Ozzie Niazi is an all-American college kid. He works part time in a local coffee house. Weekend evenings are spent clubbing in the San Fernando Valley with friends. Girls occupy his mind most of the time. And, oh yeah, Ozzy is Muslim.
The first-generation American—his family is from Afghanistan—was in fifth grade when the Twin Towers came down. He remembers thinking on his way to school that Tuesday morning, “Just please don’t let it have been Muslims,” he said.
As we now know, the FBI identified 19 Muslim males as the hijackers of American Airlines flights 11 and 77 and United Airlines flights 93 and 175.
"When I learned it was Middle Easterners, I thought, 'Oh shit,' " he said.
He was a quiet child who didn't hang out with many friends at school. He had an accent that made him sound different than the other students.
"As a kid, I didn't speak English at home," Niazi said. "I was born here, but not many people in my family spoke English at the time. I learned English from television and (movie) videos. Lion King was a big one."
After 9/11, life became harder.
"The weekend after 9/11 was when everything started happening. At first, everyone just gave awkward looks," he said.
Then the taunts and name calling began—"terrorist" was the most popular—and the already shy little boy crawled deeper into himself.
“There was one name I couldn’t stand,” he said. “I really hated when they’d call me ‘sand nigger.’ ”
He thought he was ignoring the slurs, but looking back, he sees they changed him.
“The thing is this: I learned they were going to judge me anyway. I might as well say what’s on my mind,” he said.
And so he's learned to open up, even when he doesn't get the best reactions.
"When people learn I'm Muslim, they say, 'Oh, that's very interesting' and fold their arms across their chests" said Niazi. "It's more their tone and body language."
Though he did once hit someone for calling him a name ("I punched him and ran," he said), he realized that's not the message he wanted to send.
"The thing is this: If I do fight, I’m proving everything they are saying is true about Middle Eastern people because apparently 'my people' are violent. But it’s really the exact opposite," he said. "We’re about peace and fighting is a last option. That’s what I was taught as a kid."
He assumes most people's perception of Muslims are based on the extremists they see on television news, but he likes to think he's changed at least some people's views on Islam and Muslims.
Sure, he fasted every day last month for Ramadan. But he was awfully vocal about craving cheeseburgers.
Now days, he’s an outgoing, confident man.
"The exciting part of my life probably has come the past couple years, after high school, going to college, meeting new people and not being shy about it," Niazi said.
The people he works with and the customers who come into the coffee shop where he works say his strength is his humor. He’s even attempted stand-up comedy.
“I just started talking about my family and afterwards people came up to me and said their family was the same way.," he said. "And I learned none of us is that different."