It was a perfectly normal day in Plano, Texas. Standing in a checkout line at Walmart, 18-year-old Irum Ali heard a woman behind her speaking to a friend. Irum, who is Muslim, experienced a familiar sinking feeling. The woman was talking about her. “At first I heard kind of snickering,” says Irum. “Then she started talking about how I should leave the country.”
Irum has heard it all before. Those people don’t belong here. Why don’t they go home? For most of her life, Irum says, she has never felt out of place in Plano, a city of more than 270,000 with a diverse population. But a few years ago, she decided to start wearing the hijab to “get closer to my religion,” she explains. (It’s a personal choice, Irum says. Her sister and her mother, who was born in Pakistan, don’t wear it.) Suddenly, people started treating Irum differently. In public places, they would sometimes look away, not return her smile, or glance crossly at her. Or even act with hostility, like that time at Walmart.
“When I realized it was about me, I tried to pretend that I wasn’t listening,” Irum says. “But she was talking about me a lot.” Finally, Irum turned around to defend herself: “This is my home,” she said. “I was born and raised here. Where am I supposed to go?”