by Carlos Anchondo '14
In 2003, Sana Husain Aaser had just started seventh grade. The bell had rung and Aaser entered the hallway to change classes. Holding her books, Aaser was walking along when a classmate ran behind her, reached up, and tugged hard on her hijab, pulling the headscarf from her head. Aaser was shocked, confused, and suddenly extremely aware of being Muslim.
Speaking with the principal, Aaser’s mother asked that the boy who’d pulled off her daughter’s hijab not be punished too harshly. Instead, she used the incident as a teaching moment and spoke at the next faculty meeting about Muslim identity and faith. Today, as a recent master’s graduate from San Francisco State University with a degree in equity and social justice in education, Aaser remembers her mother’s lesson on rising above ignorance and taking pride in her Muslim faith. As the product manager at Noor Kids, an educational program producing books for Muslim children, Aaser strives to instill confidence in the newest generation of Muslims.
“Noor Kids gives Muslim children characters they can relate to and allows them to be proud of Muslim culture and values,” Aaser says.
The books, designed for children 4 to 8 years old, center on the journeys of Amira, Amin, Asad, and Shireen, and focus on building critical-thinking skills. Instead of asking how and what, discussion is focused on why. Aaser manages an international team of researchers, writers, and illustrators to guide the books from concepts into physical copies that are delivered to subscribers. She also created the curriculum and pedagogy used for the book series, employing a model where parents read with their children to foster a stronger sense of Muslim identity.
Aaser points to research that indicates that young children who have deeper relationships with their parents are more likely to have stronger self-esteem and self-concept than those without this quality connection. As a child, Aaser recalls characters that did not look like her or did not share the same cultural and religious experiences she lived as a minority in the U.S. She feels emboldened knowing that her work with Noor Kids is helping to create what it means to be a modern American Muslim.
“Being Muslim is not one part of my life, but it is a way of life,” Aaser says. “It is woven into everything and, like the hijab, it is something that is a part of you. One aspect of being Muslim that I love is connection. That means not only a connection to God, but also a connection to other people. The nature of Islam is to bring people together.”
An anthropology major, Aaser also speaks publicly against Islamophobia to both Muslim and non-Muslim audiences. She began delivering presentations as a high school senior at San Antonio’s International School of the Americas. Her first speech was at Trinity University’s Walls Symposium in 2009, where she discussed growing up Muslim in the U.S. Aaser maintains there are two approaches to working against Islamophobia: one, conducting outreach to better inform non-Muslims about Islam, and, two, doing a better job within the Muslim community to encourage confidence in who they are.
At Noor Kids, which has published 12 books and sold more than 25,000 copies, Aaser feels like she is making a positive difference. She acknowledges that incidents like what happened to her in the seventh grade are frustrating, but also believes that every day is an opportunity to combat stereotypes and demonstrate the true nature of Islam.
“Everyone has their battles to fight and their work to do,” Aaser says. “I feel this is my place, and that is something I embrace.”
As a student at Trinity, Aaser ensconced herself in clubs like the Muslim Student Association (MSA) and the Trinity Diversity Connection. She recalls an event, after the Park 51 controversy regarding the placement of a mosque near Ground Zero, where MSA collaborated with the Black Student Union to speak out against discrimination and how powerful it was to see two groups come together in solidarity for social justice. Aaser says her passion for equity stems from the Islamic tenet of standing up against injustice, in whatever form it takes. She adds that her anthropology courses enabled her to become a more empathetic person and better connect with others.
Strong relationships are something Aaser hopes to cultivate as Noor Kids grows in scale. She is continually struck by how meaningful it is to see a product transform from an idea to a real, tangible book passed into the hands of children. With each new story, Aaser and Noor Kids inspire their readers to strengthen their American Muslim identities and to share themselves with the world.