Life in middle school is rife with drama over friends, grades and the struggle to be accepted. I've seen that acceptance is what everyone -- not just overly-dramatic middle schoolers -- yearns for. We want to be understood by someone; we want to belong somewhere. Friends, families, relationships -- everywhere you see people trying to change their true personalities to fit in. To be accepted.
Middle school is like life in a big city. With fake friends, complicated classes and bullying, sometimes middle school is just as bad as all the books make it out to be. You can't turn without witnessing betrayal or broken hearts (as broken as a 13-year-old's heart can get). But it's not all drama.
As of 2010, suicide was a leading cause of death among kids under the age of 14 -- kids in middle school. When I was in sixth grade, a man whose son had committed suicide after being bullied by his peers online and in school spoke to us. With tears in his eyes, he begged my class to never do to anyone what those kids did to his son. The whole school was touched by his story, but it wasn't enough -- people in our school still bullied.
So it's understandable that people don't always want the hustle-bustle of city life. Sometimes, we long to return to that small town where life is not complicated, where you are accepted for who you are.
I am lucky to have such a small town, and it's called the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.
First, a history lesson: Ahmadiyya is a sect of Islam that preaches peace through accepting the Messiah. Many Muslims denounce this message, and in turn, condemn Ahmadis as non-Muslims. Pakistan, especially, persecutes Ahmadis. This persecution, to some extent, has led to my small town spreading across the world, from China to Africa to America.
The feeling of being a part of this small town is indescribable. I don't have to worry about wearing the right clothes, having the right friends, watching the right movies or knowing all the lyrics of Katy Perry's latest hit. I know that I am accepted. The fact that everyone can pronounce each other's name correctly is an added bonus.
In the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, my family becomes more than uncles, aunts, first and second cousins. Instead, my friends are my sisters, my mom's friends are my aunts, and my father's friends are my uncles.
But the key member of this family -- like any family -- is the head, the father, the Khalifa.
The Khalifa is the spiritual leader of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. Just like Buddhists have the Dalai Lama and Catholics have the Pope, we have the Khalifa. The Khalifa is like a father: someone who is not just revered but also loved. He is someone who praises us when we do well, and admonishes us when we do not so well. He gives us weekly advice in a Friday Sermon that is broadcasted live around the world.
I guess my small town is more than just a town: It's a safe haven. It's a little segment of the world where I don't have to stress, don't have to worry, don't have to change, don't have to fit in, because I know can be myself -- not a Barbie. I know I have people supporting me through my ups and downs.
Since the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community is established in over 200 countries, I know that I am accepted worldwide. I know that whichever big city I visit, whether it's Toronto or London or Dubai or Paris or New York (and I've been to all five), my small town is always there to welcome me home.