Sixth grade started out fine for Mohammed, an 11-year-old Muslim boy who lives in East Oakland, until Donald Trump won the presidency.
“After Trump got elected, everybody started treating me differently,” he said. His classmates started criticizing Muslims, and calling him a “terrorist,” he said.
The boy, whose family wanted him to be identified only as “Mohammed” rather than his real name to protect his privacy, said he started getting depressed after the harassment and name-calling started. He said he began having physical symptoms of anxiety like chest pain and headaches. He even talked about killing himself.
“After he got elected I felt different than I used to be feeling,” he said, hugging his knees to his chest as he sat on the edge of the couch at his family’s studio apartment in the Oakland hills. “I changed in a bad way.”
The type of chest pain he felt, along with shortness of breath and other physical symptoms of anxiety, are complaints some Bay Area pediatricians said they’re seeing more of in immigrant and Muslim populations, based on rhetoric set in motion by President Trump’s administration.
“It felt like somebody was pushing something on me,” Mohammed said in a quiet voice. “It was like the bones in my chest were like going backward. It hurt a lot.”
Dr. Gabriela Bronson-Castain, a pediatric psychologist in Oakland, said most of the kids she sees who are experiencing this fear have families who immigrated to the U.S. from Central America or families who are Muslim.
“It is not uncommon within our assessments to hear somehow an inherent fear of the Trump administration,” Bronson-Castain said. “Very unsolicited — you know and you’re talking about sometimes 8, 9 and 10-year-old kids.”
She said the first child she saw, the day after the election, was a boy who claimed to have a BB gun at his school because he was afraid of being deported. Really the kid was bluffing; he didn’t have a BB gun.
“But he wanted everybody to know that he did in the event that somebody would try to take him away,” Bronson-Castain said, referring to the child’s fear of deportation or separation from his family.
Bronson-Castain said kids try to cope in one of two ways: “They’ll act inward, which I think we see as maybe some kind of self-injury or more depressive symptoms; potential suicidality. Or we see them act outward, which is, ‘I become aggressive. I bring that BB gun to school. I carry a knife in my bag just in case.’ ”
Another pediatrician, Dr. Nooshin Razani, said she’s never seen symptoms so severe in response to politics. Discrimination is always painful, she said, but it’s worse when it comes from an authority figure.
“It’s one thing if you’re 1 percent of the population. And everyone else is targeting you,” the doctor said. “It’s another thing when the government of the most powerful country in the whole world is also on the side of everyone that’s targeting you.”
Razani herself said she feels nervous as an Iranian American. Iran is one of the countries targeted in both versions of Trump’s travel ban. She said having Iran called out like that by the administration actually helps her empathize.
“There’s a lot of moments where I am able to bond with my patients in a way that I’ve never been able to do before because we may all be on the list of seven,” she said, referring to the list of seven countries included in Trump’s first travel ban.
Doctors Mobilize to Help Patients Deal With Trump-Era Anxiety
In response, pediatricians like Razani and Bronson-Castain are organizing. They’re both part of a group of health professionals informally called #EveryoneBelongsHere. They recently gathered at a home in the Oakland hills.
Some were there to get politically active. Others came to talk about how best to help their immigrant patients. Dr. Noemi Spinazzi said she’s worried about Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
“I was wondering if ICE would have any latitude to run any searches of our database using key words like ‘immigrant’ to kind of isolate those people who would be vulnerable,” she asked.
A lawyer in the crowd explained it would be tough for ICE to force access to medical records.
Another doctor wondered whether putting cards with legal advice for immigrants in her waiting room would draw attention to her practice or endanger the people she sees?
Many in the group have been moved to action after seeing young patients — patients like Mohammed — who are suffering as they hear talk about potential changes to immigration and travel policies. Even if their parents try to shield them from the news, they still pick up on that tension, doctors said.
Parents Struggle to Help Their Kids Cope
Back in East Oakland, Mohammed’s mother said that their family left their home country of Yemen after she was attacked for working on women’s rights. The family of four then fled to the U.S. and eventually got asylum.
“I don’t know what to do,” she said. “So should we leave here and go back to our country? My country is in war. So we’re rejected here and we can’t go back to our country and I don’t know about what the future is going to bring for us.”
Mohammed said he doesn’t want to tell his teachers of his challenges with his classmates because he thinks that will make things worse, and he doesn’t want his parents to get involved because he said he wants to fix the problem by himself.
“Not every Muslim is a terrorist,” Mohammed said about being called one by classmates. “Some are terrorists. But I’m not. … I didn’t do anything to you, so you shouldn’t call me a terrorist.”
Mohammed said his chest pain has been getting better with medical treatment, and his first therapy session is scheduled this month.