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Pro-Palestinian demonstrators mark UTA graduation day with prayer, protest

Sheikh Mikaeel Ahmed Smith, front, leads a group jum’ah prayer on May 10, 2024, at The University of Texas at Arlington.
Camilo Diaz
/
Fort Worth Report
Sheikh Mikaeel Ahmed Smith, front, leads a group jum’ah prayer on May 10, 2024, at The University of Texas at Arlington.

Protest and prayer punctuated graduation day at the University of Texas at Arlington.

About 150 Muslims gathered on blue tarps near the school library in afternoon prayer May 10, remembering those in Gaza and in support of pro-Palestinian protests at campuses nationwide. Later, in the afternoon sun outside of UTA’s graduation at Globe Life Field, protesters chanted, “Free, Free Palestine” while waving Palestinian flags.

Sheikh Mikaeel Ahmed Smith, an instructor at Qalam Seminary in Carrollton, led the Friday prayer. In his sermon, he told the story of David and Goliath, a story shared in the Quran, Torah and the Bible.

“(Allah) told us in an epic narration, whoever sees wrong, regardless of your faith, regardless of what you believe, when you see wrong in the world, you have a moral obligation to change it however you can,” Smith said.

Friday prayer, known as jum’ah, is a special congregational prayer for Muslims. On Friday, students, religious leaders and community organizers assembled outside of the campus library. It was near the spot where students previously encamped for a week, before disbanding on Thursday.

UTA officials say they gave protesters “final notice” on Thursday for being in violation of university policy. Student organizers said they feared arrest and decided to break camp. UTA police previously arrested an instructor May 2 for criminal trespassing at the encampment site.

But, as with many college campuses around the nation, UTA students and community members continued their protest outside of their graduation ceremony.

In the audience was UTA junior Sumeya Kassim. Kassim said the turnout for previous events at her school was “disheartening” when compared to that at other Texas schools. However, she said, she understands that students may be afraid to come out and support after mass arrests were made during demonstrations at schools such as the University of Texas at Austin in April.

Kassim said she is glad that student and religious organizers brought the prayer services on campus because “this is where you see the community the most,” she said.

“I feel like it’s systematically just set against us to not win, which is why it’s so important for people to come out and just show ‘we know you don’t want us to win but we’re still going to come out,’” Kassim said. “It’s really disheartening. It’s the only word I can say because it’s been happening for too long.”

A spokesperson for the university told the Fort Worth Report that the school is “committed to free speech and civil discourse that is done safely and consistent with UTA’s policies and procedures.”

“Interference or disruption of class instruction, university operations, scheduled events, and other violations of UTA policies and procedures, including the prohibition of camping on university property, will not be tolerated,” Chief Communications Officer Joe Carpenter said.

Some students who were at the Friday prayer were there to remember family members in Gaza, some of whom have been killed over the past seven months. They didn’t want to give their names to the Fort Worth Report for fear of reprisal. They follow the war from afar, they said, sometimes learning that family members have been killed by watching a scroll of names on Al Jazeera.

Friday’s campus prayer service was organized by groups including the UTA Progressive Student Union, Palestinian Youth Movement and the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter for Jewish Voice for Peace.

Rachel Gollay, with Jewish Voice for Peace DFW, was at the service to support student and community efforts.

“It’s really important to engage with the spiritual components of the struggle that we are a part of,” Gollay said. “We need spaces like this to help ground us and also bring the community together.”

Immediately after the prayer, the crowd headed to Globe Life Field, where UTA’s graduation was taking place. A group of about 100 students and others gathered there. They stood near the entrance, but when stadium security talked to them, they moved to the sidewalk.

Fadya Risheq was there with a bullhorn. She’s Palestinian and has family in the West Bank and Jerusalem. It’s not just a personal issue for her.

“I think this is a human issue for all of us. If you believe in equal rights, every human should be caring about the Palestinian cause,” said Risheq. “Killing children is not right, and the U.S. is complicit in that.”

They shouted slogans into the street and punctuated their chants with the thumps of a beating drum. A few cars honked and some graduates joined the protest in their caps and gowns.

Amier Rajaiy, who graduated with a degree in finance, stood with them, his diploma in hand.

“It’s the least we can do to help,” said Rajaiy, who is Egyptian and a Christian. “There’s a lot of people here and a lot of people need to know about this.”

Shomial Ahmad is a higher education reporter for the Fort Worth Report, in partnership with Open Campus. Contact her at shomial.ahmad@fortworthreport.org.

Marissa Greene is a Report for America corps member, covering faith for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at  marissa.greene@fortworthreport.org or @marissaygreene.

Camilo Diaz is a multimedia fellow at the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at camilo.diaz@fortworthreport.org