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SALT LAKE CITY — Areesha Nazir was happy to be able to connect with people who share her same views at the Muslim Youth Conference on Tuesday — something that is rare for her, especially in Utah.
"I've never really been surrounded by a Muslim community like this before. Seeing all these people here was really special and making new friends and just feeling like there was a place that I belonged on campus, and just here in Salt Lake City in general, was very cool," she said.
Emerald Project hosted the unique opportunity at the University of Utah, including about 60 Muslim youths from around Salt Lake County.
Nazir, a Muslim student at the U., is used to getting strange looks from people as she walks around wearing a hijab. She says people will ask where she's from, and then ask where she is "really from" after she answers. Nazir said dealing with people who are ignorant about her culture is one of the more difficult things about being a minority in Utah.
But the conference taught her how to better answer the questions people ask, and be patient when questions might be disrespectful.
She wishes she could explain to everyone that wearing the hijab is a personal choice, not something she was forced to do. She said others often assume she doesn't have a choice or is being oppressed.
"Honestly, I chose to wear it, and I choose every day to keep it on because it's been the one thing in my life that's like been consistent and like has kept me grounded," Nazir said.
Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, who spoke at the conference, encouraged the youth to step out of their comfort zones and go beyond expectations.
Ahmad Kareh, who works in marketing and teaches at Salt Lake Community College and Brigham Young University, spoke about learning, being an ambassador for Muslims, challenging perceptions and keeping going when things get hard.
"It's on you. It's your responsibility to make a difference, for everyone here. And if we all own this responsibility, we will make a difference," he said.
Kareh said understanding their identities would help the youth be more powerful, and that when they know more about the religion and who they are, they will be better able to change people's perspective. Kareh encouraged conference attendees to welcome conversations about themselves and their religion.
"There's a different level of passion that we find when we start working as an ambassador," he said. "You become a part of something that is bigger than who you are on a personal level, and that's beautiful."
Kareh said he graduated from college a few months after 9/11 and did not realize how much that would affect his ability to get a job. Although a career advisor suggested he shorten his first name to an initial, Kareh decided not to hide his identity. He kept his name, along with experiences on his resume from while he was living in Jordan. He said this closed some employment options, but he was able to find comfort in his identity.
"It's very, very easy for us to feel alone and feel out of place and it's not easy to navigate life when you feel that way," he said. "I think you need to just believe that you're going to find something to change, you're going to find a problem to fix."
Zaynab Salih, a marketing and media arts student at the U., said it was very empowering to hear from Kareh, who is an example of a Muslim who is successful in marketing, and to be surrounded by other young Muslim people in Utah.
Her family is Kurdish, and because there is only a small Kurdish community in Utah, it is not often that Salih is able to make connections with people who have similar life experiences, but she found that at the conference.
"I was shocked to find out that a lot of people who had different cultures, they still had similar experiences with them being first-generation, with their parents being refugees and immigrants. I was able to make those connections, which usually isn't very common in other spaces," Salih said.
Satin Tashnizi helped organize the conference, which is the first of its kind in Utah. She helped to start Emerald Project when she was 22, in response to the 2017 travel ban, when people from seven different countries were not allowed to travel to the United States.
For Tashnizi, the highlight was seeing participants connect — creating relationships and opening up to each other.
"I think for a lot of these kids, it's probably the first time someone's ever told them that they're powerful and they can change things," she said.
Tashnizi said many of the children frequently hear that they are minorities, and they need to be protected. Emerald Project hopes to teach them to be who they are and help fight for others.
She said learning about religion at the conference was not just about strengthening faith, but about learning to separate what is motivated by culture and what is motivated by faith. For example, she said some cultures discourage women from getting an education, which is not taught in Islam, but some people are raised thinking it is part of the religion.
Tashnizi said they are hoping to host the youth conference on an annual basis.