Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: A teacher and his Muslim students deliver a lesson for the times

English professor Jose Blanco and two of his Muslim students, Mohammed Ali and Aldin Mesic, at Broward College deliver a lesson on prejudice and backlash.
English professor Jose Blanco and two of his Muslim students, Mohammed Ali and Aldin Mesic, at Broward College deliver a lesson on prejudice and backlash. Courtesy Jose Blanco

In a nation on edge and under the hateful spell of ignorance cast by Trump World, education is essential.

This is how a down-to-earth South Florida teacher delivered a multilayered lesson about judgment and prejudice.

Heart-sick over the backlash his Muslim students are feeling in the aftermath of the California shootings and Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigration, professor Jose Blanco asked two of his Muslim students to pose for a picture with him.

One is dark-haired and tan-skinned, the other blond and light-skinned.

Then, the Broward College and Miami Dade College English professor posted their portraits on his Facebook page with this message:

“Real Life. These are two of my students, Mohammed Ali (his real name) on the left and Aldin Mesic on the right. Both are Muslim. Mohammed's father is Palestinian and his mother is Venezuelan. Aldin is from Croatia; he is also a Hollister model. Mohammed tells me he has received a lot of verbal insults recently. Aldin has not. Mohammed is an obviously Muslim name and his mother is Venezuelan. Aldin is not a ‘typical’ Muslim name. Evil is evil. These two are NOT. I love them both. When you think about trashing Muslims, think of these two. They could be our children.”

Powerful words.

I spoke to Mohammed, 19, a New York-born graduate of Everglades High School in Miramar who hopes to become an engineer, and I quickly understood what moved Blanco to speak up and do what he does best — teach.

It’s disheartening to hear that one of his friends “was really freaked out, in shock” when he learned Mohammed was Muslim. They had to talk through it, and Mohammed felt hurt by the sudden lack of trust.

“The news portrayed us as being killers and he was scared,” he says.

It’s affecting to hear that when he says his name people associate him with terrorism and he gets “blamed for other people’s actions.”

“The actions of a few condemn a whole Muslim society,” he says. “We have no connection with them. They kill a lot of innocent Muslims as well. To me, they have no religion. They’re just a terrorist group. I never met another Muslim who had that mindset.”

Trump and the followers who have put him at the top of the Republican polls for the presidential nomination are dangerous to the well-being of this country. They play into the ISIS narrative that America is a terrible, Muslim-hating country, and therefore an enemy to defeat by any means.

Trump’s broad-brush anti-Muslim edicts are so damaging that House Speaker Paul Ryan and other Republicans felt the need Tuesday to publicly denounce him and his ideas and support American Muslims.

But it’s in Blanco’s simple lesson, devoid of political calibration, that there’s clarity: When a group of people is stereotyped and alienated, we’re not throwing anonymous darts, but deeply hurting our neighbors, our youth — one of us.

First, Trump comes after Mexicans, then Muslims, then you.

Professor Blanco’s hobby is to make artful, math- and color-inspired boomerangs. It’s only fitting that his public post has come back to him carrying a heap of hope — the uplifting words of the often-silent majority who understand that religious freedom is one of the pillars of this land.