Khalid Albaih (@khalidalbaih and www.facebook.com/KhalidAlbaih)
“Miss, I can’t eat this. It’s not halal.”
Noor’s shoulders slumped, clearly disappointed, as she looked down into her treat bag from Ben’s 6th birthday party. She walked over, frowning, holding it open to show me the contents. The bag was filled with gummy candy made from gelatin, which is animal-based and generally sourced from pig connective tissue, bone, and/or skin. It was not labeled as halal, which means permissible, and is a way of certifying certain food as being in compliance with Islamic law. Halal gelatin is often either from halal-certified beef or poultry or made from fish or vegetable-based sources.
This wasn’t the first time Noor had come to me frustrated with birthday sweets she couldn’t eat. Before, the best I could do was tell her I was sorry and make sure she knew I understood her disappointment, but anyone who’s ever met a 5-year-old can tell you how poor of a consolation prize that is. This time I was prepared. I’d been saving chocolates and other animal product-free candies from other kids’ birthdays to make sure all of my students could fully be part of our class celebrations. Noor was thrilled to be able to exchange her non-halal candy for something she could actually eat. She called her classmates Zeeshan and Amira over, and I traded gummies for chocolates for all three.
After graduating college in the United States, I was hired by a U.K.-based teaching agency to work in a suburb east of London that had a severe teacher shortage. My first placement was as a long-term substitute in the kindergarten classroom where I taught Noor, Zeeshan, Amira, and 25 other 5-year-olds. My school reflected the area’s changing demographics: The formerly majority white British suburb was growing, and many of my kids were Muslim and whose families were from Commonwealth countries like India, Pakistan, and Nigeria. I was more aware of their experiences than I previously had been because my boyfriend at the time, who grew up in a British-Pakistani family in the next suburb over, would often talk about his own experiences as a Muslim student in the U.K. He had painful memories of being one of only a few Muslim kids in school, often feeling unintentionally left out or deliberately ostracized. He was never made to feel comfortable embracing his whole identity as a British Muslim. He’d hoped school environments had changed for the better and I wanted to do as much as I could, even if I was playing only a small role, to try to make sure they had. This is part of the reason why I already had an understanding of what the word halal meant and how I could provide an alternative for Noor and others.