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As fear grips the country amid a coronavirus outbreak that has forced the closure of schools, restaurants and much more, Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour views the emotion a little differently.

In 2017, Sarsour, who became a household name when she co-chaired the Women's March, declared that fear "is a choice" to millions of marchers. That holds even more so today, said Sarsour, who this month published an autobiography, "We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders" (Simon & Schuster, $26).

"It applies across the board – for leaders and people who are influencers. We have to decide in this moment that fear is in fact a choice," said Sarsour, 40, talking by phone from her home in New York. 

Sarsour's book delves into her path from growing up as the oldest of a large Palestinian-American family in Brooklyn, her arranged marriage at 17 and her route to activism.

The title, she said, again is about the choices people make.

"All of us in this moment can make that decision not to be a bystander," she said. "It's not always about injustice. Even in this particular scenario with the coronavirus, we have a lot of seniors in our community and people who are quarantined who may not be able get groceries or their medicine. As a neighbor, as person in the community, you get to decide 'I'm not just a bystander.' I'm not going to only protect myself and my family. I'm going to look after my neighbors."

Sarsour's Michigan ties run deep. She worked for ACCESS in Dearborn for five years as its national advocacy director. She visits the area regularly -- Dearborn has one of the largest Palestinian-American populations in the country -- and was even in the Detroit area recently to campaign for Sen. Bernie Sanders.

She was supposed to do an event next week with Dr. Abdul El-Sayed as part of a book tour but it was canceled amid the growing pandemic.

In fact, it was after a trip to Dearborn -- she was at the opening of the Arab American National Museum in 2005 -- that changed the course of Sarsour's life. 

Sarsour was driving back to Brooklyn with two friends, one an activist who really shaped Sarsour's own activism and another woman who was undocumented, when she swerved to avoid a car through a construction zone in Pennsylvania and the car rolled three times. Her friend, Basemah, the activist, was thrown from the car. She later died from her injuries.

Basemah, who worked for the Arab American Association in New York and was unusual in the Arab community in that she was divorced and a single mom, "shaped how I show up in the world," said Sarsour.

"She walked in with her head held high," said Sarsour, who later go on to lead the Arab American Association. "She didn’t take crap from anyone. I was really attracted to that confidence."

Sarsour grew up in Brooklyn, where still lives today, the oldest of seven children. Her parents are Palestinian immigrants. In her book, she writes about growing up in a large Muslim "boisterous" community where her sisters were her best friends and how she knew what it was like "to live in two world," as a first generation Palestinian-American.

"I would spend the summers with my grandparents in the West Bank of Palestine, in the place my parents never stopped calling 'home,'" she writes.

But in her book, she recalls being in school at 13 and being embarrassed when a classmate told her to couldn't find Palestine on the map. She didn't know how to explain to her classmate the complicated history of Palestinians.

At 19, Sarsour made the decision to wear a hijab, or a headscarf. None of her four sisters wear one but for Sarsour, it was about offering the world a visible sign of her identity as Muslim. She said before, with a name like Linda and a thick Brooklyn accent, she often blended into other ethnic groups, such as Puerto-Rican or Italian.

"I was living a life of ambiguity" before, said Sarsour, who married at 17 and went on to have three children. "My immigrant Arab-American parents named me Linda – I was fair skinned and dark haired — I was so ambiguous. I also conformed to whoever people thought I was. (By hearing the hijab) my intent was really about forming an identity for myself."

Still, some questioned her decision to keep wearing her hijab after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But she decided to keep wearing it.

"I had a moment of clarity: if there was ever a time to represent the good in Islam, to act in opposition to the evil those men had unleashed in our world, this was it," she writes in her book.

Critics, meanwhile, have been long been vocal about Sarsour's activism, some labeling her as anti-Semitic. 

Sarsour says her book also is a response to those critics, especial the "right-wing media outlets." She said it was an opportunity to have a longer conversation.

"Here was a book that I was offering to the world to say 'Look, you may still read this book and still vehemently disagree with me,'" said Sarsour. "But I'm pretty sure if you read this book you're not going to walk away saying I'm an evil person. You're going to say, 'She's a mom from Brooklyn. But I disagree with her.' And that's cool.This is not a woman who is here to harm our country. She in her own way believes what's doing is helping."

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

'We Are Not Here to Be Bystanders'

  • An autobiography by Linda Sarsour
  • $26
  • Published by Simon & Schuster
  • Available at amazon.com
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