Muslim high school grad praised as 'peacemaker'

Birmingham High School senior Saaliha Khan is the school's first Muslim student body president and is active in a campus mediation program to ease ethnic tensions.
Birmingham High School senior Saaliha Khan is the school's first Muslim student body president and is active in a campus mediation program to ease ethnic tensions. Adolfo Guzman-Lopez

The students at many Los Angeles high schools are a rich ethnic mosaic. But at some campuses, that mosaic shatters into jagged pieces. It was like that at one San Fernando Valley school – but an 18-year-old high school student helped put the pieces back together again. KPCC’s Adolfo Guzman-Lopez has her story.

Adolfo Guzman-Lopez: Birmingham High School senior Saaliha Khan says she’ll miss one of her duties as student body president.

Saaliha Khan: I come in every morning. I rush to the main office by the principal’s office and get the phone for the PA. As soon as the bell rings at 8, I say, “Good morning, Birmingham Patriots! This is your student body president Saaliha Khan. Please stand for the flag salute. Place your right hand over your heart. Ready. Begin.” And then I say the Pledge of Allegiance, the school follows, hopefully. Then I say “Thank you and have a great day!”

Guzman-Lopez: Khan just finished her last exam. She wrote a two-part essay in her advanced placement English class. The first part explored whether Holden Caulfield, the main character in The Catcher in the Rye, suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. The second part was a letter to herself five years from now, detailing her high school experiences.

Walking around Birmingham’s Van Nuys campus, it’s evident that Saaliha Khan, the school’s first Muslim student body president,is well known.

[Students: "Of course we know Sally." "She’s my hero." "She’s like a sister to me."]

Guzman-Lopez: These students say they like Khan because she’s upbeat and full of praise for others. Sitting under a tree’s wide shade in the school quad, senior CJ McKenzie says the four students were just talking about how Birmingham needs more people like her. McKenzie says tensions on campus between ethnic groups have dissolved in recent years, but divisions remain, especially at lunchtime.

CJ McKenzie: The Armenians are over here, right by the old counseling center. The blacks are over here in the cafeteria, in J building. The Samoans and Tongas are right here, under the cafeteria. The Hispanics are everywhere.

Guzman-Lopez: Fights between Armenian and Latino students were so bad four years ago that the LAPD had to be called in. This year, 40 students, including Saaliha Khan, took part in a mediation program.

Birmingham’s principal calls her a “peacemaker.” So does Princeton University. She was one of 29 high school students to win the Princeton Prize for Race Relations. Khan’s taken on the challenge of learning the language of mediation.

Khan: Yo hablo español poquito porque mi clase de español. So I know a lot more Spanish than I know Armenian because I’ve taken three academic courses throughout my high school career. And for Armenian, it’s among friends. [speaks in Armenian]

Guzman-Lopez: And that opens the door of understanding. Saaliha Khan was born in the U.S. but lived in her parents’ native Pakistan until seven years ago. The family returned here about a year after the September 11th attacks. Khan remembers the taunts from kids and adults.

Khan: It made me feel sad, it made me feel angry, it made me feel embarrassed, even though it shouldn’t because it wasn’t my fault. They say your people did this but, they put you on a guilt trip, but I’ve realized that no, I don’t need to be guilty, because it’s really not my fault.

Guzman-Lopez: Her Muslim faith drives her effort to mediate tensions at school. She says the Koran teaches that a smile is a form of charity.

Khan: I’ve realized dialogue, just talking to people, connecting, making that real connection with people. I think that Birmingham and throughout my experiences outside the classroom and being involved in a lot of stuff, I realized that communicating and connecting with people is very important.

Guzman-Lopez: Next fall, Saaliha Khan will be a freshman at Georgetown University. She earned a full scholarship, and she’s thinking about joining the U.S. diplomatic corps. For now, she’s listed her major as “undeclared.” She’ll keep her options open, and embrace what the future has in store.

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