Muslim Youth Voices: Presenting authentic stories from Muslim American youth

"I hope to show people that Muslims are people too, and that we're not that different from you" -- Razan, 15

What does it mean to be a young Muslim in America today?

That’s the question that was posed to more than a dozen middle school and high school students—all whom are Muslim American—during a series of filmmaking workshops this summer.

This summer’s Muslim Youth Voices workshops in Plano, TX and Portland, OR marked the completion of a six-city, three-year summer workshop series. The initiative from the Center for Asian American Media, funded by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art’s Building Bridges Program, seeks to start a discussion beginning with the youth themselves.

The workshops provided a safe and creative space for self-expression and exploration. Through weeklong intensive sessions, students gained an in-depth appreciation of storytelling and created short films with a professional crew. In addition to Plano and Portland, the workshops took place in Fremont, CA and New York, New York (year one) and Minneapolis and Philadelphia (year two).

Mahya Shakibnia-Shirazi, 12, attended the workshop in Portland and said it was a positive experience. “This was an amazing opportunity that I will always remember, and I’m so grateful that I got to do it.”

Her film focuses on two Iranian sisters. “The older one was in Iran, while the younger one was in the U.S. The younger sister was graduating from high school, but her sister wasn’t able to because of the travel ban that the president had enforced.”

Mahya said she based the idea off of real life situations she saw in her community. “I know that there are people that have actually gone through this, and I hope to show the people that haven’t, how difficult it is for ones that are.”

In total over the three years, 30 plus short films have been completed, with more than 40 youth participating. The films have been shown at film festivals, including CAAMFest, the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, the New York and Philadelphia Asian American film festivals, and at the Maysles Documentary Center. One of the short films received an award at the Minneaopolis/St. Paul festival.

CAAM recently received an additional grant from the Doris Duke Foundation to distribute the youth films and for outreach. The next step is to distribute the short films more widely and expand the discussions.

“We are excited for the next phase, which is sharing these projects with the public,” explained CAAM Executive Director Stephen Gong. Plans include public media broadcast, streaming, and a continued showcase at CAAMFest 2018, which will be held next May. “We hope to raise awareness and visibility about the Muslim American youth experiences and continue to share their stories with the world.”

Artistic Director and Lead Instructor Musa Syeed worked with students from a cross section of ethnic, racial and religious backgrounds—meaning Muslim Americans from different religious backgrounds—as well as from all walks of life. Participants families have roots from places like North Africa, East Africa and Iran and across the Middle East.

Syeed said that as the past three to four years have gone by, and the political climate has taken the turn, he had to keep in mind that the environment he grew up in is different than now. A total of 44 youth have been trained in Fremont, CA, New York City, Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Portland and Plano, and 36 short videos have been made.

“Over the three years, I’ve felt more and more urgency in doing the program,” Syeed said. “For me, it didn’t start with responding to the political climate. Just hearing stories of being bullied or take on this role of being a representative for the community in young Muslims’ lives is something that I think I have to take into account.”

Some of the students’ film ideas were about politics or Muslim identity, but others were just youth having fun—horror or zombie movies, for example.

“Sometimes I questioned if there value in kids making a movie about zombies or a dystopian movie, where it doesn’t even reference them personally,” Syeed said. “But by virtue of them making it, it does draw from their experiences of who they are. There’s a lot of value in that.”

Student filmmakers hope to shed light on experiences that bring communities together. Razan Bayan, 15, made a short film about a day in the life of two American girls—one Muslim, and one non-Muslim. “Throughout the film, the audience realizes how similar their day is,” Razan said. “I hope to show people that Muslims are people too, and that we’re not that different from you.”

Throughout the screenings at festivals, the students, families and films have received great appreciation and feedback. Syeed said there is definitely a demand for a program like this to continue.

“There’s not a lot of resources for this kind of level or arts program in our communities,” Syeed added. “I hope it can continue or inspire other people to do similar types of program I definitely think the need and the demand is there.”

Syeed, a Sundance Award-winning filmmaker and whose film, A Stray, was recently a part of SXSW 2017 and another film, Menashe, played in theatres, said the youth have inspired him as well.

“It’s refreshing for me. Making my own projects as a professional in the industry, it can be dispiriting looking at the obstacles and in the landscape. Seeing the youth being creative and storytelling—it was always reinvigorating for me and refreshing.”


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Momo Chang is CAAM’s Content Manager.

Screen Shot 2017-10-23 at 3.20.42 PMThe Muslim Youth Voices Project is funded by the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art’s Building Bridges Program.