Stephanie RiceZahra Billoo, with the Council on American Islamic Relations, speaks to Bridging Communities students in San Francisco.
When Rascha Anayah first heard about a program to bring together Japanese American and Muslim high-school students, she thought “weird.” But in a good way.
“You never hear about Japanese and Muslim people getting together and talking,” said the 16-year-old Palestinian-American from Danville. “It’s weird, it’s different.”
The Bridging Communities program was created three years ago by the Los Angeles chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League out of concern that Muslims were struggling with some of the same burdens Japanese faced in the years after the Pearl Harbor bombing.
Funded by a $150,000 grant from the National Park Service, the project is co-run with the Council on American Islamic Relations and the Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress.
While organizers acknowledge the Japanese experience during WWII – when more than 100,000 were forced into camps – was much more intense than what Muslims have faced in a post-9/11 world, they say there are similarities in the fear and suspicion aimed at a specific group during wartime.
“Following 9/11, all three (organizing) groups noticed a parallel between how Japanese Americans were treated after World War II and how American Muslims were treated after 9/11,” said Alex Margolin, a program associate with the Japanese American Citizens League in LA.
After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, the U.S. government ordered all ethnic Japanese on the West Coast interned in camps. Most were American citizens and many lost their property in the process.
About 70 students are currently enrolled in Bridging Communities classes in LA, San Francisco and Seattle, Margolin said.
While relatively small, the existence of such a program speaks to the bond that has developed between Japanese Americans and Muslims, especially in California, since 9/11.
As Muslims increasingly feel they are the target of suspicion – a presenter from the Council on American Islamic Relations told students at a recent meeting that the running joke among Bay Area Muslims is “Am I really Muslim enough if I haven’t been visited by the FBI?” – Japanese American groups have rushed to their defense.
After angry protesters hurled insults at Muslim families attending an Orange County charity event in March, the Japanese American Citizens League and Nikkei for Civil Rights and Redress, among others groups, showed up at city council meetings and press conferences to condemn the incident. (Note: The linked YouTube video was edited by the Council on American Islamic Relations. Villa Park Councilwoman Deborah Pauly, who appears in the clip, has said her comments at an earlier protest were taken out of context and she was not at the evening rally in which protesters yelled slurs outside the charity event.)
The Japanese American Citizens League was also among the first to issue a statement warning against intolerance toward Muslims immediately after the World Trade Center attacks, said Patty Wada, the league’s regional director.
Wada said many Japanese Americans, especially those who lived through internment, feel a sense of déjà vu as they see the animosity often directed at Muslims today.
“You’d hope that we’d be a little more enlightened and that we would have learned,” Wada said. “It’s sad and disappointing. The mentality just keeps repeating itself.”
Hiroshi Shimizu, president of the league’s Bay Area chapter, agrees.
Shimizu, also president of the Tule Lake Committee – an organization dedicated to the preservation of the Tule Lake internment site near the Oregon border – said he sees flickers of the xenophobic sentiment that imprisoned his parents.
“In many ways, it’s so parallel,” he said.
During the group’s last meeting in June, Shimizu will take the students to spend several days at the Tule Lake site. His father worked for the camp newspaper when he lived there as a child, he remembers.
He hopes the trip will drive home the point that discrimination should never be allowed to flourish.
“It shows up on the fringes,” he said. “We have to really take notice and defend against that. Once it starts, if you don’t oppose it, some little crazy spark might drive it bigger.”