Forging one's identify as a young Muslim in the UK is exciting, but also full of anxiety, frustration, misunderstandings and difficulty, according to teenagers and young adults attending a Project Mosaic event in March 2014.
About 30 people met at a private home in London to take part in a "roundtable discussion" on the subject of "Islam and Uncle Sam: A Muslim Youth Encounter".
The event was aimed at providing a safe forum for discussing important but sometimes uncomfortable subjects, including race, ethnicity, immigration, integration, prejudice and extremism. It was also meant to serve as a kind of practice session in preparation for a meeting of young Muslims planned to be held later in the year with American diplomats at the U.S. Embassy in London.
Teenagers at the gathering in March voiced unhappiness about some U.S. policies and actions, including the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, other U.S. military interventions and the continuing existence of the detention centre at Guantanamo.
"I feel like everyone hates Muslims. Like everything in the media about Muslims is negative," said one teenage girl. Others voiced frustration about feeling socially isolated and on the receiving end of negative stereotypes.
A minority of attendees were older than 30, including two Arab women journalists. The journalists challenged the teenagers' view that life in the UK was hard. They urged the young people to broaden their awareness and to celebrate the many civil freedoms that existed in the UK and other Western countries, and that were notably absent in their ancestral homelands.
"Would any of us want to go back and live in any of those countries? We are much more free living here," said one Arab woman.
Participants at the roundtable discussion traced family ties back to Afghanistan, Bangladesh, the Canary Islands, China, Germany, Hungary, India, Ireland, Italy, Kenya, Libya, Malawi, Morocco, Mozambique, Nepal, Palestine, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Spain, the United Kingdom, the United States, Uzbekistan and Yemen.
The discussion got heated at one point -- on the subject of "hijab", female Muslim clothing that, depending on the country or region, ranges from covering the hair to "niqab", where all but a woman's eyes is concealed, to the "burkha" in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where the entire head and body are shrouded and a woman sees the world through a heavy cloth netting.
Some of the Muslim teenage girls and women at the gathering wore headscarves, while others did not. A couple of girls in hijab spoke angrily about their feeling of being negatively judged by strangers on the street. But one statuesque young woman who wore a traditional flowing head-to-toe robe from her parents' country of birth, Somalia, said she had made enriching connections with non-Muslim Britons in London after she began to smile more in public and to make eye contact. She said she had been delighted when shoppers in a department store in which she worked approached and asked about her clothing, faith and culture.
"I've been surprised at how shy some of these Englishwomen are, asking me things like 'Can I touch your robe? Do you mind if I ask you -- what does it all mean?" she said, with a laugh.
Several teenagers said the roundtable discussion marked the first time they had ever taken part in a conversation about identify, prejudice and ways to move beyond stereotypes.
"These are not things we've been taught to talk about," one teenager said. "It feels good. Like a relief."