Yasmine Ezzair remembers being 11 years old and calling all of her friends the day before starting middle school to ask a single question, “Will you still be friends with me if I wear a headscarf?”
And she remembers getting both reassurances and rejections.
“I remember vividly walking up to my middle school door … and feeling my knees shake and my stomach clench. I was afraid,” she said. “I wasn’t afraid to be Muslim, I wasn’t afraid to wear the hijab itself. But I was afraid of how people would react.”
At TEDxUSF on Tuesday night, Ezzair, a USF chemistry major, shared her story of taking a step into what she considers to be her freedom and liberation
“On that very first day that I took a step … to allow people see me — my soul — before seeing the rest of me, my skin, my bodily appearance. So that very first day that I took that step not only in my piety, not only in my spirituality, but in my identity as a human being, as a Muslim girl, I was called everything in the book that you can imagine.”
In high school, Ezzair fought legally to join the varsity basketball team while wearing her hijab. A battle she won.
Her senior year, on her way back from visiting the University of Florida, Ezzair was sitting in the back seat while her father drove when a car ran into the passenger’s side of their car.
“I just heard metal crash. I didn’t know what was going on. My head slammed into the front seat, and all I see was glass,” she said. “I remember that moment so vividly because that’s the moment I thought that if I had sat in the passenger’s seat that day, I probably wouldn’t be standing here today.”
Ezzair said she took that moment and the adversity she had faced to evaluate her life and the impact she had made on society.
“I realized that people hate me,” she said. “For no reason. And I may die at any moment.”
She took to Twitter with a pencil and paper and with a talent in drawing. Ezzair received messages from people around the world, sending her pictures of themselves or their families.
“This is great, I’m going to do something for once. I’m going to make an impact,” she said. “I’m going to do something in this world, because if I do leave for whatever reason, I will know confidently that I left something. That I left something concrete.”
Ezzair takes the money from her drawings and donates it to relief operations for Syrian refugees.
“These are human beings who, just like me, are misrepresented,” she said. “People see them as a threat, people see them as a danger, even though all they want is to be free. All they want is the pursuit of happiness. I took that and I identified with their struggle because I’ve been there and I used that specific population as a means of sharing my own struggles.”
On that first day in middle school, Ezzair had a boy in her art class wrap his head in a sweater, make a gun out of two markers and make gun noises saying that he’s a terrorist just like her.
“I remember feeling so crushed that day because all I wanted and even to this day all I want is to spread peace, to spread love,” she said. “And being misrepresented was one of the most heart wrenching moments because it was the first time I felt injustice.”