Difference maker Aisha Abdulwali: ‘Make sure your concerns are heard’

A person poses for a portrait
Aisha Abdulawali poses for a portrait on March 10 in Eden Prairie, Minn.
Kerem Yücel | MPR News

Aisha Abdulwali, 17, loves being a student at Minnetonka High School. She loves the academic rigor, and appreciates the kind interactions she’s had with teachers and other staff. But as a practicing Muslim, she often found it difficult to make time and space for her daily prayers.

The prayers fell at around noon and dismissal times, but leaving class and finding a quiet place for those devotions was always a challenge. 

The school had prayer rooms, but they were often locked or unavailable and getting access to them took a long time and kept her from eating lunch or joining classroom activities. She saw students trying to do their prayers in the hallway or behind stairwells, or saw teachers stopping students in the hallway, confused about why they weren’t in class. 

One day, while Aisha was praying in the hallway, some students saw her and started screaming and laughing. That’s when she decided to do something. 

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“I decided to speak up because, while I'm the one who kind of just tries to look for anywhere to pray, I feel like that isn't accessible for a lot of students,” Aisha said.

She went to her district’s main office, her school’s leaders and the student affairs office. Finally, she got a meeting with her high school’s assistant principal. 

It felt intimidating at first to keep asking, but when Aisha saw other students had similar concerns, it encouraged her. 

“What really helped me is other Muslim students talked to the assistant principal as well,” Aisha said. “I realized that my issue that I have is something that other students share.” 

In March, thanks in part to Aisha’s advocacy, her school opened a prayer space in the multipurpose room and organized a roster to give students 15 minute slots for their prayers. They figured out a system to allow students to easily get excused from class, purchased prayer mats and found a way to supervise the prayer space that made it feel safe. 

For Aisha, the experience was encouraging. She hopes talking about it will give other students the courage to be persistent and specific in asking for what they need. 

“If you feel like there’s some way you can feel more welcome and more part of the community at school, and you have any suggestions for the principal or staff … you have a right to let people know, because this is part of your education,” Aisha said. “Make sure your concerns are heard.”

This story is part of a series produced with support from the Education Writers Association Reporting Fellowship program.