Living in the Light
By Divya Murthy
Being a triple-threat and embracing it.
Earlier in 2018, Ghufran Salih walked down well-populated Marshall Street, hoping to start her morning right with a cup of coffee before a meeting. Her trip was cut short when an older gentleman took a look at her on the road and yelled.
Ghufran froze. She didn’t know what to do or even if to do anything at all. The man continued on his way, not knowing what he left behind. Meeting forgotten, Ghufran locked herself in a bathroom, called up her mother and cried.
“If I had said something, I would have been the angry Muslim woman who yelled. I didn’t say anything,” she said. “I didn’t know if I should have stopped or talked to him. Me walking away kind of made it okay in my head to happen again. That’s a hard weight to carry sometimes.”
Ghufran has come to terms with it and made her peace. She’s forgiven people who think the same way as the man who yelled at her. She’s completely upfront about who she is and where she comes from. She puts on one of her 40 vivid scarves at college every day, adorning them with heart-shaped and star-shaped pins. A crystal pendant around her neck makes the colors of the Aurora Borealis bounce around — it was given to her by her mother, who said crystals refract and reflect no matter how little light there was, and this would make sure Ghufran was always living in the light. A digital watch winds around her wrist today and when she jokes, her laugh fills up the room.
Being black, being a woman, being Muslim and being a child of immigrants from Sudan are all parts of Ghufran’s identity and as such, she is no stranger to prejudice and complexity. It’s the kind of complexity she hoped to unravel in her run for Student Association President at Syracuse University for the 2018-19 year. As she takes on the role of student body president, she’s one step closer.
Ghufran and vice president Kyle Rosenblum emphasize initiating change and making good and fulfilling what they see as the university’s potential. Above all, their message rests on not just hearing student voices, but understanding them.
“When a student talks about what they want to see, we listen,” she said. “But if a student tells us about their experiences and tells us how a change could impact that, that’s the true core of understanding. To listen would be to nod. To understand would be to actively research why and how things are happening and how they can be changed.”
The enormity of their quest is not lost on Ghufran — she said the campus had over 16,000 students, which amounts to over 16,000 perspectives and lifetimes that two people can never fully understand. But they had to give it a shot. Ghufran made some of her best friends on campus by meeting them in different clubs — be it at work, at the Muslim Student Association, community service groups or one of her passions, theater at the First Year Players group.
“I’ve seen the truly wholesome parts of this campus, and I wanted to give back,” she said. “It’s magical when I get to interact with different students.”
Still, Ghufran the candidate and president differs from Ghufran the person. The candidate is an extrovert; the person is an introvert who likes to sing and dance in her room, badly, she added. Her favorite theater role was playing the part of Romeo, and her version was a “douche,” she recalled. She recharges by doodling in her journal — also badly, she chuckled — and reading. Her resolution since last year has been reading one book published every year starting from 1670, and she takes a look at her phone to see how much she’s finished. Her latest? Robinson Crusoe (published 1719).
Contrasting the whimsical doodles with practical word clouds and arrows, Ghufran at any moment could be writing notes to herself or studying up on university policy. The latter is especially crucial now that she’s representing the student community and welfare. She balances the Ghufran that became a viral BuzzFeed meme with the Ghufran that walks campus with a confident blazer on to complement her hijab.
“Sometimes it’s difficult being a black Muslim woman — a triple threat, if you may,” she said. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s also the best thing for me. It’s shaped me into the person I’ve become.”