Fatima Al-Saedy has heard her father’s story only in fragments. His journey, from being a rebel during war in Iraq to living in a refugee camp and eventually coming to America, she said, is too heavy for him to share all at once.
Al-Saedy sees how different her life has been from her father’s, she said. But she feels the microaggressions she faces every day — for the hijab she wears, and the color of her skin — have left her no choice but to carry on his defiant spirit.
She wanted to honor her ancestors by wearing a keffiyeh — a traditional Arabic scarf — over her gown at her upcoming Thursday graduation. When her principal at Copper Hills High School told her a Jordan School District policy outlawed any non-academic regalia, she said, she decided to make a stand.
“Honestly, my whole life, me being Arab was a problem,” Al-Saedy said. “When I want to show my liberation and me being proud of my culture, it has been turned against me.”
Utah lawmakers passed HB30 earlier this year to guarantee that Indigenous students registered with a specific tribe can wear symbolic regalia like feathers, beaded or traditional dress or moccasins at their graduation ceremonies. That new law required Jordan school board members to update their policy.
Al-Saedy and other students, including those who wanted to honor their Polynesian and Latino heritage, urged board members to offer the same protection to all students.
After also hearing from parents, teachers and advocates over recent weeks, board members voted unanimously in late May to allow students to wear culturally significant attire at graduation ceremonies Wednesday and Thursday.
“I think students were really important in that decision,” said Tracy Miller, president of the school board, in an interview. Members will decide later whether to make this year’s suspension of the policy permanent.
Here are three of the students who led the charge this spring.
Fatima Al-Saedy: ‘Mentally prepared to wear my keffiyeh.’
Al-Saedy, 18, thought she might not be allowed to walk at graduation under the district’s previous policy, which prevented students from wearing anything that was not given to them by their school, like an honor cord or medallion.
She had heard from her principal, she said, that teachers would be asking students to leave if they wore anything that violated that rule.
“I was really mentally prepared to wear my keffiyeh. And if I got kicked out, I got kicked out,” she said. “But now it’s just such an unexplainable feeling. I get to walk and my family gets to see me walk the stage, representing. It’s unreal. It’s such an amazing feeling.”
Wearing her seven honor cords and a medal she earned for being a finalist for the Sterling Scholar award would mean nothing, Al-Saedy said, if she wasn’t wearing her keffiyeh. Her biggest accomplishment is being a first-generation Iraqi-American graduate, she said, and she wanted to celebrate that.
Al-Saedy initially struggled in school because she grew up speaking Arabic. It took a few years for her to really apply herself, she said, after her parents challenged her to try as hard as she could.
“They told me, ‘This is the only way that our family can rise and keep going because, simply, we cannot fail,’” she said.
Her father, Hakim Al-Saedy, opposed Saddam Hussein’s regime at the end of the first Gulf War in Iraq in 1991, Al-Saedy said. He occupied one of Iraq’s largest cities, Amarah, with other rebels, but was forced to flee for his life when Hussein threatened to send troops into the city, she said.
After making a perilous escape to a refugee camp in Saudi Arabia, Hakim Al-Saedy spent five years in the desert, waiting to be granted asylum in America by the United Nations, she said. He eventually was granted a visa and settled in Utah, close to some of his friends from Iraq.
Al-Saedy and her twin brother Mohmmad, who both spoke at the board meeting before members voted on May 24, were the primary translators for their parents “as soon as we learned English,” she said. She never saw that responsibility as a burden, though. She thought everyone had to translate for their mom when they went to the hospital, she said.
Growing up as an Iraqi-American has been difficult, “because people already have the prejudice of what you are. .... They already think they know your story before you can even tell it,” Al-Saedy said.
She was the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, pushed the administration to host a “Culture Carnival” for students to celebrate their heritage a few weeks ago and helped organize a committee of students of color to meet with school administrators each month.
She also encouraged her friends to speak to the board and asked on social media for the graduation policy to be changed.
“I’m glad they suspended [the policy],” Al-Saedy said. “... And I’m glad that we’re all part of having it revised.”
Al-Saedy will attend the University of Utah this fall and hopes to become a medical doctor with the intent of eventually joining the Doctors without Borders program.
“I want to represent my bloodline and my tribe,” she said. “That has come a long way from all kinds of things that they have survived. I want to represent my father and all of the things that he has done, and I want to just represent me being Iraqi and my history, because that’s an achievement to me.”
Jadiahne Ioane: ’We are more than just flower leis.’
Eighteen-year-old Jadiahne Ioane wanted Polynesian students to be able to wear leis over their gowns and a traditional Tongan skirt, called a taʻovala, underneath.
She led a push by Native Hawaiian-Pacific Islander students and their parents against the ban, after she asked her principal, principals at other schools and even called the district several times, she said, looking for an explanation of why it was put into place.
Some administrators said the purpose was to unite the student body, she said, and others said it was to avoid additional clean-up costs because flower leis can be messy.
“These kinds of restrictions are the reason why students of color don’t feel comfortable and accepted within today’s society,” she told the school board in April.
Graduation ceremonies are especially important in Polynesian culture, Iaone said. Many of the people who spoke at the May board meeting noted that bestowing a lei at graduation is a symbolic way to bring past generations into the present day.
Iaone wanted to wear shell leis that her grandmother brought from the islands, to pay homage to her and her other ancestors, she said. Ianoe’s grandmother died in 2020.
“I hope that you are able to understand that we are more than just flower leis,” Iaone told board members. “We’re descendants of people who have given up everything for us. And we give homage and recognize them through our cultural attire for the privilege and blessings we get to endure because of their sacrifices.”
Before the board suspended the policy, Ianoe said, her principal had indicated to her that Valley High School would be lenient about allowing cultural attire. But Ianoe wanted to advocate for her friends in other schools.
Yadhira Zavala: ‘Include those symbols of where we come from.’
Yadhira Zavala knew her ancestors would be proud of her for fighting to represent them, no matter what the school board decided, she told members in April.
“Graduation is about celebrating all the things we have accomplished, so why can’t we include those symbols of where we come from to show honor to ourselves, and to our culture and to our heritage?” she asked.
Zavala suggested that students be allowed to wear sashes with symbols representing where their families are from, or allowing students to wear flags as sashes over their gowns.
If Jordan School District and its board want to truly embrace diversity, then they need to adjust policies to be more inclusive, Zavala said.
“Our struggles and hard work should be noticed,” she told the board. “My ancestors did not sacrifice for me not to fight for my community and for me not to use my voice for my people.”
Jasmin Roque, another Latina student graduating from Copper Hills High School, told the board that she has been called slurs based on her heritage and told to “go back to her country” during her time in the district. Graduating with cultural attire is not only a way to honor her ancestors, she said, but to prove those who discriminated against her wrong.
“If this district is trying to get the student body to be more accepting and diverse,” she said, “students should be allowed to wear cultural attire at graduation to resemble the diversity being advocated for in our school district.”