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The best of both worlds

It's not easy being a kid. It's even harder when you look different than all the other kids. "I always had a sense that I was different," said Devika Mohabir, a 1995 graduate of Jefferson High School in Alexandria. "There were maybe five other ki...

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Steven, Devika and Shari Mohabir all grew up in Alexandria and graduated from Jefferson High School.

It's not easy being a kid. It's even harder when you look different than all the other kids.

"I always had a sense that I was different," said Devika Mohabir, a 1995 graduate of Jefferson High School in Alexandria. "There were maybe five other kids with darker skin, and they were adopted."

Devika and her siblings, Shari and Steven, are of East Indian descent on their father's side. After a divorce, Katy Mohabir, who was born and raised in Minnesota, raised her three beautiful, dark-skinned, black-haired children in Alexandria, where their skin color wasn't the norm.

"That was before there were a lot of minorities," Katy said. "People would come up to me and assume that they were adopted."

The family wasn't immune to an occasional glimpse of prejudice.

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"Alexandria is a great community," said Katy, who recently retired from her job as coordinator of the Runestone Regional Learning Center in Alexandria. "There could be 1,000 wonderful, kind people. And then there could be that one that wasn't. People who knew us were very accepting. The bad stuff came from people who didn't know who we were."

"Once in awhile weird random things would happen," Steven agreed, recalling a couple times he was singled out as a potential troublemaker when he was with a group of friends.

There were a few isolated incidents in which the Mohabirs were the targets of racism. One time, an elderly neighbor, who assumed the children were African American, called Katy and told her she should "go back to Africa where she belonged."

And Devika recalls an anonymous phone call in which the caller said, "We don't want any black people in our town."

"It was very brief and abrupt, but shocking at the same time," Devika said.

"It blindsides me when I come against someone who is hateful because I don't expect it," Katy agreed.

A specific incident is prominent in the memory of both Katy and Steven. At age 10, Steven had his first experience with prejudice that he can remember when he joined a local boys' club.

"I got really picked on there," he said, adding that it caused him to quit the organization after a month. "It was racial slurs all over the place from the kids. That was probably my worst experience as a kid."

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For Devika, it was always more of just a feeling. "I always felt an undertone of something strange, it wasn't overt," she said.

"It was a part of growing up here and having to learn to deal with that stuff," Katy said.

The Mohabir kids were lucky. They had lots of friends growing up in Alexandria. They did well in school. They were well liked. Their friends' parents were "fantastic." For the most part, life in small-town Alexandria was filled with positive experiences and they were shown only acceptance and friendship.

And they all agree - it was the people who didn't know them who were the most judgmental.

"At no time did I feel isolated by anyone other than people who didn't know me," Steven said.

Despite the few unfortunate incidents she and her children experienced, Katy is quick to point out that this was a wonderful community to raise her children. And because of their heritage, she feels that her children had the best of both worlds.

"They have the roots of Alexandria, they were part of a church community, a smaller school system, things that I valued," she explained. "But they've stretched further. They've been exposed to their Hindu heritage. They have this wonderful richness from both cultures."

Katy's passion for teaching people acceptance has carried not only through her family, but her career. In her position with the Runestone Learning Center, she worked with many minority students, and she taught English as a second language to immigrants.

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She also belongs to the Diversity Resource Action Alliance in Alexandria, whose message she thinks is so important, especially as Alexandria becomes home for an increasing number of minorities.

"We've been working so hard to have Alexandria be a more welcoming community to all diverse issues - gender, disabilities, whatever," she said.

"This is a great place to raise kids," she concluded. "It's just that there are exceptions. And we can't assume that everyone is open-minded. The majority are, but not everyone is and there will be incidents.

"Unfortunately, some people still think it's OK to hate someone based on the color of their skin."

Teaching ethnic diversity to kids

The following tips were provided by the Diversity Resource Action Alliance, a community organization committed to strengthening the understanding and appreciation of diversity.

The tips focus on teaching your children about ethnic diversity.

  • Visit Web sites with your children that promote tolerance and understanding of other cultures, such as www.tolerance.org.
  • Eat at ethnic restaurants and frequent ethnic-owned businesses and get to know the proprietors.
  • Let your children know that it is OK to be curious about race and ethnicity. Explain that people come in many shades.
  • Explain what friendship is and what it means through illustrations.
  • Read books on other cultures to your children.
  • Mirror tolerance of others to your children.
  • Help your child develop new relationships by inviting a family with a different background over for supper.
  • Enroll your children in after-school programs and camps that celebrate differences.
  • Getting kids involved in the arts is a good way to expose them to people from different backgrounds and see that we all share strengths and talents.
  • Volunteer experiences are also a good way to help kids understand the value of everyone.
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