The U.S. government incarcerated some 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry during World War II, removing them from their homes to live behind barbed wire fences and under the watch of armed guards. Over half of those imprisoned were children, some of whom wrote letters about their lives inside these American concentration camps.
Last month, filmmaker Frank Chi asked Muslim American children to read those letters aloud on camera. Sixth-grader Zara Ahsan, 12, was one of them.
In the video, called "Letters from Camp," Zara stands next to Takako "Kit" Nishiura, 80, who was in fifth grade when she and her family were forced from their home and put into the Gila River camp in Arizona.
Chi's video was meant as a warning: The shameful atmosphere of hate that drove the U.S. government to incarcerate thousands of Japanese-Americans is similar to the prejudice Muslim Americans face today.
Taking part in the video inspired Zara to write an essay, which she graciously shared with The Huffington Post. You can read it below.
I am a sixth grader, born and bred in the Bay Area. My friends hail from a variety of backgrounds, and like a lot of them, I like music, drama and sports. Although they have many of the same interests as I do, they speak different languages, eat different foods and voice their own opinions. We get on really well and I don’t know what I’d do without them.
What is it about grown-ups that they can’t get along and seem to need to promote a language of hate and fear? Zara Ahsan, 12
Over the course of the last year, the tone of our conversations has changed. I hear more disappointment, especially when we discuss politics and the election. It feels that our country is hanging under a dark cloud of discrimination. I am Muslim American; my friends are Atheists, Christians, Hindus and Muslims, and we all feel the same way. What is it about grown-ups that they can’t get along and seem to need to promote a language of hate and fear?
A few weeks ago, I got to participate in a video that is a statement against discrimination of Muslims. If I’m being honest, I thought it was just going to be a cool experience and a good story. But being part of this project was truly special and my perspective has forever changed. During the filming process, I got to meet people who actually lived through the awful experience of Japanese incarceration during World War II and their stories described the worst horrors imaginable. One family, which was pretty well off, was given two hours to pack their things and then bused to a camp in Wyoming where they initially had to stay in stables.
The people who were put in the camps were people who were ethnically Japanese but lived in America, paid their taxes, and many of them were American citizens. They had done nothing wrong, but that was irrelevant.
It was a shameful time in our history and the language of hatred and fear was everywhere.
Many Americans were afraid, or so they claimed, so we put other Americans who didn’t even commit a crime in camps to keep America safe. This was just wrong. These people had not given us any reason to doubt their loyalty to this country, but we did so anyway. Japanese-Americans lost their homes, lands, and businesses because they could not work while they were in the camps. It was a shameful time in our history and the language of hatred and fear was everywhere.
Every day at school, we recite the Pledge of Allegiance and we talk about how America is the home of the free, with liberty and justice for all. I’ve always believed that I was lucky to live in the best country in the world because of all the progress we have made, the power of democracy, and how great our nation is. What I was not aware of, is that we don’t always treat our own people very well, and sometimes we completely abandon liberty and justice for some for our own convenience.
Our ideals are amazing, but what happened to the Japanese-Americans during World War II shows that we don’t always honor our ideals. Nowadays, similarly derogatory language is being directed against Muslims. Me and many other young Americans are worried about what will happen if our freedom is taken away and we are treated the same as the Japanese Americans during that shameful time. For all the progress that America has made, would history repeat itself?
Discrimination is the unjust or prejudicial treatment of different categories of people or things, especially on the grounds of race, age or sex. Discrimination happens all over the world but is contrary to the basic American principles of equality, justice, and freedom for all. That doesn’t mean, however, that life in the United States today is free from discrimination or intolerance.
I have been watching the presidential election and am worried about what I hear from leaders in our government and presidential candidates who suggest that all Muslims are terrorists and require neighborhoods where they live to be patrolled or should not even be allowed to enter the United States. Our Constitution states that people should be allowed to practice their own religion without punishment or judgment. How did we get to the point where we have people representing us who don’t even honor our founding principles?
Discrimination happens because people are afraid and stereotype others. So many of the interned Japanese were innocent children, but they were stereotyped as dangerous.
People were afraid of them. In the United States today, Muslims are also being stereotyped. Political candidates are not just stereotyping Muslims, but demonizing all Muslims, and somehow this is being tolerated.
The children who wrote the letters I read in the video had hope that their country and the world would learn from its mistakes and they would eventually live in a world without discrimination. Yet today, there is still so much discrimination because of race, gender, age, religion, and other aspects of who we are. It is pathetic -- we can’t control what age we are, what gender we are, or what race we are, so why does it matter to others how we look or believe? So what if you’re Muslim or if you’re from Japan or a woman?
Being a good person with good morals who does not harm others is what matters. This video shows that history could repeat itself. The same thing that happened to the Japanese in America might happen to Muslims. But, if we work together to conquer discrimination, America might just live up to the ideals that we pledge daily.
The best thing about this film was that I met people who were challenging the discrimination and the stereotypical narrative that has become part of our everyday life. I see little pins or t-shirts stating “Change the World” everywhere. I thought as a child I couldn’t do much, but turns out I could do at least a little bit. I could play a part in making people think about what is going on in the world today, what could happen, and what actually did happen not so long ago. I also learned that there are plenty of Americans who do honor our nation’s founding principles and I am proud to be among them. We have power in numbers, so together we can actually reverse this tide of ignorance, hate and fear. Let’s learn from the past and improve our future.
Zara Ahsan is a sixth-grade student from San Carlos, California. She enjoys music, writing, acting and sports. Zara has been passionate about equality and justice ever since she read Malala Yousafzai’s 2013 address to the United Nations.