During summer camp, Narayan Kulkarni desired what most children his age did—friendship.
More specifically, he craved acceptance. However, following September 11 and the War in Iraq, that hope became almost unattainable for him.
He found himself left out of activities in places like after school care and camp. Peers wouldn’t team up with him for pool, or let him join in during foursquare.
“They said oh you’re a terrorist, I don’t want to play with a terrorist,” he said. “They said you’re Bin Laden’s son right?”
A lifetime of microaggressions such as this, has not only led Kulkarni to create a vision to increase South Asian awareness in his community, but to tackle the problem by empowering leaders on the University of Florida campus to use their negative experiences to create positive change.
“Experiences are catalysts,” he says. “Experiences are ways you can use things that you’ve gone through an apply them in a different situation in order for something great to happen.”
Kulkarni was in elementary school when terrorist group Al-Qaeda hijacked four airliners in the United States.
He remembers being pulled out of class. Anxiety and confusion consumed him as he couldn’t find a way to contact his father, who was in Rochester at the time. It wasn’t until a day later till he realized his father was safe, which for seven-year-old Kulkarni, felt like forever.
To this day, our nation mourns the loss of over 3,000 people who lost their lives in New York City and Washington, D.C. Fatalities included more than 400 police officers and firefighters. However, the violence did not end there for Kulkarni, and many others like him.
Born in India, Kulkarni moved to Michigan when he was three months old. Prior to Sept. 11, he said he only had to deal with stereotypical remarks made by classmates.
“It was diversity at it’s most superficial level,” he says.
After the attacks on the Pentagon and Twin Towers, the teasing subsided and the assaults increased.
He was pervaded with fear after hearing about the xenophobic crimes that had escalated in the United States. Events like brutality towards a Bangladeshi cab driver in New York, a shooting at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and arson at a mosque in Missouri began to plague anyone resembling Muslims.
Kulkarni, coming from a family of doctors, said he often felt he wasn’t empowered when he was growing up.
“I internalized the violence, because I was the younger child,” he said.
“I felt like I didn’t really have that voice to really say these things. I would be more quiet, while my sister would be more outspoken.”
He found himself questioning why people were associating him with Muslims, the religious group that everyone was accusing of terrorizing the United States.
Fahad, a student whose family had just moved from Saudi Arabia, joined Kulkarni’s fifth grade class.
“I was not only afraid, but I wanted to feel like I belonged,” Kulkarni said. “Sometimes I didn’t want to associate with him at the very beginning, but then I got to hear what he had to say.”
Fahad taught Kulkarni of the pillars of Islam and the importance of charity within the religion.
“He told me those aspects which allowed me to see it in a new light,” he said. “Before, I didn’t connect myself and I was confused why people would connect me.”
Soon Kulkarni was teaching his entire fifth-grade class that a few Islamist extremists didn’t represent the entire population of Muslims.
This allowed him to see that he too had engaged in the prejudice that was penetrating society, through schools, businesses and even airports.
While Kulkarni himself didn’t have to face any severe discrimination with airport security, he knew it was a topic commonly spoken about within the South Asian community.
“My parents would tell me to keep my voice down, to be careful,” he said. “It was from more of a general standpoint. But I will say that I certainly did feel tension.”
During high school, he became comfortable enough to explore the stories of those who felt as though they had been racially profiled.
“I did feel some degree of shock,” Kulkarni said. “I thought this is what my parents meant, this is what could have happened to me. I could have been strip searched, I could have been arrested because I was someone who was carrying a kirpan, which is a religious symbol.”
Through all of these experiences, he internalized a large amount of anger. When he got to college, he found himself carrying that anger out into his relationships.
“I had quite a reputation of not only being very outspoken but being really hard to work with, being very difficult and flat out not being a very nice person,” he said.
At UF, he joined the Asian American Student Union in order to create a connection with a broader Asian-American experience.
Shortly after, Kulkarni began connecting with people who were willing to listen to him and help him grow as a person. They allowed him to overcome feelings of internalized hate, which he had gathered because he believed he was being categorized as a terrorist.
He recollected events such as the Quran burning controversy, which occurred while he was living in Gainesville. Instead of seeing it as an act of hate, he looked at it with more depth.
“I saw the people who said, ‘Hey, I don’t identify with this community but this is a bad thing. This should not be happening because this is wrong,’”
After attending a diversity-based program called Gatorship, he learned that other participants had faced similar situations because of their unique identities. He quickly realized he wanted to focus on growing other people, like he had been grown.
“We all might be different, but we share one story,” he said.
Kulkarni decided to channel his own negative experiences into a positive purpose. The opportunities available to him on a college campus, gave him the opportunity to do that.
“That led me to my vision, where I want to create some type of institute or experience that will allow people to be leaders to in their own fashion, but be truly diverse and truly inclusive and be able to create a change,” he said.
“He is definitely trying very hard to empower others and increase collaboration among the different organizations, intersecting the Asian, South Asian, and Arab communities,” said Sameer Saboungi, president of the Arab Students Association and one of Kulkarni’s role models. “ I admire his hard work, work ethics, and organization.”He aims to help others who hold painful memories become leaders in their community and insist on invoking change. He encourages victims to find people who have the same problems that have resonated with them.
“I was oppressed, but because I was able to find people I identified with, we were able to make this happen,” he said. “The experiences that you have may be something that is traumatizing, but use them as a strength,” he said. “It something that has affected you, it is something that will teach you that there is a problem that is there in society.”
He has hope that the University of Florida can grow as an institution a more accepting place that helps develop leaders.
“As Yuri Kochiyama, an Asian-American activist said, ‘Consciousness is power, and tomorrow’s world is today yours to build,” he said. “Unity starts with you.”