Debra Ellis and Peter Klotz-Chamberlin: We Must Celebrate Our Neighbors, Understand Their Loss

By Debra Ellis and Peter Klotz-Chamberlin, Special to the Sentinel

Big Winter Waves. Photo by KEN DURET
Big Winter Waves. Photo by KEN DURET

Ahmad Solaiman Nourzaie and Shireen Agha Ahsan were lost to our community last week, taken by the ocean near Bonny Doon Beach. They were celebrated in a remembrance event on the UCSC campus crowded with family, friends and members of their tight-knit campus community.

Solaiman Nourzaie’s family shared his appreciation for music, pranks, freedom, and friendship, and how he interrupted these to pray 5 times a day.

Shireen Ahsan was a compassionate leader of the Muslim Student Association and an Academic Assistant at UCSC.

One man described a Muslim image of humanity being like the body. Injury to one finger hurts the whole body. Death of one person hurts the whole body of humanity.

The loss of Shireen and Solaiman in the Pacific Ocean is not only a loss for their families, friends and the community, but also a loss echoed throughout Santa Cruz and Santa Clara Counties.

Each was a bright, talented, lively person, who lived in joy and service, eager to give so much more to make our society better.

And a loss because families and friends could not conduct a remembrance event without some expression of the reality every one of the 300 Muslim Americans in the room experience — daily injuries that come from Islamophobia.

Stereotypes, hurtful words, invasive questions and looks Muslim Americans encounter, including the young men and women who spoke, second and third generation Americans.

This damages more than Muslim Americans. Our whole society suffers from misdirected fears, suspicions and refusals to recognize Muslim Americans as our fellow brothers and sisters. Stereotyping Muslim neighbors diminishes who they are and diminishes who we are. The stories of family love and friendship, road trips, school, love of nature, and the emotions expressed by 300 Muslim Americans give meaning to the lives of Solaiman and Shireen. They give meaning to our community.

At the memorial we heard the lament we have heard many times, that mainstream media hurts Muslim Americans in the ways it broadcasts association of Muslims with terrorism.

In this climate, a piece carried by San Jose Mercury News and Santa Cruz Sentinel added hurt to those mourning Solaiman Nourzaie and Shireen Ahsan’s deaths.

“Don’t blame the searchers for the Bonny Doon tragedy” was the front-page headline. The article then blamed the grieving families for one cousin’s letter criticizing a “lukewarm response” by the Coast Guard searching for the lost students.

Shireen’s sister Sabeen Agha Ahsan, told us “We were aware of weather conditions and the likelihood of a rescue. After the fact we learned that the coast guard continued the search for nearly three times the usual length, utilizing a considerable number of resources for which the family are extremely appreciative.”

The Mercury News columnist did not interview other family members and did not mention that the families met with Coast Guard Captain Stump after the criticism was expressed, where feelings of frustration, grief, and empathy were shared. In a follow up conversation with Debra Ellis, Captain Stump acknowledged understanding this natural reaction following the loss of a loved one.

No family, having just suffered the loss of their child, should suffer further by an ill-conceived public opinion piece criticizing the family. Is there ever a search for lost persons when family does not ask for the search to continue until the persons are found alive or deceased?

The more meaningful story is told in remembrance of Shireen and Solaiman. At this moment our abiding experiences of these young people are the overflowing gifts of prayer, stories and celebration our neighbors contributed from their pain during the event at UCSC’s Namaste Lounge —the reverence for life.

About the Authors
Debra Ellis is Co-founder of The Islah Reparations Project and volunteers with RCNV. Peter Klotz-Chamberlin is a staff member of the Resource Center for Nonviolence.

This article was first published by Santa Cruz Sentinel.