“I walked in with curiosity and ambition and I walked out with confidence and a drive to reach my goals,” said Aqsa High School student, Noha Mohammed.
About 100 high school students from across the Chicagoland area attended the first official Muslim Youth Leadership Symposium (MYLS) sponsored by CAIR-Chicago this April 5-6, 2008. During the two-day event, students attended workshops, presentations, and worked together to draft proposals for future projects they hope will bring about positive changes in their communities.
CAIR-Chicago Executive Director, Ahmed Rehab, kicked off the event with a motivating welcome that was reflected in a buzz of excitement amongst the students as they split into teams, ready to spend the next two days cultivating a positive and refreshing outlook on what it means to be a Muslim-American and how to translate that identity into cultural empowerment, community activism and civic participation.
The teams featured a diverse mix of students from every school and background to serve as an opportunity for the students to meet and work with new peers.
Value Based Activism
Students drew the encouragement to define themselves by the practical application of their faith values during the anticipated speech by MYLS keynote speaker, Congressman Keith Ellison. Excited by Rep. Ellison’s presence and message, the students jumped at the opportunity to interact with the Congressman during a lively question and answer session and an equally lively photo op. “I can’t believe Keith Ellison came here to see us!” said a member of the blue student team, waiting for Rep. Ellison to enter.
Rep. Ellison drew on his own experience to explain how being in a position of leadership means not only recognizing problems, but finding the solutions to them. “You’ve been given a gift,” he said, “an opportunity to face adversity with courage, with patience, with the assistance of prayer. And to come out on the other side of it more successful than you were before.”
The students took on Rep. Ellison’s challenge to draw from their faith values to lead by example and immediately applied it to their project work sessions. “After the session with Ellison, Rehab and other speakers,” students repeatedly came back to their homerooms with new ideas and a stronger drive, said CAIR-Chicago Outreach Coordinator, Gerald Hankerson.
The students were not the only ones inspired by dynamic speakers such as Ellison and community activists such as Safaa Zarzour, Yaser Tabbara, and Rami Nashishibi.“I was moved by the energy and initiative the students displayed,” said Rehab. “Their passion is remarkable and God-willing, it will take them far.”
The sessions included skill development workshops on time management, creative expression, public speaking, team leadership, and activism opportunities.
Throughout the program, the youth were encouraged to stay true to their faith values while entering into the world of arts, literature, and other channels of mainstream cultural expression. They were encouraged to break free of any limiting definitions of success and to branch out into diverse fields and avenues of civic engagement as a way to bring American Muslims more fully into the mainstream.
Rehab discussed the unique position that this new generation has in leading their communities to new heights. “Our youth should be an active part of every field,” said Rehab. “This is our country and our world, and our faith behooves us to serve all of humanity.”
Whether cheering each other on, rooting for their team colors, or intensely questioning each other, it was evident during team project presentations that the students took heed of the MYLS vision. Each student put forth full effort and heart into all aspects of the symposium.
Conversations, speeches, pizza, prayer, work, awards, debates, and excitement rounded out the MYLS event.
For many students, the event did not end on Sunday. “I have been getting emails since the event from many of the students about implementing their projects on a grander scale,” said CAIR-Chicago’s Youth Coordinator, Amir Siddiqui. “The drive and potential these students have is amazing.”
The official launch of MYLS this spring marks the first in a reoccurring program that is designed to empower American Muslim youth with a proactive agenda for positive activism and to foster a healthy American Muslim identity that fits comfortably within pluralistic American society while remaining true to its faith values.