In March, I interviewed Ziad Ahmed, a 16-year-old Muslim American living in New Jersey, about the organization he founded, Redefy. Ziad's group was committed to combatting prejudice and stereotypes on and offline. He personally persevered through bias, stereotypes, and even being placed on the TSA's watch list as a child because he happened to share a name with someone who was actually on the list. Ziad's activism caught the attention of the White House, and on Monday (June 22), he sat down for dinner with the President of the United States.
I just had to catch up with Ziad to talk about his experience at the Iftar dinner (the meal eaten after sunset during the month of Ramadan). This is his story:
I came home [on March 2], and I got an email from the White House, and I was like, ‘Is this for real?’ And they were like, ‘We called you, but you didn’t get back to us.’ And I was like ‘Oh, sh-t, I missed a call from the White House.’ I immediately called back and Rumana [Advisor to the Deputy National Security Advisor] and I talked for a while -- she’s a Bangladeshi-American Muslim, and she was really excited about me and the work I was doing and really wanted me to get involved in the White House.
In the past year, as a staffer at the White House, she’s really tried to foster American Muslim leaders and elevate those voices. She was trying to highlight young American Muslim leaders at the Iftar this year, and that was something that was on the agenda of the White House. And so we kind of kept in touch.
[Three months later], when I was at the airport leaving for a service trip to Morocco, I had just found out that I didn’t get an internship I applied for with Do Something. I was really bummed out about it. So I check my email before I get on the plane and, sure enough, there’s an email from the White House inviting me to the White House Iftar. This is June 9. And the MTV News article was published in March, and Rumana and I had kept in touch since then so I knew that this was on the table, but part of me thought she’d forget about it, that she was just being kind and trying to be nice to another Bangladeshi-American.
I was freaking out like, 'I got invited to the White House!'
When I first got the invite, I wasn't with my parents -- I was on the service trip to Morocco. So the first thing I did was tell my sister and my best friend, who went with me, ‘Holy sh-t, this just happened.’ I felt so blessed and thankful and honored that I was invited to the White House and then I checked the date and it was June 22nd and I was supposed to be in Morocco until June 24th.
So I was like, 'What do I do? I have to go. I called my mom and I was like, ‘How do I get home for this?’ And I was on a Rustic Pathways program for Morocco so I called the travel adviser and they were like, ‘We’re going to make this happen for you.’
And they did. I went to Morocco and was like, 'Okay, Insha’Allah, Insha’Allah' -- which means God willing, it’s all gonna work out. It’s such an amazing opportunity and I’m so thankful for everyone supporting me and this is such an amazing opportunity for more people to hear about [Redefy] and just promoting acceptance and equality and I was just so incredibly floored that I had this amazing opportunity.
At that point, I thought I’d just be sitting at a random table at the dinner, that I was just invited, right? So I go back to the hotel in Morocco and I have to email the White House back with all the information. It’s like really legit -- you have to send all this information about you so they can do thorough background checks, et cetera. I did that from the hotel in Morocco, re-reading the email like 700 times so that I got everything right. I ordered a suit online from J. Crew from Marrakech to come to my house [in New Jersey] because I didn’t have a suit that was acceptable.
'The whole thing was just so surreal.'
Here I am in Morocco and I’m going to the White House Iftar. It didn’t even really set in, like, I didn’t even know I’d meet the president. I just thought I would meet a lot of high-profile people and be really amazed and just be so thankful. And what’s most important to me is just getting the word out, talking about the things that are most important to me and furthering my advocacy of justice equality and acceptance. I was just so thankful I had that opportunity you know?
In the days before I was set to leave for the D.C., I was in a village in Morocco for eight days and I didn’t have any signal or any Wi-Fi whatsoever. I was doing service there, teaching English and doing construction with Atlas Cultural Foundation, which was just a really beautiful and amazing experience.
I’m really grateful that I had that experience. Then I come back to Marrakech and I check my email and I check my texts and my mom is freaking out because a speechwriter from the White House -- I told my mom to monitor the Redefy email while I was away -- and a speechwriter had contacted Redefy. Every year in the speech they highlight an American Muslim and they wanted to highlight me!
And I was just like, 'Oh my god, this is amazing. God is good, God is good.' Basically, my mom talked to the speechwriter while I was away and when I got back to Marrakech, I spoke to one of the speechwriters for like an hour for the [president's] speech. I don’t think my mind wrapped around the fact that the president of the United States of America not only knew who I was, but was going to speak about me to the nation.
'It still really hasn’t set in that the president of the United States of America knows who I am.'
You can read the speech online, but basically he was like, We have some amazing American young leaders today, and he talked about me first: ‘Ziad Ahmed, 16, one of our youngest attendees, who started an organization, Redefy, to do this and he’s just an amazing example of emerging American Muslim young leaders doing work.' And he spoke about Redefy and he knew about it and looked at me while he spoke about it and it was so surreal and I was three feet away from him.
And I thought, 'This is incredible. So many people are going to hear about Redefy and hear about the work that I’m doing and the needs for social [activism] amongst teens and amongst high school students, the need for voices against injustice and for equality.'
It still really hasn’t set in. Like the fact that I met and spoke to the President of the United States still really hasn’t sunk in. It’s, like, the most incredible thing. I left Casablanca at like 1 a.m. on Sunday (June 21) and I flew through Frankfurt and when I got to Frankfurt, I checked my email and I had gotten an email from Rumana that said that I’d been selected to sit at the President’s table and that I was invited to a briefing meeting at 6 p.m. in the Eisenhower executive office building prior to the event.
Never in a million years could I have dreamt I would be sitting at the table with the President of the United States and have the opportunity to talk to him about the issues that are most important to me. And I saw the list of the names of the other people at the table, and I was like, 'These are such amazing people. They are completely shattering the image of the American Muslim, which is a beautiful and amazing thing. I just texted my mom and dad from the President's table at the White House. My mind is like, 'What? This is my life.'
'Sure enough, Customs checks my bag because I’m coming from Morocco and I have a Muslim name.'
I get home at 1:45 p.m. on Sunday and my Uncle picks me up from the airport. Sure enough, customs has to check my bag because I’m coming from Morocco and I have a Muslim name. And I’m thinking in my head, 'If only the President knew.'
All of Monday I got ready. I got a haircut, made sure my clothes were in order. My pants had to be hemmed and everything and all of my clothes had to be ironed. And we got there three hours too early because, we’re always late to everything. So we left at 3 o’clock to get there at 6 and we ended up getting there at 3:30, so we roamed around in our fancy clothes. My mom wasn’t invited, but a few days before, Rumana asked if my mom would want to go.
'I’m just this 16-year-old trying to do some good for the world.'
I met Rumana for the first time and she’s so lovely and so brilliant and is so articulate and does such important work. I met Kadra Muhammad, who is a Somali police officer from Minnesota -- the first Hijabi police officer. And then I met Munira Khalif, who is a Hijabi and got into all eight Ivies and started an organization so that girls in Africa can get access to equal education and then I met Samantha Elauf, the Hijabi who won the Supreme Court Case against Abercrombie and Fitch for discrimination. And me and her really hit it off and I really hit it off with Munira and we started following each other on social media and taking selfies.
These people are low-key famous, like who am I? I’m just this 16-year-old trying to do some good for the world, for my people. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I was fasting -- a 17-, 18-hour fast [for Ramadan] -- so I was exhausted and my adrenaline was rushing. We sit down at the table and more people start filtering in. There was Riham Osman who does [communications for Muslim Public Affairs Council].
Then there was Wai Wai Nu who’s an activist who was jailed in Myanmar who’s Muslim. And I was like, 'Jeez, this woman is an activist who went to jail for her activism -- this is incredible.' And there were many more. These people make me proud to be American Muslim and to meet them and sit next to them and be surrounded by them at this conference at the Eisenhower Executive building with Rumana briefing us ...
'I have selfies in front of the White House.'
After that we got walked from the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to the East Wing, where the White House front door was. We got to walk right next to the White House-- no one walks next to the front door of the White House. I have selfies in front of the White House. I’m not even sure it’s allowed, but I have one anyway.
I walked into the area where the event was and we walked through the place and looked at all the pictures of the first ladies and the Presidents and I took selfies of all my favorites, like Jimmy Carter and Eleanor Roosevelt, et cetera. As I’m walking through the hallways, I’m snagging these pics of my favorite politicians and I’m just walking through the White House.
We got our cards and went upstairs and we had to mingle. I met some congressmen like Congressman Keith Ellison, the first Muslim congressman. We broke our fast and prayed and I went to go sit down at the table. You see a little placard with where you’re sitting and you see the president’s placard at your table. We sit down for a while, we start eating our first course.
They’re like, 'The president of the United States is walking in.' The president just walks in. We’re sitting there like, 'That is not real. That’s the president of the United States of America.' So he just walks in and he gives his speech -- he’s like two feet away. Here he is, the most articulate, intelligent man, speaking about the American Muslim community in America.
And then he starts speaking about me and I’m just like, 'Wow. Like, wow.' In that moment, like, my life was made. That’s the highlight of my existence. Everything that I’ve done -- I spend like two hours a day on my work or more, two hours a day and schoolwork; on the weekend I spend like 10 hours sometimes in one day. Everything that I’ve done, every criticism that I’ve faced was worth it. Every bit of discrimination that I’ve faced was worth it.
To be commended by the president of the United States of America in front of all these people was such an amazing, surreal experience. After the speech was over, he comes around and shakes all of our hands and says 'thank you for your work.' I was like, 'It’s such an honor to meet you, Mr. President.' And he was like, 'Keep doing what you’re doing, man.' And then he pats me on the back and he sits down and he just talks. It was just ... he was at our table just sitting with us, eating with us.
President Obama asked me, 'Do you think that teenagers, young people are becoming increasingly less religious, and if so, why?'
It was just sort of a conversation-starter question. And I responded from a high-school perspective, and sort of a discrimination-, like the work that I’m doing perspective. I was able to speak to the President about the issues that matter most to me. Like, our leader asked me how do we inspire young people to be motivated by causes and engage in work which is meaningful, which shatters and dismembers the hateful stereotypes, which are the reasons for, like, the Charleston shootings and the Chapel Hill shootings and all the hate crimes that happen.
I really got to speak with him and get to know him. He was like, 'If you just keep doing what you’re doing, by the time you’re 26, I’m confident that you will have swept the nation.'
He was funny and nice and relatable. I think that sometimes we get turned off by politics -- it’s so corrupt and we have no idea what to think. But really, this man is such an amazing man. And I don’t really identify as a Democrat, but he was just so kind and when you hear a speech of his -- that’s how he talks in real life.
I’m so thankful that he has advocated for the Muslim American minority, made me feel like the government does care about me. We talked about ... counterterrorism and Palestine and Israel. And we talked about education; girls' education. It was just the most enlightening and intellectual and informative conversation I could ever be part of. It reminded me of what I'd said before: Teens don’t realize we need to be in this conversation, injustice is our fight too.
'I jokingly asked of Malia and Sasha might want to join my organization.'
I cheekily asked him at the end if his daughters would want to be a part of Redefy and handed him my card. He took it. And he was like, 'I’ll make sure to ask them.' Obviously, he’ll probably forget.
Obviously, I don’t agree with him on everything, I don’t agree with any politician on everything. But never in my life will I be as proud to be an American as I was on that night at that table talking to the president of the United States of America with so many amazing Americans, so many amazing American Muslims around me.
Now I’m just so motivated and optimistic about Redefy and about the work that I’m doing, my future. Oftentimes I’m scared of saying something too controversial or that teens won’t want to hear but I want teens to be included in these conversations. I want to really inspire. I think that if nothing else the fact that I’ve met the president will inspire teens, because if they see that they can be inspired in the conversation and so much so that the president wants to hear from them, you know?
We can be effective in our activism. Our age does not limit our activism. So many teens today are just about individualism and being themselves and being happy, but we can be ourselves while still doing something that’s meaningful.