In their pressed uniforms, the students squirmed as their principal addressed the letter that landed in the mailbox of Orange Crescent School one late November day.
“Dear children of Satan,” it read, speaking to Muslim boys and girls whose campus is located on the grounds of the Islamic Society of Orange County in Garden Grove. Rather than deal with it privately, school officials decided to share the letter with the students, presenting the kids on Thursday, Principal Maisa Youssef said, to let people “see what an American Muslim child looks like.”
“There’s nothing different about our school,” she added. “We’re like every other school in America.”
Leila Dakelbab, vice principal of the school that serves children from preschool to eighth grade, called members of the student government to join her at the podium.
She spoke of the 230 letters the children wrote in response to the hate mail and sent to the administration. She said the students enjoy the same things that any other American children do and are “proud to live in the best country in the world and practice our religion.”
“People are enemies of those who they do not know,” said Muzammil Siddiqi, director of the Islamic Society of Orange County, whose grandson attends the school. He called its environment as a “community of peace,” adding that “we are totally against violence.”
The Orange County Human Relations Commission has documented a total of 33 hate-related incidents and six hate crimes since the November election, according to Rusty Kennedy, the group’s executive director.
The election capped off one of the most racially polarizing presidential races in memory, with President-elect Donald Trump vowing to restrict Muslim immigration, suggesting the creation of a Muslim registry and asserting that Islam “hates” Americans.
The Rev. Gina Gore of St. Wilfrid of York brought cards of peace created by members of the youth group at her Huntington Beach church who wanted to show the students at Orange Crescent “that we stand by you.”
“I pray for the people who wrote this — that their hearts soften,” said Bishop Diane Jardine Bruce of the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles.
Rabbi Peter Levi, regional director for the Anti-Defamation League in Orange County and Long Beach, said that “when we fight for the right of others, we fight for ourselves.”
Rep.-elect Lou Correa (D-Santa Ana), told the students about a time he received hate mail from a citizen who disagreed with one of his legislative votes.
“Let’s put evil, hate and fear aside,” Correa urged the crowd. “Let’s all unite and show the world what America’s all about.”
Steve Jones, the mayor-elect of Garden Grove, commended the school for taking “something hurtful and turning it into a teachable moment.”
“I didn’t think anybody could write anything that hateful to anyone else,” said Danny Nachawati, 12, an eighth-grader at Orange Crescent.
Nachawati said he wasn’t caught off guard by the school lesson. “We are taught to respect everyone,” he said. “And we do.”