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When Did Praying Before a Test Become a Terrorist Act?

This Muslim student was flagged as a security threat for writing a prayer on her GREs, delaying her scores, and earning her graduate-school rejections. Welcome to Trump’s America.

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Hannah Borisly, a 23-year-old recent graduate of the University of Redlands, had written a prayer at the top of every test she’d taken since middle school. She never thought it would prevent her from getting into graduate school. 

On the morning Hannah took the GRE, she wrote the prayer known as bismillah, an invocation in Arabic used by Muslims at the beginning of many tasks. It’s like second nature to her.

“The proctor snatched the paper,” says Hannah, and told her “‘You can’t write on these.’ He had me come out of the testing room with him and he ripped it up and threw it away.”

“You’re not supposed to throw it away,” she explains. “It’s disrespectful. You’re supposed to burn it or keep it somewhere, not trash it.” 

She was already shaken by the interaction when the proctor said something she’d never expected. “He told me I would be flagged as a security threat. I didn’t understand why.” When she thinks back on this, she laughs ruefully at the absurdity. “I was like, I don’t have a weapon on me, why would I be flagged as a security threat? And then I thought, Oh, this is Arabic. Okay … I brought my American passport that says I was born in Kuwait. Okay, I can see why.” 

Hannah says she is not often perceived as Muslim, or even Middle Eastern. She doesn’t wear a hijab; on the day that we meet, her dark brown hair falls in natural curls around her face and shoulders. “When I tell people that I’m from the Middle East, they they’re like, ‘You don’t look like you’re from the Middle East. You look like you could be Hispanic or Jewish or whatever.’” Hannah is an international student from Kuwait—half-American, half-Kuwaiti—and says she hasn’t typically experienced prejudice because she believes her name is kind of “under the radar.” “Most Arabic last names start with ‘Al,’ which means ‘The …’ whatever family, but mine doesn’t, so I’m kind of inconspicuous in that way.” 

Being flagged as a security threat, also meant her GRE scores would be delayed from being posted—which worried her, because she had taken the GRE in December.

“I had no idea when I was actually going to get the scores. The deadline for applications and everything to be submitted is early January,” she said. She braced herself for the wait: “I didn’t get my results two weeks later, like it says on the website. Then three weeks passed, four, five weeks … and then I started calling.”

Hannah says she called the GRE customer service line for days on end, waking up early in California to reach them on the East Coast. When she finally reached someone, they said that her being flagged as a security threat was just the testing center following protocol and procedure. 

“I said, you know, I can’t help but feel discriminated against. At this point I really just want my scores. And she said, ‘Well, [the proctor] actually took the papers out of the trash can and put them in your file and we’re gonna have to send them to a translator.’”

It’s possible that the proctor mistook what Hannah wrote on the exam for some Arabic translation of an answer or a study guide, that he was actually trying to accuse her of cheating. However, being marked as a security threat is what makes the whole situation more insidious and more difficult to pass off as the proctor simply being wary of test answers.

“Okay, that’s gonna be the translator’s easiest job that they’ve ever had to do,” said Hannah. The bismillah is the first line of the Quran. “I mean, we say it all the time, we say it before we walk outside the door, we say it when we get in the car, before we take a drink of water.” 

The GRE center failed to contact a translator; whenever Hannah called back, they told her they hadn’t done it yet. Frustrated with still not having received her scores, she told the GRE center directly that she was going to be taking up the matter with the ACLU.

Her scores were posted the next day.

Hannah had pursued her Bachelor’s degree in Communicative Sciences and Disorders at the University of Redlands, and initially took the GRE because she wanted to apply for a master’s in the field to become a speech pathologist. Inspired by her parents, who are both educators, Hannah says she used to help her mom in her early education job. “I loved it. My first job after graduating was as a teacher’s assistant, but I felt like I wasn’t completely satisfied or fulfilled just because there wasn’t a lot of science to it. I love science and I love the data and precision of speech. And I mean… speech, it’s what we do every day. I like helping people, and I like working with kids, and I’m silly and animated, so I just feel like it’s perfect.”

Hannah says she felt like studying in the U.S. was always something that was expected of her; her father did it when he was in school, her brother, her cousins. Kuwaiti citizens have the opportunity to study abroad through a sponsorship from the Kuwaiti government. Her parents’ one condition was that since she was going so far away, she had to study near where members of her family live, in California. “University of Redlands just stuck out—it was perfect.” When she first starting hearing back from grad schools, she said she didn’t initially believe their responses corresponded with her GRE scores. “I thought, I applied to some really competitive programs and I just didn’t get in. But I applied to eight schools and I didn’t get in to any of them.”

The city of Redlands and the surrounding area of San Bernardino county, known to locals as the “Inland Empire,” has increasingly felt tensions of Islamophobia since the December 2015 shooting in San Bernardino. The assailants lived in Redlands, and residents of the town, described in one New Yorker article as a “placid, leafy city,” were shaken that something like this could happen in their community. Some turned to fear and rage, and were more receptive to Donald Trump’s campaign strategies, such as the Muslim ban, during the 2016 election. Trump polled at 42.4 percent in San Bernardino County on Election Day 2016.

Hannah was at the university at the time of the shooting in 2015. “I was actually in my Foreign Affairs class when the shooting happened and—I was checking Twitter when I shouldn’t have been, but I saw it and other students around me, you know, were on their laptops typing in notes and stuff and were getting notifications about it.” She said she was working as a behavior interventionist for children with autism in a nearby town, which leans more on the conservative side than Redlands, and “the parents of my clients would make comments before they knew where I was from, and ask me where I was going on vacation, and they couldn’t believe it when I said Kuwait. It’s so foreign to them.”

Hannah says she tries not to give too much mind to Islamophobia, and what happened at the GRE. “I feel like it’s just the way that things are and I feel like it’ll upset me if I think too much about it. I just, I don’t know, there’s so many factors working against my religion and my culture.” The Middle Eastern Student Association at University of Redlands wasn’t established until her third year at the school, so, she says, “the first two years were the hardest. I was by myself and there were no other Gulf students—nobody from Saudi Arabia or UAE or Kuwait or Bahrain But I found that the international students no matter where they were from were where I was most comfortable and had the most connection with. My best friend is from Taiwan.”

And, she says, while there’s a Middle Easter Student group at Redlands, they don’t yet have a Muslim student association. “In the Middle East, women don’t normally go to the mosque unless there’s a religious event or a holiday, and they only go to do prayer and then leave. So I was never comfortable with going to the mosques here just because it’s not what I was used to at all. They have social events there and things like that, but I just felt like that’s not what the mosque is for. So I never went, even though I knew that that community would be there. I guess I was uncomfortable with it.”

She will take the GRE again, in Fall 2018, but next time, Hannah says she’ll take the GRE at a different testing center. Will she write the prayer again?  “I almost want to do it again, just to see, you know, if the protocol is really the protocol, because I feel like it’s just so ridiculous. But at the same time… I don’t want to be rejected again.” In the meantime, Hannah is concentrating on her work, conducting research with her professor and working with children with autism.


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