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Thursday, August 6, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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High school student’s poignant speech on tolerance continues to resonate nearly one year later

In January, then-senior Ava Sharifi delivered a powerful message to her fellow students at Lewis and Clark High school.

“I do not want to live in a world where at 17 years old I must worry about the color of my children’s skin,” she said in a speech delivered in mid-January. “We must take action; we cannot let darkness consume our hearts.”

The speech, posted to YouTube in February, struck a nerve with more than 11,000 views, hundreds of comments and an article on Buzzfeed, along with a slew of local media coverage.

In her speech, Sharifi shared how as a 10-year-old she realized her skin color and ethnicity set her apart. Later she remembers strangers contacting her on Facebook, asking her why she hated Westerners. She recalls walking into middle school and hearing children call her a terrorist.

Now, Sharifi is a freshman at the University of Washington studying political science. After delivering that speech, she said she was invited to speak at the University of Washington as well as the University of Idaho.

“It’s really been a fantastic journey from the moment I gave that speech,” she said. “I think what’s really great about the millennial generation is we are a lot more outspoken about social issues.”

Sharifi believes the biggest impact her speech had on the community was raising awareness. A good friend of hers, Sami Hoiland, agrees.

“I definitely cried,” Hoiland said. “I think it’s good for people to see it in her perspective because a lot of people don’t.”

To this day, Hoiland defends Sharifi on YouTube when some commenters attack Sharifi. When that happens, Hoiland jumps in and stands up for her friend.

“I felt like I needed to help her more,” she said. “I didn’t know the extent of prejudice and discrimination, and that’s why I’m still trying to defend her.”

That’s the kind of awareness Sharifi hoped to raise by delivering her speech. Sharifi, who isn’t religious, doesn’t want to be a spokesperson for Muslims, she said. Instead, she’s hoping to raise awareness about prejudice and hatred of all kinds.

“Even though I’m not Muslim, I got put into a box,” she said.

In a way, that illustrated her point exactly. Because of her skin color and ethnic origin, she was immediately linked to a religious group, a group with which she has little to do.

She originally wrote and presented the speech Jan. 13 for a panel discussion her father, an Eastern Washington University professor, organized on domestic terrorism and Islam. Subsequently, she presented it to her high school.

Sharifi’s parents emigrated from Iran in 1990. They lived in Miami, where Sharifi was born, until 2008. They then moved to Spokane. They aren’t a religious family.

Although Hoiland no longer attends LC, she said Sharifi is still a respected figure there.

“I feel that people still look up to her,” she said.

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