For My Son, Who Is Also Wadea

A few days after 6-year-old Wadea al-Fayoume’s murder, a Muslim friend texted: “You know what this feels like? After 9/11.”

by Sadia Heil

Last month, a 6-year-old boy in Illinois was stabbed to death. He was stabbed 26 times for being Muslim in America. His name was Wadea.

This morning, I stood with my own Wadea at the bus stop. Wadea, my son. Wadea, America’s son.

“I am strong. I am important. I matter.” We recite this every morning, Wadea and I, before I send him off into the world. I study his porcelain face, mesmerized by how his long, black lashes and teeny freckles contrast with his caramel skin. I run my hands through his disheveled hair and lick my fingers to wipe the sleep from his eyes. He pulls away. He is perfect — my Wadea. Then I kiss his head and watch him skip toward the big, yellow school bus.

I wonder what Wadea will learn today. Will there be read-alouds and sight words? Another messy art project? Will he come home healthy, happy, fulfilled? Will Wadea come home safe?

I smile and wave him goodbye. Then I tighten my stomach and pray for his safety. As a parent in America, I pray for everyday things, like kindness at the playground and protection from gun violence. This morning, I prayed that Wadea’s beautiful brown skin wouldn’t make him a target for hate.

Is this what my parents experienced 22 years ago? Did they silently pray for my safety, too?

Piece by piece, my family slowly removed signs of our differentness to blend in.

I was 16 on 9/11, the first time I really conceptualized “United We Stand” as our nation’s motto. These words always make me think of my dad. Whenever my siblings and I fought, he would beckon us into the living room for classic Desi parent conflict resolution: “You all are like the fingers that make up a hand. When one finger is hurt, the entire hand is hurt. United we stand, divided we fall.”

In 2001, “United We Stand” did not stop me from struggling to process the hate and vitriol that came with being a Muslim American — or of being mistaken for one, like Balbir Singh Sodhi. He was planting a flower bed when he was shot and killed, the first victim in a wave of hate crimes after the towers fell.

Consequently, Mom was vigilant, and her guidance was clear: “Be careful.” And careful we were. Piece by piece, my family slowly removed signs of our differentness to blend in. We traded shalwar kameez for slacks and button-down shirts and took down Bismillah, “In the name of God,” hanging prayers from our rearview mirrors.

We were careful, yet I was confused: I am an American, too. Why cant they understand?

Two years later, I raised my right hand and gave my first oath as a cadet in the Air Force Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC). My parents were proud yet hesitant. “What if they send you to Iraq?” Mom said. She didn’t want her baby girl in harm’s way. Dad also had his reservations, but I was resolute. Service was a calling. I will protect and defend my country. Maybe then, others will understand.

* * *

“Why do they have to stop our van?” a voice a few rows ahead complained. “It’s not like we’re A-rab.”

A-RABBBBB. I can still hear the echoes in my head. As a ROTC cadet, our class was visiting a local base during leadership lab five years after 9/11. We were told to pull out our IDs when we arrived as the base sentry inspected our van. One cadet felt this was unnecessary. We weren’t A-rab. One of our cadre intervened, speaking to the cadet, and then turning to me. “Don’t worry, Cadet Ali. It’s not like this in the real Air Force,” he said. “People care. They treat one another with dignity and respect.”

Four years later, in the real Air Force, I stood among five or six co-workers for a morning staff huddle. Someone brought up Osama bin Laden. “Ask Lt. Ali where he is,” a co-worker joked. “Sadia?”

Being a Muslim in the military in post-9/11 America did not come without challenges, but I had friends and mentors who cared. Together, we read books like The Faith Club. We engaged in healthy dialogue. We broke roti during Ramadan and joined hands in prayer while serving families at the Fisher House.

* * *

A few days after Wadea’s murder, a Muslim friend texted: “You know what this feels like? After 9/11. When they clumped us all as terrorists.” She is right: This feels nauseatingly familiar. A week or so later, I learned a Muslim teenager had been attacked on the way to school on a New York City subway and was transported back to tumultuous 2001, then the burdensome years of the “Muslim ban.” When the attacker attempted to pull off the young woman’s hijab, he said, “You’re a terrorist; you don’t belong here.”

After 9/11, Mom told me, “Be careful.” Today, I tell my son, “You belong.”

It’s not just our imagination. A few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security warned that the United States is in a “heightened threat environment” due to increased domestic hate crimes. Muslim Americans feel physically and psychologically unsafe. The threat is real: Since Oct. 7, 1,283 Islamophobic incidents have been reported in the United States. I can’t help but wonder: How many more will be added to that number before the year is out?

But even so, I tell my son, “You belong.”

My parents did the best they could during turbulent times. Right now, I’m doing the best I can by encouraging my son to be unapologetically himself — even in the midst of scary times. We celebrate his grandparents in their beautiful shalwar kameez and will proudly continue to wear ours, too. We recite our Bismillahs, our Mashallahs, and our Alhamdulillahs whenever we come across life’s blessings — and challenges. Perhaps, especially amid trying times, we must hold onto our truest, most authentic selves. We must hold onto our humanity.

My son belongs, just as Wadea belonged. His parents immigrated from the West Bank 12 years ago. I imagine, like my parents, they longed for a better life for their family, for their future child, Wadea. Instead, his mother Hanan missed her 6-year-old’s funeral because she was critically injured — and is now left with one ask: “I need justice.”

Today, I too yearn for justice, and I cling to hope. I hope my friends, mentors, community, and country continue to care. Just like offensive words targeting other marginalized communities have been appropriately called out, I, too, hope that the hate that killed Wadea gets called out.

His killer was an Air Force veteran who became enraged by war coverage, including claims that have never been verified: unconfirmed, unsubstantiated claims. Words matter.

When the subway incident happened, the attacker failed to remove the girl’s hijab, because another female passenger intervened to help. Actions matter.

After 9/11, Mom told me, “Be careful.”

Today, I tell my son, “You belong.”

After 9/11, staying safe meant being unseen. My family had to dim our light.

Today, our light shines bright. We honor our humanity.

There is no more room for Islamophobia in America’s story. She is better than that. Let us be better this time around, in our words and our actions. If for no other reason, let it be because we have children now. Those of us who grew up in a post-9/11 America are raising babies of our own. Babies like Wadea, the Palestinian American boy stabbed by a hateful man who decried “You Muslims must die.”

To all the children out there: You are strong. You are important. You matter.

I hope America listens this time around. I hope she embraces our shared humanity.

In the meantime, like Wadea’s mom, I’ll pray for peace as I wait for my son’s safe arrival from school, Inshallah.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Air Force, Department of Defense or the U.S. government.

Sadia Ali Heil is a writer, educator, advocate, and veteran who grew up listening to stories of family, faith, and South Asian heritage. After earning a master’s in special education, she felt compelled to write for children. Sadia is especially passionate about representation in children’s books: Inclusion begins in early childhood.