Put yourself in the place of a Muslim kid attending high school in Maine.
Maybe you’ve only been in this country a short time. Or perhaps you were born here to immigrant parents who have one foot in their new American life and the other in the culture and customs of the world they left behind.
Either way, it’s easy to feel you don’t quite fit into the dizzying array of sports teams, clubs and social cliques that define adolescence in this country – often at the expense of those who are different.
Enter the Portland Champions – Maine’s team in this summer’s national Muslim Interscholastic Tournament.
“My friend asked me, ‘Do you chant the Quran or something?’ ” recalled Hajra Chand, 17, a junior at Scarborough High School who was born in Somalia. “And I was like, kind of, but not really.”
Founded in 2002 by a group of students at the University of Houston, the Muslim Interscholastic Tournament, or MIST, has a dual purpose: cultivate a wide range of talents that some students may not even realize they have, while at the same time deepen their understanding of Islam and the ever-growing Muslim population across the United States.
The 31 competitions range from improvisational acting and debate to mathematics and poetry. One minute the students might be playing basketball, the next they’re reciting – using nothing but their memory – five-minute passages from the Quran.
“MIST is the by far the best thing that has ever happened to me,” said Hayat Fulli, a junior at Deering High School in Portland.
“I was able to just be myself, a young Muslim Mainer,” said Fulli, 17, who was born in Portland to Ethiopian parents. “Many times when I am involved in activities I am asked, ‘Where are you from? What’s that on your head?’ But at MIST I was just another teenager. My Muslim identity was actually embraced.”
Last year, for the first time, 10 students from Greater Portland competed in the MIST regional competition in Boston. Three qualified for the 2013 nationals at Wayne State University in Detroit.
This year, Maine’s regional contingent ballooned to 25 students from Portland, Scarborough, Gorham, Cape Elizabeth and Waynflete School. And by the time the April competition at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was over, 21 had qualified for the nationals Aug. 1-3 at the University of Maryland.
It didn’t go unnoticed.
Last month, proud families, teachers, school administrators and members of the Portland School Committee gathered at Deering High School for a pot-luck dinner celebration of the Portland Champions’ success. Picture a typical end-of-season banquet for a winning high school athletic team, albeit with traditional dress and food from Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, India, Ethiopia.
“Your hard work, passion and leadership have certainly paid off,” wrote U.S. Sen. Angus King in a congratulatory letter to the team. “I am proud to join your family and friends in recognizing this great achievement, promoting academic excellence, religious tolerance and teamwork.”
While the tournament is open to students of all faiths (one member of the Portland Champions happens to be Jewish), the focus is clearly on providing a place to shine for Muslim kids who might never imagine themselves, as Fulli and her teammates did, improvising a commercial for a product that cures people of obsessive hugging.
Or walking into a debate competition, as Su’di Abirahman did, with a loudly growling stomach.
“My team would say ‘Eat something, Su’di. You didn’t breakfast or lunch,’ ” recalled Abirahman, 18, who was born in Somalia and this week graduated from Deering. “And I would reply, ‘I can never eat when I know I have a tournament. I’m just too nervous.’ ”
Only when the debate was over did Abirahman announce to her teammates, “OK, I am hungry now.”
“My happiest moment was the award ceremony,” said Fatuma Ali, 18, another Deering graduate. “I loved seeing people’s faces all happy and tears of joy. I get so excited talking about that moment, but I’m sad it’s over.”
Except it isn’t.
The Portland Champions need to raise $8,000 to make the trip to Maryland – $2,000 of which has already come via a grant from the Maine Community Foundation.
“This may sound silly, but personally, I have a coin jar in my room designated just for nationals,” said Fulli, who placed second at the regionals in the advanced-level Quran recitation.
About that Quran component: Without that embrace of her Islam faith, said Fulli, MIST would be “just like any other tournament.”
And with it?
“It brings the deeper meaning of Islam into context,” she said. “Especially with today’s misconceptions and stereotypes against Muslims.”
Mohamed Nur, 17, a Deering junior, agreed.
“You come out of it learning how to respect people of all religions. That’s what I took out of it,” he said. “It’s really a celebration of Islam and of the diversity of religions.”
It’s also a sign of these ever-changing times.
Where once Muslim kids were a novelty in classrooms in and around Portland, they’re now here, there and everywhere.
Where once their school day couldn’t end soon enough, it now springboards into an afternoon practice that is as challenging as it is just plain fun.
And where once it was every kid for himself or herself, they now share a mission that goes far beyond who posts the highest scores come August.
Each year, MIST adopts a tournament theme for each team to embrace in a creative way. This year’s theme – “generosity” – prompted the Portland Champions to develop a mentoring program whereby they will seek out newly arrived Muslims and other immigrant teenagers and personally guide them through their many and varied adjustments to American life.
Feel like cheering them on? Donations to their trip can be made through parent Nasir Shir of Cape Elizabeth at 409-5863 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Consider it, beyond a simple act of generosity, an investment in Maine’s future.
“I take great pride in representing my hometown of Portland,” said Fulli. “I don’t know why, but it just fills me with joy.”
Spoken like a true champion.
Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: