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This is what happened when racist America made me Enemy #1

On Tuesday, June 14, 2016, I woke up to a hell that even I could not have predicted.

I always check my phone when I wake up, a lazy exercise that has me checking site analytics, Facebook, texts, email, and then, if I’m feeling really lazy, Twitter.

That day, I checked Twitter, and my world as I knew it was changed forever.

Hundreds of people were tweeting at me, the vitriol, hatred, and fury in their messages each worse than the last one. I scrambled to figure out the source: a petty blogger from a right-wing conservative site wrote a piece called “Syrian Immigrant Who Said 9/11 ‘Changed The World For Good’ Is A Homeland Security Adviser ” had done a Twitter search of my account, looking for anything remotely incriminating. He then decided to do a complete character assassination of me based on the following tweet:

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When I first read the article, I started laughing hysterically. There was no way that an article that ended with my critique of my guilty pleasure show, The Bachelor, was considered credible online. But then I refreshed Twitter. More than twenty new tweets had already flooded in.

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Property of the author

Let me fill you in – although a quick Twitter search of my name can do the same. I’m a 24-year-old American entrepreneur and founder of a global media company, The Tempest. Our focus? Giving space and conversations to diverse millennial women, people that usually get silenced, stereotyped or censored by the world around them. You know about it, since you’re reading the article on the platform.

I also happened to have served on a Department of Homeland Security subcommittee focused on Countering Violent Extremism. And I tweet.

The report, focused on creating “just add water” solutions to counter extremists of all backgrounds and ideologies, went out this week, following the horrific Orlando tragedy and amidst the murky political election season we all know too well. We were working to “leverage outside expertise and new thinking to support and enhance, as well as assist in reframing and re-envisioning, where necessary the Department’s CVE efforts.” I worked to ensure that the future of America’s CVE programming focused on creating inclusive solutions that promoted a national sense of community and belonging, rather than isolation and alienation. The problem is – I wasn’t included in the final report. I was just noted on the DHS website, and that’s when things got horrific.

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Property of the author
Property of the author

Just like every American, 9/11 was a tragedy that hit close to home. I was 10 when it happened, living in upstate New York, and the event and ensuing aftermath left me – and the nation – reeling. So much so that it changed my career path for good – I now fight to ensure that every woman, no matter who or where or how she is, has a media outlet to find a space in.

So in 2014, upon the anniversary of the attacks, I sent out a tweet, like I do every year, about the events that had transpired.

To put it in third-grade terms, since everyone is pretending not to understand given what I wear on my head, believe as my faith, and identify as my heritage: The tragedies of 9/11 changed the world as we know it permanently. It’s up to us to make the world a more united place by having conversations, no matter our differences.

If you still don’t believe me, there is an inherent grammatical difference to “for good” versus “for the good.” Google can help you out with that.


But that didn’t matter to the thousands and thousands of people taking it upon themselves to comb through my private history, any public articles I had written, any photos I had online. I received rape threats, death threats, and images that made me almost throw up. People, furious and filled with hatred against someone they didn’t even know, had decided I was the perfect target for the entire week.

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Property of the author
Property of the author
Property of the author

I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat. Each morning, I’d wake up, and suddenly remember what was happening online, and want to go back to sleep. All I could do was numbly block and report, block and report. I told a few friends, my family, and my alumni network, but most people didn’t understand the full extent of what was going on until I showed them tweets.

I kept laughing when I told the story in public because if I stopped, I knew I’d start crying. I’d step away from my phone for 5 minutes, and come back to a hundred notifications.

They told me to bear my teeth and get through it, that this would all go away. That I was strong enough to handle it. That people would move on, and that it would get better.

It didn’t get better. It still hasn’t gotten better.

I’m now enemy #1 of racist, conservative, Trump-loving America, the favorite obsession of white supremacists and “patriots,” clickbait for every possible conservative platform and bigots like Pamela Geller, Allen West, and Milo Yannoupolis. Not to mention the founder of #GamerGate. They had a field day sending thousands of people at me. I fought hard, reporting to Twitter, blocking, and reporting on Facebook. When people started calling me a cunt on Instagram, I privated the account – the only account I’ve made private. Countless blogs and sites pretending to fight for the freedom “of all Americans” wrote smear pieces accounting for my “attempts at terror” and how I was “a terrorist Obama appointed.”

I even got a ping from Snopes, so infamous had I become that I’d bumped Hillary from the top search results.

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A few months ago, had I gotten this tweet, I would have thought it was a prank. In the last week, however, that tweet marked the start of reclaiming my right to the First Amendment.

Friends have asked me why I haven’t made my accounts private, deleted tweets, gone into hiding even as I told them I was nauseous, even as I darted from cafe to cafe in the city and filed a police report at 5 am with officers that didn’t even understand what online harassment went.

It’s simple: if I gave in to the harassment, quite simply, the terrorists win. As each hour went on, I found myself being less affected by the absolute manure people were flinging my way.

Tell me to die? Cool, report. Choke on a goat genital? Great, report.

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The attacks I’ve been bearing the full brunt of come in a time where we are all struggling to see where the future of the nation will lie. They hit close to home because hateful rhetoric and erroneous reporting go against the very principles America was built upon. Without our concerted efforts in coming together and having the very conversations more radical forces – no matter the ideology, folks – are working to prevent us from having, we’re stuck.

And that’s not the America I know.

We have a responsibility to do better, be better – and, as I said in 2014, start having conversations on our differences – and what we can do to move forward.

By Laila Alawa

Laila is The Tempest’s founder and CEO. Laila has given a TED Talk, appeared on BBC World News and NPR, and contributes on women’s issues and entrepreneurship to Forbes and The Guardian. She was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 in Media and’s inaugural The Cafe 100, and recognized by the White House. Before founding The Tempest, Laila worked at the White House and Congress, and was previously at Princeton University.