Tag Archives: school

Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

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Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali

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I enjoyed this book a lot. I had a bag of halal gummy bears, a rainstorm raging outside, and an excuse to snuggle in bed with a book, and I couldn’t put it down, even when I ran out of gummy bears.  I think mature 16 year olds and up could read it, and probably should, it is an important book, but I don’t know that I could recommend it to a young adult Muslim. Maybe, but probably college and up.  Not because high school students don’t read a lot about heavy stuff in English class. I mean Scarlet Letter, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or anything by Toni Morrison or Shakespeare are heavy, but they are removed from most Muslim teens.  They are old books, or about people from a different time and place. This book is real, and relevant, and relatable, and in 325 pages you feel connected to the characters as if you know them, or knew them, or more importantly for me, a 36-year-old Muslim American born and raised in America, as if they knew me.

SYNOPSIS:

Jannah Yusuf is 15 and in the opening chapter, less than 5 pages, she has to defend her choice to wear a burkini to her father, who assumes his ex-wife, her mom, has forced it upon her.  In the second chapter, we see that she has gone to visit her father to get away from a monster, her friend’s hafiz cousin Farooq, who attempted to rape her.  From there Jannah pursues a relationship with her crush, Jeremy, with the help of her best friend at school, Tats.  This pursuit involves intentionally having Jeremy see her without her hijab in gym class, and sneaking off to meet him.  Throw in the fact that he too is friends with the monster, Farooq, and the tension, anxiety, guilt, and shame that Jannah feels about her suddenly drama filled life is palpable.  Feeling increasingly isolated from her very amazing friends and family, she finds strength and support from a group of kids she is on an Islamic Quiz competition team with and an elderly Hindu man she helps once a week.  Eventually finding her voice, and reclaiming her strength to face her attacker is like a caterpillar coming out of her cocoon and you hope she soars and flourishes in reaching new heights and happiness.  The message of standing up against such acts and standing by those victimized by sexual predators helps puts the blame and shame where it should be, on the attacker, not the victim.

WHY I LIKE IT:

I like that it shows everyone in shades of gray. No one is good or bad or right or wrong, everyone is somewhere in the middle.  Even the most religious can be scum, and friends can both surprise you for good or for heartache.  At one place, Jannah considers telling her non-Muslim friend Tats about what is going on. “Almost.  The 60 percent reason that I hold back has to do with something I’m 100 percent sure of: I can’t handle people thinking I come from a messed up community.  I’d rather close the hamper lid on that one.” I think this is kind of where we are right now in real life and in literature. We want to be seen as complex characters, we aren’t a monolith, but we don’t want to celebrate our failures either.  This book does this really well, most of the time.  There is a girl who has memorized the Quran and wears niqab (a face veil) and has a vlog of stirring up stereotypes.  She helps Jannah get her revenge, and it doesn’t work, but at the same time she is never really nice.  Her friend Fizz, Farooq’s cousin, seems almost like family, but when told what has occurred, doesn’t believe her lifelong friend, and becomes rather disappointing and shallow.  Some of the friends, seem pretty stereotypical for the genre, the great non muslim side kick that supports and celebrates the protagonist, the endearing, yet annoying brother, the friend turned romantic interest when the dust settles, the Asian girl good at math, and the elderly neighbor who is wise, etc.. Yet, somehow I really wanted to know what happened to all of them.  I understand that for literary reason’s the book ended where it did, and there isn’t an epilogue, but from a reader point of view, I would like to know if Jannah’s brother got married, if her mom did, what course of action Jannah took against her assailant, what happened between her and Fizz, and if Jeremey and her became friends.

I think it is important to note, that Jeremy was awesome, like really a great respectful guy who knows about Islam and even that the hotdogs should be halal.  Jannah is figuring out who she is, and what direction to go in, which reinforces the female empowerment, but I think his attitude also deserves some credit in not taking her story and control away from her. The story doesn’t wrap up in a nice and tidy way, but I’d like to think they remain friends.  The reason the book gives that they can’t be more than that, is that he isn’t Muslim. It is echoed throughout that if he were Muslim, it would somehow magically be ok.  So, when at the end she realizes her feelings for the funny supportive friend Nuh, everyone seems ok with it.  Well, I’m not, yes I get that in real life people date and marry on their own and often people of different faith backgrounds. But, she is a Sophomore, who obviously isn’t looking to get married. She prays and covers, and seems to be an active and intentional Muslim. So, again, I get that it is more the norm than not, in the real world, but this is where I feel nervous about suggesting a teen to read it.  Muslims still are not regularly represented in print, and when you see an active and engaged Muslim doing so much, I feel like that does subconsciously form a connection to a reader and the line between right and wrong is blurred as a result.  Yes, I realize this contradicts the whole, we are not a singular entity, but I don’t know that many Muslim parents would encourage dating to their high school daughters as long as the boy is Muslim, despite it happening often.  I think we still want to see good idealistic messages from fictional Muslim characters in books that we suggest our children read.  And while we would want them to be inspired by Jannah’s strength to speak out against the crime commited against her, we may not want to give the message that we would also want them to be doing some of the other things she does.  Yes she is fictional, yes, most YA novels don’t have a moral theme, but like Jannah, I still want to keep the hamper lid on it all, even though I know that isn’t realistic.

There are a few plot inconsistancies, like how Jannah’s dad cuts the funding for her brother’s education, but when they are in Chicago visiting, their doesn’t seem to be any tension.  Saint Sarah’s background and motivation for change seemed a little choppy to me and the mom could have been fleshed out a bit more.  Overall though, even the visitors to the Mosque’s Open House ring relatable and comically true.  You can tell the author knows what she is writing about because it is familiar and funny, yet not judgemental.  I love that her characters are flawed and that it doesn’t define them wholey.  I love the way the author sneaks bits of practical Islam into the website updates Jannah does for her uncle and I love how the friends at school don’t read like an after school special.  Some attempts at getting people to change work, and others don’t, furthering the relatabilty of the book and keeping the preachiness at bay.

The book would work for Muslims and non Muslims and is a good entertaining read. There isn’t a religious or moral agenda that the author is trying to convince the reader of, but rather it is about reclaiming your voice when someone has tried to take it.  A message that never gets old.

FLAGS:

There is profanity, sexual assault, boy girl relationships, lying, mention of drugs and alcolhol, and bullying.  Its got it all.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I wouldn’t do it as a book club read, not a youth one any way, adult one possibly.  But if a teen read it and wanted to discuss it, I would jump at the opportunity.  I think the book speaks pretty well for itself, but I’d love to speak to a teen to know it through their eyes.  To see what they found believable or far fetched, what they could relate to, how they process the crime and the recourse, what they would have done in a similar situation, what kind of friend they would have been, and ultimately what stereotypes the book forced them to confront.

I read something the other day that the way Muslims judge other Muslims on hijab is so inconsistent with our thoughts on praying or fasting or any other act of worship. If someone messes up we encourage them to try again, or ask for forgiveness or say it is none of our business and we will pray for them, but why with hijab do we feel justified in criticizing if they “try it out” or change their mind? For me, this book really drove the point home.  She is 15 and she lets a boy see her hair, I was bothered, and had to realize that, that really said more about me, than the fictional character I was reading about.  I like books that challenge my thoughts.  Like I said, I’d reserve suggesting someone read it, but I hope they find it and read it none-the-less, and then contact me so we can tear open a bag of gummy bears and discuss.

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Nightly News with Safa by Helal Musleh illustrated by Hatem Aly

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Nightly News with Safa by Helal Musleh illustrated by Hatem Aly

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Having Really liked Zaid and the Gigantic Cloud, I convinced myself to spend $15 on a 20 page book by the same author.  I knew it was paperback and 8×8, but I loved the message in Zaid, and the summaries of Nightly News with Safa online all talked about how a little girl creates her own newscast with a positive spin to tell her mom about her day. A lot of positives for me: a creative girl, problem solving, imagination, and journalism.   So I ordered it, and when it came, I thumbed through it, and counted only 10 pages of story, yes that is right, 10 pages.  The rest of the pages tell about the author, the illustrator or are colorful, but blank, before and after the story.

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Price and length aside, the book is really cute and clever.  The target audience is probably first grade to third grade, and the pictures are colorful, detailed and very well done. A girl, Safa, doesn’t like when her mom watches the news as it is sad, serious, and angry, so she builds a tv, puts herself inside and tells her mom about the happy highlights of her day at school in a news format.  Very creative, but that is it, there isn’t a message or really a point, or any story about Safa and her mom.

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With guidance and oversight, however, the book is a great starting point for how kids can be problem solvers, and is a great springboard for encouraging creativity and thinking outside the box to get your way.  The publishing company even has a free “Book Study Package” on their website http://www.myeverydayclassroom.com/2016/02/book-study-freebie-nightly-news-safa/  The package is 13 pages, it is longer than the book.  Which is funny to me, but not surprising, as there is a lot to discuss after reading the book.  My 10 year old enjoyed it and tried to convince my 6 year old who didn’t get any of it, all the lessons it alludes to.  It would work great in a classroom setting where you read the book, divide the class up and have them make their own newscast to talk about their day, or as a social studies or literature activity.

There is no mention of Islam in the book, the characters are not visibly muslim, there are no Islamic words, or references.  The character’s name is Safa, which may or may not signify faith.

Amina’s Voice by Hena Khan

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This book really marked a shift in Islamic fiction for me and the genre.  First of all I was waiting for the book to come out.  I didn’t stumble upon it or hear about it from someone else.  I knew when it was going to be released, and I knew I wanted to read it. Additionally it was the first books published by Salaam Reads, an imprint of Simon and Schuster. Which according to their website was “founded in 2016, Salaam Reads is an imprint that aims to introduce readers of all faiths and backgrounds to a wide variety of Muslim children and families, and offer Muslim kids an opportunity to see themselves reflected positively in published works.”  This is big, huge in fact.  The bar has been raised, and a platform has been given, no more excuses.

Alhumdulillah, Amina’s Voice is a beautiful 197 page book for children ages 8-12.  The book is not AR, but probably will be in a few weeks.  I think it is spot on for 3rd through 5th grade in terms of content, message, and appeal.  The book caters to females and Muslims, but naturally is not limited to those two demographics exclusively.  There are characters of a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds in the novel that play significant roles in saving the day and keeping the book powerfully optimistic and inspiring.

SYNOPSIS:

Amina is starting middle school and everything is changing for Amina. Her friends are acting different, her older brother is skirting with trouble and her religious uncle is coming to visit from Pakistan.  Internally, she doesn’t like the spotlight but desperately wants to get out from behind the piano to sing.  All of this combines in a climax that pivots around the destruction of the mosque she attends and her having to find her voice, and use it to take center stage in her own life.

WHY I LIKE IT:

There is a lot going on in the book, but it doesn’t get over whelming with Amina’s voice keeping the reader focused on her and her view of the events around her.  The author does a good job of getting inside a 12 year-old girls head without being condescending or heartless.  The reader feels her stress that she is losing her best friend, Soojin to Emily, a girl who used to torment the two “ethnic” girls, without belittling her concerns.  You also feel her love of Islam and struggle to understand if music and singing is permissible within Islamic rules.  The book is realistic fiction with school, friendships, and family guiding the story.  Everything from the ups and downs of group projects, inside jokes between siblings, and trying to pronounce the big HAA in Arabic.  The macro of middle elementary years combined with the micro facets of culture, religion, and current events, and you speak to a section of readers that will connect with Amina and what she goes through in a very authentic, relatable story.

The only points that gave me pause is the premise and music in the book.  It is a point of disagreement amongst nearly every group of Muslims, so to have the Imam sitting and listening to her play the piano, is a bit hard for me to accept as the norm, no matter how cool Imam Malik is.  Additionally, I wish that Amina’s mom had some depth, and the relationship between Amina and her uncle, Thaya Jaan, was fleshed out just a tad more.  In both cases I felt something was lacking, and I wanted more.

FLAGS:

Nothing major, but a few minor issues, that a parent may want to be aware of for younger readers.  Mustafa, Amina’s brother, is seeing skipping Sunday school class and reeking of cigarette smoke.  He denies it, and the issue is definitely not glorified.  There is also crushes discussed amongst Amina’s friends and when Amina spills a secret, she has to own up to it and work it out to maintain her friendships.  The destruction of the mosque could also be upsetting to younger readers.  It isn’t graphic, but her emotional response and the intensity of it, is the climax, and a very real part of our world sadly. For parents, this fictional vandalization could possibly be a great place to start a discussion from if your children are somehow unaware of the current status of Islam in the west.  It also shows that people are good, as the whole larger community, comes together to show unity, love, and respect are values to us all, alhumdulillah.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

This book would be perfect for a 3rd through 5th book club.  If I was starting a new book club I would start with this book.  It has it all. It has real issues, religious issues, universal issues, and heart.  All while staying on age level and all in a realistic fiction safe space to have an opinion about objectively.  The discussions after the book is read will flow naturally, but just in case:

Reading Group Guide:  http://www.simonandschuster.com/books/Aminas-Voice/Hena-Khan/9781481492065/reading_group_guide

Author’s Page: https://www.henakhan.com/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Long Pitch Home by Natalie Dias Lorenzi

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The correlation between baseball and cricket provides the foundation for detailing the relationship of  Bilal’s first year in America after having to leave Pakistan in a hurry: the same, but different.  This 248 page book written on an AR 4.6 pivots around sports, but has a lot of heart as themes of family, friendship, and longing, take center stage.  Throw in a whole new culture, the English language, Ramadan and prom and you have a whole lot to cover in this well crafted story.

SYNOPSIS:

Bilal has a good life in Karachi, Pakistan.  He is the oldest of three kids and at 10 years old, his world pretty much involves Cricket, friends, and his dad.  When his father disappears things get frantic, and when his father returns, the family decides to move to America.  Unfortunately Bilal’s dad can’t come.  As Bilal, his mom, his younger sister Hira and younger brother Humza, board a plan to Virginia, everything Bilal knows is left behind.

Virginia is home to Bilal’s maternal Uncle, his wife, and their teenage son, Jalaal.  Jalaal plays baseball and arranges to have Bilal join him at baseball camp for the summer.  Learning the new sport, and a new language, and the nuances of life in a new land are frustrating and often comical as Bilal points out how confusing navigating American life can be.  He also keeps an ongoing list of new things in America to share with his dad over Skype, as they swap memories of an old life in preparation for a new one.  The supporting characters on the field are generally kind and accepting of Bilal, because they have a bigger problem then a foreign boy, there is a girl on the team, Jordan.  Jordan is new too, and the coaches niece at that, naturally they become friends, but its not easy, Bilal has to learn what being a friend really means.

The majority of the book stems from the tension of waiting to hear from Bilal’s father, and to see if he can come to America.  The passing of time with baseball games and school are anecdotal to the larger arc that sets the pace of the book.  Will Baba be able to come, and if so, when?

WHY I LIKE IT:

Interestingly religion has a pretty big role in Bilal’s life and the author does explain some tenants in Islam.  He wakes up for fajr (although he does miss it occasionally), he only eats halal zabiha, the family fasts in Ramadan, and they celebrate Eid.  Bilal wants to fast, but him mom tells him he is too young when they are coming to America, and the following year he doesn’t because of baseball, which is unfortunate, because a lot of kids fast and play sports all over the world.  They go to the mosque on Eid only, and it mentions that the women in his family do not wear hijab like some of the women at the mosque.  His older cousin Jalaal wants to take the neighbor girl, Olivia, to prom, which the family explains awkwardly as something that Muslims don’t really do until they are older, or at least that is how Bilal understands it.  In the end, they let Jalaal go with Olivia and a group of friends, and the whole family Skype’s the family in Pakistan and sees them off.  Even more funny is that they don’t join their friends for dinner before the dance, because Jalaal is fasting and can’t eat until later.  I don’t know if this will confuse 4th and 5th grade readers, but as an adult I found it hysterical, because these cultural contradictions are more common than not.  I did like that nothing was done behind the parent’s backs.  Things were discussed and worked out instead of lied about.

Another thing that I found interesting, but since finishing the book, I have come to appreciate, is that there is no Islamaphobia in the story, or even xenophobia.  The kids are accepting of Bilal’s faith and culture.  He is far more self conscious about being different or not understanding than those around him are.  Its idealistic perhaps, but at the same time, I think it would distract from the core of the story.

While the book focuses on sports, I think even non sports fans will be able to enjoy the story.  The author doesn’t get too technical and it moves steadily with mini climaxes and triumphs through out.  Girls and boys will enjoy the book, Muslims and non Muslims too, the readers might even learn something about baseball or cricket or Pakistan, or even about themselves along the way.

FLAGS:

The book is remarkably clean and what you would expect for a good quality, solid 4th grade and up story.  There is the “prom” issue, but there is no hugging, kissing, longing etc.  They “like” each other, but it isn’t more explicit than that.

TOOLS FOR LEADING THE DISCUSSION:

I don’t know if I would use this for a Book Club.  One could, but I think it would require a lot of coaxing to get kids to give a book about baseball/cricket a try.  I have no doubt if they started it, they would finish it, but it might be a tough sell.  The confusion in American life would make for an awesome discussion after being read, because everyone can relate to some of the oddities of the English language, and challenges of learning a new language and culture.  I think how Islam is handled would also make for some good discussion in addressing how each family handles things differently as they arise.  Although written on a 4.6 level if I were to do it in a school setting, I would probably do it for middle school kids who could articulate their own life parallels to the story.

An interview with the author:

http://wordspelunking.blogspot.com/2016/09/a-long-pitch-home-blog-tour-interview.html

Overall a solid decent book about an immigrant Muslim boy making his way in America, while not losing or giving up on who he is, alhumdulillah.

 

What Does a Muslim Look Like? by Mohamed Abdel-Kader illustrated by Abdullah Badawy

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What Does a Muslim Look Like? by Mohamed Abdel-Kader illustrated by Abdullah Badawy

what does a muslim look like.jpeg This 22 page, simplistic book written in rhyming couplets, is such a timely and necessary book.  Much like Owl and Cat: What Islam Is… this book has value that extends far beyond its audience level (not AR but, I’d say three years and up), as the content breaks down stereotypes while being framed in a positive, non condescending way.

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A brother and sister pair, Jack and Jane, go about their day when at dinner Jack remarks that he learned that two of his classmates are Muslim and they look like them.  Thus arises the question, what do Muslims look like?  The book then goes on to break down stereotypes and broaden views in the same rhyming manner that keeps the book light and child friendly.  The conclusion is that like people of other faiths, everyone is different, and that no one should be judged on what is on the outside.

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The book appears to have been started on Kickstarter in 2012 and Alhumdulillah it got the needed funding to get published.  I got my copy through the public library system, and I am beyond thrilled that I found it where hopefully a lot of people can get their hands on it.  Reading the author’s campaign on where the concept came from, he would have had no idea how much more timely the book is now, then when it was first published.  I get asked quite regularly from old school friends, how they can introduce Islam or get the ball rolling  to talk to their kids about Muslims, and this book would be a great start.  Told from non Muslim kids perspectives, with very hip parents, the book does not discuss any tenants of faith or belief, it just identifies the many shapes and sizes and colors that Muslims come in.  It would work well to show that Muslims are everywhere not just in the news, without overwhelming even the youngest of readers.

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The pictures in the book are absolutely perfect in complimenting the story. They are not only silly, but also diverse as the book’s text would require.  Interestingly there are ladies with hijab and those without, and scarves are not mentioned in the text, and also noteworthy is there are no bearded men in the pictures.  Overall, a wonderful book that I would love to have on my shelf with extras to hand out.

Samira and the Skeletons by Camilla Kuhn

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Samira and the Skeletons by Camilla Kuhn

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Quite possibly there is nothing Islamic about this book, but the main character’s name, Samira, is traditionally an Islamic name and thus it caught my attention.  I also think one could argue that the mom in one of the pictures (see picture below) is possibly wearing a hijab.  So, probably I shouldn’t include it on the blog, but the book is so disturbingly creepy, in a fantastical way, that I thought, why not.

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Samira learns that everyone has a skeleton and bones one day at school, and it frightens her.  She starts seeing everyone’s skulls instead of their outward body parts and she refuses to accept that she has such morbid parts or that her friend Frida does too.  Knowing that she is chewing with teeth, skeleton parts poking through, at lunch is too much and she can’t even be near Frida.  When she gets home she tells her mom she wants to be free of her skeleton, and her mom agrees.  Yes, agrees! They resolve the tooth fairy will be delighted to get a whole skeleton, not just a few teeth.  So the mom, gets some tools and preps a table to perform the surgery required to remove her skeleton.  Luckily Samira runs for it and finds Frida, and alas the girls accept that they have skeletons and use humor to diffuse the fears they have of what lurks beneath their skin.  That is of course until the next day at school comes, and they learn that they have muscles, just like steak.

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The imagination of the girls is quite remarkable.  I love that it starts with a lesson and that information about skeletons and animals, such as jelly fish that don’t have them exist, is sprinkled through out.  I also like the approach, its weird, but in a delightfully fun way.  It also lends itself well to a discussion of how we are more alike than different.  Our outward appearance doesn’t define us when we are all made up of bones and muscles.  The story doesn’t address it, but some kids might infer it or connect the dots with a little prodding.    img_3064

The book is not AR, but I think most 5 year olds and up can read it or follow along giggling all the way through.  It probably isn’t for every child, but those with a darker sense of humor will enjoy all 34 pages.

Nasreen’s Secret School: A True Story From Afghanistan by Jeanette Winter

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It is widely written about, even amongst children’s literature, that in parts of the world, girls are not allowed to go to school, but that many find ways to do so anyway.  What sets this book apart is that it is based on a true story, and while there is some hope for Nasreen, overall it is a really melancholy tale without a happy ending.  At 40 pages, author Jeanette Winter once again conveys a story that shows compassion instead of judgement and undeniable admiration for her characters.  Written on a 4.2 level, the story packs a lot into small, simple sentences, and her illustrations do not shy away from the realities of Afghanistan.  While I was surprised to see that twice the book was challenged, in 2014 and 2016, for showing Muslims praying and for violence, I was glad that it was never banned.   The strength and determination of Afghani women should not be silenced, it should be shared and celebrated.

 

The story is told from the point of view of Nasreen’s grandmother.  She is heartbroken that her granddaughter is not allowed to attend school and practice the arts as she was, and even her daughter-in-law, were able to do as children.  Since the Taliban has come things are dark.  Things get worse when one night soldiers come and take Nasreen’s father with no explanation.  When he doesn’t return, Nasreen’s mother leaves to find him, displaying her own strength to independently take on a society that doesn’t permit her to go out alone.  Unfortunately she does not return either, and Nasreen stops speaking.  Grandma learns of a secret school for girls.  Determined that Nasreen should know of the outside world, great risks are taken for many girls to learn in a private home a few doors down.  Dodging Taliban soldiers and neighborhood boys helping keep their school a distraction starts to pay off as Nasreen finds a friend and starts to open her heart.  The book ends with mom and dad still missing, but hope for Nasreen to see through the window education has opened for her, inshaAllah.

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