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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

High school speech imploring acceptance strikes a nerve

Ava Sharifi, a 17-year-old student at Lewis and Clark High School in Spokane, Wash., gave an impassioned speech about dealing with Islamaphobia as the daughter of Iranian immigrants. She poses for a portrait at her home on Thursday, Feb.11, 2016. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Ava Sharifi’s message is simple.

“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.”

Sharifi’s speech, which she delivered to a packed gymnasium at Lewis and Clark High School, has struck a nerve.

Since the senior at Lewis Clark High School posted the video of her speech to YouTube on Monday it has garnered more than 5,000 views and an article on Buzzfeed. Sharifi, the daughter of Iranian immigrants, said she’s received about 300 messages and many more comments.

“The entire purpose (of the speech) was to humanize the problem,” she said, adding, “We are all humans. No one is subhuman.”

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

After she showed a video of her presentation to one of her teachers she was asked to speak at Lewis and Clark’s Martin Luther King Day assembly, held on Jan. 15. She didn’t post the video until this week.

In her speech Sharifi shares 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.

This confused her because she’s always thought of herself as American, she said.

Sharifi’s parents immigrated from Iran in 1990. They lived in Miami, where Sharifi was born, until 2008, at which time they moved to Spokane. They aren’t a religious family.

The current political climate, especially presidential candidate Donald Trump’s call for all Muslims in America to be identified, spurred her decision to share her experience.

Cory Davis, a teacher at Lewis and Clark High School, believes Sharifi’s message resonated because it served as a foil to the discord and division of the current political and cultural climate.

“Here you have someone on a gym floor, talking to 2,000 people saying here was my experience,” he said. “I think people respect her and respect what she did. The speech is so well done it just kind of moves people.”

Ayesha Malik, a Pakistani Muslim and a member of the Spokane Interfaith Council, has never met Sharifi, but she saw the video Wednesday.

“When I heard it I started to cry because it was like she was speaking for me,” Malik said. “She knows how I feel. It’s so important when somebody stands up, because she’s not alone, she’s definitely not alone.”

Malik said if she goes into a grocery store while still wearing her headscarf she gets stared at. She’s even had men come up to her and tell her she doesn’t have to be oppressed anymore.

“I’m so proud that she stood up and said those things,” Malik said.

There are about 5,000 Muslims in Spokane, according to the Council on American-Islamic Relations, a civil rights and advocacy group for Muslims with a chapter in Seattle.

Kahlil Wilson-Moore, 18, is a senior at Lewis and Clark. He said Sharifi’s speech was refreshing because it dealt with current issues.

“It was a really solid message and everybody received it really well,” he said. “Usually the MLK day celebrations are really old and antiquated.”

Sharifi, who will graduate in June, plans to travel in the Middle East with her father and make a documentary about the realities of life in the Middle East. She is unsure about what she wants to do for a career, although she’s interested in politics, law or academia.