Many mothers have dreamt of someday publishing a book; Aya Khalil made that dream a reality with the publication of her first children’s book, The Arabic Quilt. The story of young Kanzi, an Egyptian-Muslim immigrant struggling to find acceptance within her predominately white school, is a page from Khalil’s own history. Molly, the “mean girl” in the story, does not represent a single person from Khalil’s past but rather “all the racist people” she has encountered over her lifetime.
Growing up Muslim in America
Khalil expounds, “How can I begin to say this? So 20 years ago, when we first moved to Toledo, it was right around 9/11, so there was a surge in discrimination and racism. My parents sent us to an Islamic school…they were worried.”
“Fast forward years later, when we had to choose schools for our own kids,” she continues. “We decided on public schools. While we are worried because there is another rise in Islamophobia, we feel the teachers are more aware of what’s going on and they are trying to take steps to address these issues. We decided on Ottawa Hills — their diversity population has been on the rise in the past couple years — and I feel like they have been making a great effort to [create] a more inclusive environment for Muslims and children of color.”
One of Khalil’s elementary school teachers strived to make her feel welcomed and accepted in the classroom with a project that was assigned to Khalil forming the basis of The Arabic Quilt. Khali recalls that before moving to Toledo, she attended public elementary school in another US community, “the teacher asked me to write my classmates’ names in Arabic. I went home and wrote everyone’s name in Arabic, and the kids copied them down and [our teacher] hung them all up.” Khalil recreated this project and received “a lot of positive feedback, and I thought, ‘This would be a cute story!’ So I wrote it down and made it into a book.”
The Arabic Quilt is born
After months of rejection letters and numerous revisions — with a final story that is significantly different than the original version — her book was published. Khalil was able to locate her former teacher via Facebook to share the good news: “I messaged her and she remembers me and the project! She told me, ‘It would be a dream for me to meet you in person now and sign the book!’”
“Teachers can make such a difference,” Khalil continues. “I still remember this teacher from elementary school who made me feel SEEN. My brother and I were the only Muslims in the entire elementary school…nowadays it’s so different.”
OK to be you
“I try to raise my kids in a way that shows them it’s okay to be Muslim, to be different,” confesses Khalil. “It’s okay to be you. I try to teach them to stick up for themselves, but also to ask for help when they need it. I was interested in writing a children’s book for that reason. It’s a fun way to address tough topics and facilitate discussion and talk about feelings.”
Khalil hopes that with her book, “readers who are Arab or Muslim can see themselves. That’s why we made sure Kanzi has curly hair and a darker skin tone. I want students to have this discussion with their teachers and librarians about accepting one another, while encouraging kids to make friends with people who do not look like them, and yet still find similarity.”
When Khalil isn’t writing, she’s raising her three children, Aminah (7), Muhammad (4) and Halimah (9 months), with her husband, Abdalrahman (Abdo) Algendy. They love traveling the world together as a family, and they’ve been to California, Egypt, Turkey, London, Mexico and Canada.
Q&A with Aya Khalil
What’s your favorite activity to do with your family?
Visit our local Metroparks.
What was your favorite book as a kid? Or one you love reading to YOUR kids?
The Berenstain Bears…I have fond memories of my mom reading it to me and my brother.
Best holiday memory from when you were a kid?
My generation tries to make Ramadan more fun for the kids, so having iftar with the family.
What’s your go-to activity when you have time to yourself?
Brunching with friends.
Describe your life in five words or less.
Never a dull moment.
What is your favorite Toledo place to brunch?
Fowl & Fodder
Describe Toledo in a sentence?
Quirky but lots of fun.