Many Muslims in the United States point to September 11, 2001, as the day their relationship with the country changed.
Islamophobia had always existed, but the terrorist attacks in New York, Pennsylvania and Virginia seemingly made it worse — much worse.
Muslims of all stripes — citizens, immigrants and refugees — faced backlash. Many were ostracized and harassed, some physically assaulted and even killed. Charged rhetoric, successive wars and attacks further inflamed the situation.
Feeling condemned for crimes they didn’t commit, some Muslims changed their names and clothing to conceal their identities, while others clung even tighter to their faith. A few became outspoken advocates for the community.
Every Muslim in America has a story to tell. Here is one of them.
Ruwa Romman, 28, is a Palestinian American community organizer and policy analyst living in Duluth, Georgia.
When the terrorists attacked, she was 8 years old and had just recently immigrated to the US with her parents. But the dream she had of building a new life in America quickly turned into a nightmare.
“I remember the hallways and the day seemed darker even though I remember it was sunny outside,” Romman told CNN about her experience in school that day. “I don’t think I fully understood what was happening since I barely spoke English.”
Still, she recalls the long list of insults hurled at her as a child: “terrorist” and “sand n****r.” Some even asked if she was related to Osama bin Laden, the al Qaeda mastermind behind the attacks.
Romman says she can’t remember a single day in elementary school when the bullying stopped. High school wasn’t much better — with one teacher pulling her out of class to ask if her family belongs to a terrorist group.
Outside of school, a close friend’s family banned her from their home because she was Muslim and “dangerous,” she said. Airport travel required numerous bag checks — sometimes three times during a single trip.
The bullying and harassment set Romman on a path to educate and advocate for her community, even at a young age.
“I felt this sense of duty to never respond to every terrible comment made to me and instead try to educate people,” Romman said. “Looking back at my younger self, I’m so angry and sad for her. I didn’t have to do any of that. I was a kid trying to grow up and figure out my life. All of a sudden I’d become an ambassador for a billion people around the world.”
In 2016, Romman joined the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, as their communications director. She’s since become a community organizer, policy analyst and consultant working on related issues.
Romman says advocating for US Muslims and the issues they face is daunting, but sees hope in every small victory.
“We will continue to be politically engaged and unapologetically so.” Romman said. “Muslims are no longer willing to carry that burden. None of us committed 9/11. Why should we carry that burden?”