US troops to American Muslim child: #iwillprotectyou

Members of the armed forces, many of them parents, have launched a campaign to reassure Muslim American children that they're there to help, not harm. 

LM Otero/AP
Sofia Yassini, 8, right, gets a hug from her mother Melissa Yassini after posing for a photo outside a mosque in Richardson, Texas, in December 2015.

When Melissa Chance Yassini returned to her home in Plano, Texas, after work on Dec. 8, her eight-year-old daughter, Sofia, was packing. 

Sofia and her grandmother were listening to the news, Yassini told Upworthy, when Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump came on the screen, advocating that the US ban Muslims from entry. Coming just a few weeks after armed protesters demonstrated outside the nearby Islamic Center of Irving, Texas, amid what many call a wave of anti-Muslim fear and hate, Trump's message prompted Sofia to pack up in case they needed to move: boots, Barbies, her toothbrush, and peanut butter. 

"She had began collecting all her favorite things in a bag in case the army came to remove us from our homes," Ms. Yassini wrote on Facebook the next day. "She checked the locks on the door 3-4 times. This is terrorism. No child in America deserves to feel that way."

Plenty of Muslim parents say they, and their families, worry about anti-Muslim prejudice. After Yassini's post went viral, shared more than 20,000 times, Sofia's story was included in an Associated Press story about parents' efforts to reassure their children. 

Kerri Peek, an Army veteran in Colorado, was especially struck by Sofia's fear of soldiers. "Here's a picture of me as a mom and soldier and I’ll come to protect you," she wrote, sending a picture of herself in uniform to Yassini. 

But she wanted Sofia to know that other people felt the same way. On Dec. 17, she reached out to her Army network on Facebook:

Let these children know that we will not hurt them. That they are safe here in America. That we will protect innocents as we always have and by added benefit keeping our oaths to uphold and defend the Constitution ...

It's the high holiday season. It's time to give back.

"This rhetoric and fear, hate, and violence is not okay. It's not the United States that I would fight for," Ms. Peek told Upworthy.

Hundreds agree. Peek and Yassini both say they've been overwhelmed with messages of support as #iwillprotectyou takes off on Facebook and Twitter. 

"No one will be coming for you, so long as I breathe," Patrick Brandt writes on Facebook. David Bruce shared:

I didn't join the Army to hurt Muslims. I joined to protect them from terror, which has no religion. What I found was that the local Iraqis, especially our interpreters, were just as willing to protect me.

I am not Muslim, but when anyone says the Army that I served with will go on to remove Muslims from my country, they'll have to take me too, because then and there I will publically convert. The Army taught me loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. My American heart will not let me do anything less.

Yassini, who calls Peek a "beautiful soul" in a Facebook post, says that she reads all the messages to Sofia, who's feeling better thanks to servicemen and women showing solidarity around the country. But day to day fear persists: on December 12, another group of armed protesters staked out ground outside the Yassinis' mosque, the Islamic Association of North Texas.

"If you're protesting Islamic extremism in public, you're a terrorist target. So we don't wan't to be the helpless victims," protester David Wright told ABC affiliate WFAA8. 

Meanwhile, a counter-protest for peace organized elsewhere in Dallas: planners originally wanted to show support in the face of another mosque protest, run by the KKK, although that event never materialized.

The messages keep coming in, adding to a number of hashtag support movements that have grown online in response to anti-Muslim hate crimes, from verbal to physical abuse. #MuslimID, for example, a rebuttal to Mr. Trump's calls for a national registry of Muslims, brought together Muslim Americans who wanted to show how they contribute to the country: doctors' badges. Law certificates. Armed forces IDs.

But some people who want to show support off-line have asked what they can do, as well. Often, the answer is simple: say something.

In 2008, ABC asked two actors to play the role of an unwelcoming shop keeper and a Muslim customer in a Waco, Texas, bakery. Over and over, the female actor would enter and attempt to order a pastry; over and over, the man posing as the sales clerk insulted her faith and refused to serve her.

More than half of the bystanders did nothing to intervene.

In a Facebook post that now has almost 70,000 likes, Sofia Ali-Khan offers advice for friends who want to step in, but aren't sure how. Many of the solutions take just a minute, like sitting next to someone Muslim on the train, and protecting them from harassment, to simply letting Muslim colleagues know you're there for them – and meaning it.

"This is not an easy time," Ms. Ali-Khan wrote. "What you do will mean everything to the Muslim Americans around you."

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