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Muslims Describe Delaware Pool Incidents: ‘We’re Portrayed as Troublemakers’

Tahsiyn Ismaa’eel was determined to get her campers a full day in the pool.

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Melissa Gomez
, New York Times

Tahsiyn Ismaa’eel was determined to get her campers a full day in the pool.

Ismaa’eel, director of Darul Amaanah Academy in Wilmington, Delaware, can see the closest city pool, Foster Brown, from the school’s back door. It’s where she has taken children attending the school’s summer Arabic literacy program for the past three years, usually three times a week.

But this summer was different. Since late June, the group was harassed on at least six occasions because of the children’s attire or barred from entering the pool, Ismaa’eel said. Staff members had begun citing an unposted rule prohibiting cotton clothing in the pool, she said, seemingly targeting her campers, a majority of whom are observant Muslims who dress modestly and wore long shorts or tights, T-shirts and headscarves to go swimming.

On July 16, she tried one more time. The group arrived and was told the pool was at capacity, Ismaa’eel said. She and the children waited until a family left and they were allowed to enter, but the facility closed shortly after, and everyone was forced to leave.

She now takes her students to another pool, Eden Park, 10 minutes away, where their attire hasn’t been questioned.

“There’s no point in going back,” Ismaa’eel said in an interview. “We’re portrayed as troublemakers when in fact, there was never a policy in writing.”

She said she was focusing on keeping her campers busy so they don’t dwell on what happened. “They definitely feel like there’s something wrong with them being Muslim,” she said.

Parents of some of the children say they’ve struggled to explain to them why their clothes were being questioned.

“My children literally sat on the side of the pool each time and cried,” said Mia Miller, whose two daughters, ages 5 and 6, have special needs and were at the pool during some of the encounters.

Muslim Advocates, a national advocacy group, sent the city a cease-and-desist letter last week on the school’s behalf, saying that state and federal anti-discrimination laws had been violated and calling for an investigation.

Mayor Mike Purzycki of Wilmington has apologized to the children. John Rago, the mayor’s deputy chief of staff, confirmed that the rules and regulations posted at city pools only prohibit cutoff jeans and that there is no mention of cotton clothing. (He also said the temporary pool closure on July 16 was because of a medical emergency involving a lifeguard.)

Rago said the city was taking the allegations seriously and investigating. He added that the city’s Muslim community has been invited to help review and update the pool policies, and that staff members will receive training “so there is nothing left to individual interpretation.”

For the remainder of the city’s pool season, which runs until Aug. 18, there will be a “very liberal policy in place regarding proper swimwear without restrictions on the types of fabrics worn,” Rago said.

The pool manager at Foster Brown who confronted Ismaa’eel has been reassigned to administrative duties, Rago said.

Ismaa’eel said she and more than a dozen campers arrived at the pool around 3 p.m. June 25, the first day city pools were open. The pool staff began to ask her and her daughter when they planned to leave, and they became uncomfortable, she said.

The pool manager, Glenda Pinkett, confronted her and told her the pool had a “no cotton” policy and the children could no longer swim there. Pinkett also called some of the children derogatory names, according to the cease-and-desist letter.

They left within the hour, Ismaa’eel said.

“It’s never been an issue,” said Ismaa’eel, who grew up in Wilmington and swam in T-shirts and shorts as a child.

Pinkett could not be reached for comment. She previously told The News Journal of Wilmington that she believed cotton clothes could clog pool filters, but admitted there was no written policy. “Nobody was discriminated,” she told the publication. “As I did with all our patrons, we asked them to not wear cotton.”

In a statement this month, Purzycki said the city used poor judgment in asking the children to leave because of their clothing. “We also referred to vaguely worded pool policies to assess and then justify our poor judgment, and that was also wrong,” he said.

Nadirah Salaam said she was angry when she found out her 10-year-old daughter had been part of the group whose clothes were questioned.

“I told her if someone ever treats you like that ever again, don’t be mean to them, just explain to them why you’re covered,” she said. “Because they might not know.”

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