Extending my branches

By Sarah Hafiz

Where am I going?” I asked myself. I was going to spend a week during freshman winter break far from my Lancaster, Pennsylvania home—in Hunt, Texas, for a leadership retreat. Although I had heard about the Muslim Youth of North America, I had no clear expectations. I anticipated a long afternoon of moving pegs on a “Quran Challenge” board from dusk to dawn. I boarded my 7 AM flight and launched myself into the unknown—an experience I would soon cherish.

Upon landing, I met people from across the nation and Canada, who instantly made me feel at home. The following morning we reflected on the theme: “Planting Our Feet Firmly: Strengthening our Roots, Extending our Branches.” What did it mean to “extend my branches”? I was touched by a lecture given by Dr. Jawad Shah in the mountains with the sunset on the horizon. Dr. Jawad directed me to think I had room for improvement. I had the potential to grow, like a tree. The environment surrounding me fostered the seedling. For it to sprout, I needed to soften the soil, absorbing myself in a nutrient-rich environment. I established my roots—my South-Asian heritage, my American identity, and my Islamic faith—firmly. Here I would grow, extending my branches and transforming from a once shy girl into a confident woman.

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Later that week we were to talk about our heroes. Flashbacks of speaking in front of a crowd came to me. As a fifth grader, I gave a presentation about Ramadan. Walking to the front of the class, I hauled the dates, scarf, and poster. Although I was presenting about my faith, I feared being made fun of—for being different. At camp, my nervousness dissipated. No one would make fun of me because everyone there was going to give me the advice I needed to better myself. Seeing how confidently my fellow campers spoke about their heroes, I was inspired to do the same. I stood on the stage, heavy microphone in hand, and heard my voice bouncing off the walls of the old skating rink. I was shaky at first, but once I got rolling about Mahatma Gandhi, the man who led nations through the power of his voice, I realized my audience was just my brothers and sisters. I eased into a steady voice and pretended I was talking to my cabin of five people…simply expanded to ninety-five more.

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I was dragged to this retreat, but by the end I felt I was being dragged out of it. I was put into an environment where I discovered the leader in me, the ability to speak publicly without feeling shy. I would leave an amazing environment—from warm bonfires to warm hearts. I was empowered to replicate what I had learned at the retreat in my community. Back at school, I felt capable presenting my faith in an Upper School assembly. I was excited to do so now that I was confident. The challenge was daunting: not only because the number of people in my audience doubled that at camp, but also because I was the only Muslim at my school and no one knew much about Islam save a brief exposure in the World Civilizations curriculum and the media. When I went on stage, the walls moved back. I outlined the principles of Islam and also presented many instances in which Muslims defied stereotypes. After the applause, I was amazed to have my teachers and peers tell me they appreciated how I had dispelled many misconceptions. I was delighted to apprehend that because I spoke with a new sense of confidence, my peers gained a new image of Muslims.

Thanks to the rejuvenated faith in Islam and leadership skills I received at my first MYNA camp, my presence reshaped the way my teachers and peers viewed Muslims. Communication is key: my voice would be heard instilling change, whether I was lobbying or recruiting volunteers. Stepping out of childhood, I matured. I learned to speak up: to deliver my opinions in class, to make announcements, to moderate national convention sessions—I was now scattering the seeds to plant the vast forest holding my many communities.

Shout out to MYNA Winter National Retreat 2010!

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