Violence and hate: The life of a Muslim in Memphis

Shehraz Kazmi talking to a friend while downtown. He is one of many Muslims that live in Memphis.

People were snickering and laughing as they drove by Yasmin Toutio’s family.

No one stopped to help the Toutio family clean the shattered glass and other debris that littered their front yard in Raleigh after their home was terrorized the night before.

This is what Yasmin, a Muslim, has grown to expect living in Memphis.

In a post 9/11 world Muslims everywhere have been stereotyped and some have been harassed. Numerous stories of Muslims on airplanes have made headlines as people became fearful of their presence. The same is true in Memphis, although it is mostly unreported; Muslims face the same problems here that they face everywhere else.

Shehraz Kazmi talking to a friend while downtown. He is one of many Muslims that live in Memphis.

Shehraz Kazmi talking to a friend while downtown. He is one of many Muslims that live in Memphis.

“While we were cleaning up our yard I would recognize some of the people that were driving by laughing at us,” she said. “They were people that I went to school with.”

Yasmin Toutio was not born in the United States. In fact, most of her life has been spent living in Lebanon, her home country. At 21, she has had to learn to live with more hate and violence than some experience in their lifetime

“When my brother was in school, kids attacked him,” Toutio said. “They beat him and shattered his ribs and sent him to the hospital.”

When the Toutio family tried to take action against their son’s attackers, the police said that “it was just kids rough housing and that we couldn’t prove which one did it” even though their son had pointed out his attackers.

“It got to the point that our neighbors would keep reporting us and calling the police. At first, they thought that we were renting the house so they would do whatever they could to get us kicked out. Instead of directly attacking us, our neighbors have reported us for making bombs in our garage and for like preaching terrorism because we always have Muslim clients coming over.” — Yasmin Toutio

Yasmin said the aggression directed at her and her family is not always physical. During the fall months around 9/11, the attacks become more passively hostile.

“It got to the point that our neighbors would keep reporting us and calling the police,” she said. “At first, they thought that we were renting the house so they would do whatever they could to get us kicked out. Instead of directly attacking us, our neighbors have reported us for making bombs in our garage and for like preaching terrorism because we always have Muslim clients coming over.”

According to her, the neighbors in their current neighborhood in Bartlett will not make eye contact with them nor let their children play around their house.

The clients that she is speaking of are the people that she and her mother translate for on a regular basis.

The type of violence and hate the Toutio has experience is not all that uncommon according to Shehraz Kazmi, who like Yasmin is also 21 and not from the United States. He moved here at the age of seven from a rural area in Pakistan.

“For me I’d say that I have a different situation than most others,” Kazmi said. “I’m very good at socializing and getting on people’s good side, and that helps me make a good impression and have people say, ‘hey I know that guy, he is pretty cool.’”

Kazmi said that communication is key. If you can communicate with the people around you in a way that they understand then they are more likely to accept you.

“I would say that it would be more difficult for one of the males that are shy or are fresh off the boat and can’t speak English well,” he said. “If your first impression is one of those negative stereotypes then it is going to be difficult for someone like that.”

Even for someone like Kazmi who speaks English well, he said that there were physical attacks when he was in middle school perpetrated by his classmates. However, those started to subside when he began being able to win fights.

“After middle school and into high school, the attacks started to become more verbal,” he said.

These verbal attacks do not always have to be by strangers or even malicious, sometimes they are by friends in the way of jokes.

“The other day my friend was joking and said ‘why don’t we just not allow Muslims to get healthcare?’,” he said. “I told him, ‘woah, that’s not cool’ and he knows not to ever make that joke again now.”

The violence and verbal abuse does have an impact on how Memphis Muslims live their lives and even worship.

“My family personally does not go to Mosques because of the types of violence that we have been shown,” said Toutio. “We used to go to Mosques here but when we were returning, we would be attacked by the people in the surrounding areas so when we worship we do it in the sanctity of our own home.”

Unfortunately, the constant threat of violence and the acts of aggression are just shrugged off by the city of Memphis and the Memphis Police Department resulting in the Toutio family fending for themselves.

“I do believe that its because we are Muslim,” said Toutio regarding why the city will not do anything. “They just tell us that there is nothing we can do and to take care of it ourselves.”

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About the Author

Austin Kemker

Austin Kemker is a senior journalism student at the University of Memphis. While at the University of Memphis he has covered subjects ranging from construction on or around campus, sports and neighborhood development in the greater Memphis area.
As a Memphis native, he has strong ties to the city and has dedicated his free time to helping improve the area through numerous nonprofit organizations.

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