … He was looking at me, because he knew I was wearing a hijab, and he grinned at me (kind of maliciously) and slowly drove away.”

It wasn’t until later Khalid realized the incident was an anti-Muslim act. Khalid said that night was the first time she had experienced it on such an aggressive level.

“I mean, you always get looks here and there, but nothing that serious,” Khalid said. “I called the UT Police Department … but I didn’t have his license plates, so nothing really came of it.”

Students like Khalid formed the Nueces Stay Safe group on popular messaging application GroupMe as a way for Muslim students to coordinate rides, walking buddies and, more recently, to keep fellow students aware of anti-Muslim acts that occur around campus. 

Economics senior Akram Sirafi started Nueces Stay Safe in 2015 as a means to fill the gap in services left by SURE Walk, the on-campus Student Government agency. Since Trump’s campaign, the group has grown to 250 members.

“After the election, people would post twice a week saying things like ‘Hey guys, I just got racially profiled or discriminated against on Guadalupe,’ or ‘Watch out, there’s a crazy person on 24th Street,’” Sirafi said. “Now it happens about once every two weeks.”

Most students typically don’t report day-to-day acts of discrimination but instead have conversations about it on social media and in Nueces Stay Safe. In these instances, other members are quick to coordinate reporting efforts or offer support, Sirafi said.

“Most of the time, they know how to handle it themselves. They’re very strong and resilient,” said Shaykh Mufti Mohamed-Umer Esmail, the Imam of the Nueces Mosque, where a majority of Muslim students attend service. “The Quran says, ‘Return evil with love,’ because that will transform your enemy into your best friend, so that’s the message I give them.”

Nueces Mosque president Omar Bheda said more severe anti-Muslim acts are infrequent and isolated. Since Khalid’s experience in November, only one other student reported an anti-Muslim act. Two weeks ago, as the student walked home wearing a hijab, she reported that a man followed her on Guadalupe Street for 20 minutes, eventually yelling, “n------ and Muslims will be out soon” in her face.

Whether or not a crime is committed, UTPD officers send a report to the Dean of Students, UTPD detective Michael Riojas said. 

“Even if it happened off campus, (the Dean of Students) can look at it and see if it’s in their realm of their help,” Riojas said.

Despite these incidents, Bheda said Muslim students shouldn’t view campus or the community as an unsafe environment.

“There are always isolated incidents that you hear about, but there’s more positive rhetoric than negative,” Bheda said. ”We have more supporters than enemies, especially in Austin. I’ve yet to see one protester against Muslims show up to the Mosque post-Friday prayer, and I think that speaks a lot.”