Adam Saleh, Sheikh Akbar and Abdullah Ghuman are three Brooklyn, New York-born best friends who run a vlog on YouTube called TrueStoryASA. Watch any one of their weekly videos, which averages 20,000 to 25,000 views, and you'll find yourself immersed in the random adventures of boyhood: riding shopping carts in the Staten Island Mall parking lot, slap fights that end when the first guy gives in, a bevy of pranks on the unsuspecting and unrelenting ribbing of each other. In other words, the boys are chronicling a day in the life of the average American teen.
And that's the point: Adam, Sheikh and Abdullah are your average American teens. But they, like many Muslim-Americans in a post 9/11 world, have been made to increasingly feel like they're on the outside. Unwilling to accept such alienation, and firmly believing in the intrinsic goodness of people, the trio set out on a simple proposition: they wanted their fellow Americans to "Meet a Muslim Person" (watch video below).
"We were filming a prank video and a guy approached us and asked us where we're from," Saleh tells Samaritanmag. The 19-year-old has a Yemeni background while Akbar's family is from Bangladesh. "We said we're Muslims and he told us that we're the first Muslim people that he's ever met. [The idea] clicked in our head. We decided we should go around and show who we are."
The trio created a sign that read "Meet a Muslim Person" and headed to Union Square Park to film their interactions. The video, which has over 660,000 views on YouTube since its April 24 release, is overwhelmingly positive: people from all ages and ethnicities approached the guys, asking to take their picture, exchanging As-salamu alaykum -- a traditional Muslim greeting that means "peace be upon you" -- or simply shaking their hands.
"We learned that there are a lot of people who didn't know a lot about Islam," says Saleh, who studies Criminal Justice and plans to become a lawyer; an ambition shared by Akbar. Ghuman is in pre-med at New York University. "They would only look at what's in the media; they wouldn't look at how Muslims really are outside of the TV screen. We wanted to show the real sides of Muslims."
Akbar recalls an incident in high school that occurred when the class was assigned to write about world topics. He didn't know what issue to explore but his classmates decided for him: they mockingly suggested that he write about terrorism. Saleh mentions a friend he had in junior high who assumed he was Hispanic. When the friend realized Saleh was Muslim, he ended the friendship.
Even the "Meet a Muslim Person" project wasn't immune to displays of prejudice. Toward the end of the video, a passerby comments that he killed Muslims while in the army, so he certainly didn't need to meet them.
"I couldn't believe what I heard because he was really proud that he killed Muslims in the army," recalls SaIeh. "I went up to him to see if he was going to say it in front of the camera. I didn't want to go up to him and start a fight. He ended up cursing me and calling me the 'F-word.' I called him a 'racist prick' which I know I should have never called him, but he said, 'Yeah, that's right,' so I guess he was agreeing."
Despite the challenges that have faced the three Muslim teens, one is struck by the unflagging optimism they display in their vlogs. Alongside the goofing around, there are moments of poignancy that serve as reminders of our common humanity.
Last week, the group posted a video on TrueStoryASA called "Make the Homeless Smile," which already has more than 370,000 views. They walked the city streets gifting fresh fruit, bottled water, money and used clothing to the homeless. The group's intention was to simply "make the less fortunate happy and smile" but they also wanted to call attention to our tendency to treat the homeless as an invisible population. Scene after scene features mutual hugs, handshakes and smiles as some of the recipients seemed genuinely grateful to not only receive aid but recognition.
Adam Saleh hugs a Make the Homeless Smile recipient.
The trio has plans for a follow-up to "Meet a Muslim Person." Recognizing the tension between Islamic and Jewish communities, they'd like to visit a predominantly Jewish, New York neighborhood and chronicle their interactions.
However the outcome, Akbar is confident in the trio's mission: "We've noticed that our videos can change point of views in many people's minds."
* Samaritanmag.com is an online magazine covering the good deeds of individuals, charities and businesses.