The last thing Reem Esseghir needed was another essay to do.
The then-freshman from Lawrence, attending Noor-Ul-Iman School in South Brunswick, was already balancing graded writing assignments with other school subject homework when her father, Mohamed, pitched an essay contest to her. It was the Abdelkader Education Project, an annual scholarship award contest for high school students.
Submitted essays pertained to the project’s namesake, Emir Abdelkader, and his work as a religious and military leader in 19th-century Algeria. His work, from defending his homeland in the French colonial invasion to humanitarian efforts, drew admiration from across the world. Esseghir’s essay about Abdelkader won the $1,000 first prize award for U.S. high school students this year. She also went to Iowa to present her essay at the annual project forum.
Abdelkader was well documented for his scholarly knowledge, his tactical expertise against one of the strongest militaries in the world at the time, his impressive oratory skills and his compassion—whether the recipient was a neighbor or a French prisoner of war.
Abraham Lincoln was a noted admirer, and the Iowa town of Elkader was named by white settlers for the Islamic leader in 1846. The namesake organization that hosts the essay contest is established in the same town.
Save for her father’s history lesson when visiting the Emir Abdelkader Mosque in Constantine, Esseghir—whose family is of Algerian descent—had little knowledge with which to write an essay on the leader. But then she researched.
“A lot of people, when it comes to historical figures, they think of one person—like a leader, a scholar, or a warrior,” Esseghir said. “But Abdelkader was really all of those things.”
As exciting as the honor was for Esseghir and her family at the time, the teenage Islamic girl had apprehensions traveling to Iowa. She had written the essay in the midst of the 2016 presidential election, Reem said, and she had anxiety for how she would be received in in a midwestern town.
“There are certain stereotypes of people in the Midwest, but I was shocked when I went and met these people,” Esseghir said. “If I hadn’t written this essay, if I hadn’t gone to the conference, I wouldn’t have seen that.”
Esseghir encountered strangers and organizations that practiced the same open-mindedness and desire to learn as Abdelkader.
One such person, a cultural center leader in Nashville, Tennessee, introduced Esseghir to a program that organizes get-togethers between people and their Muslim neighbors. At 15, Esseghir is now interested in leading an expansion of the program into New Jersey.
Mohamed has watched his daughter grow from a student to an active participant in cultural relations—at a time and in a place of notable adversity for people of Islamic faith.
“She grew up in this country, she was born here,” Mohamed said. “She knows what Muslims are facing.”
Mohamed noted that some people may want to believe that Islam is foreign to the U.S. Simply by participating in the essay contest, Esseghir learned that was far from true. Though her essay has not been publicized because of plagiarism concerns, Esseghir said a major point she noted in her essay was Abdelkader’s global influence in an era devoid of social media or modern news.
“This was a person that was such a global leader, with values that were global,” Mohamed said.
Learning of Abdelkader’s societal impact was so significant to Esseghir that she wondered why she had not learned about him in history class before. She noted his rescue and sheltering of Christians in his own home, during the 1860 Civil War in Syria. At the time, about 20,000 Christians were killed by followers of the Druze faith.
‘Islamic values have always been a part of American values.’
While some of the country’s most famous leaders are sometimes forgotten to have once owned, bought and sold slaves, Abdelbaker’s tolerance is not even shared. While Esseghir acknowledged the due recognition of Civil Rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, she wished more Islamic leaders were common in history class.
“If I was to pull out my history textbook right now, I would find pages and pages and pages on Andrew Jackson and George Washington,” Esseghir said. “Why aren’t people like Malcolm X part of our curriculum, but so many slave owners are?”
Such topics would be better served in high school history classes, Esseghir said, because not all college students will take a history subject advanced enough to cover people such as Abdelbaker.
Esseghir still has another three years of high school remaining, but has an interest in studying medicine or biology in college. At the same time, she would love to continue working with some of the organizations she had met through her project.
It’s been as good of an education that Mohamed could have hoped for his daughter. Within writing the essay, she’s found new appreciation in a cultural leader and avenues to practice the same values he preached.
“I think she would tell you she’s trying to engage more,” Mohamed said. “She’s young, of course, to learn. But I think that’s what she wants to do: learn how to make these relationships better.”
But as Esseghir noted in her scholarship acceptance speech, the relationships between cultures is already an inherent part of American values.
“Islamic values have always been a part of American values, and Emir Abdelkader, a Muslim leader, influenced these values of justice, equality, and freedom in America,” Esseghir wrote. “These values have never changed in this country, which is why they should be extended to all who live here, including the minority.”
Mohamed echoed that sentiment, saying the few bad seeds of a community should not “drive the behavior or the discourse of the relationships.”
“We should resist that, and stand up for what we believe is correct,” Mohamed said. “That’s what Abdelkader stood for. Whether for him or against him, it didn’t matter. He was standing for justice.”
Understanding that shaped a major point in Esseghir’s essay, Mohamed said. Reading about Abdelkader gave both the father and daughter a glimpse “of how a leader stands up even against people who are counted to be his people, to defend those who are weak.”
A leader that exercises justice and humanity understands the values of both. By learning about Abdelbaker, Esseghir hopes to lead with his example.
“Not just by winning an essay contest about him,” Esseghir concluded her speech, “but by changing the way others view Muslims and the way others view minorities like me.”