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Muslim Student President is Peacemaker at Los Angeles High School

The students at many Los Angeles high schools are a rich ethnic mosaic. But at some campuses, tensions and misunderstandings shatter that mosaic into jagged pieces. It was like that at one San Fernando Valley school, until Saaliha Khan helped put the pieces back together again.

The 18-year-old Birmingham High School senior says she'll miss one of her duties as student body president when she graduates - doing the morning announcements.

"I come in every morning," she explains. "I rush to the main office by the principal's office and get the phone for the PA [public address system].

"As soon as the bell rings at 8, I say, 'Good morning, Birmingham Patriots! This is your student body president Saaliha Khan. Please stand for the flag salute. Place your right hand over your heart. Ready. Begin.' And then I say the Pledge of Allegiance."

The students are supposed to recite it with her, but she admits, with a small laugh, that she doesn't know if they really do.

"Then I say, 'Thank you, and have a great day!'"

Reaching out across cultures

Walking around Birmingham High's campus in the last hectic days of the school year, it's evident that Saaliha Khan, the school's first Muslim student body president, is well known.

"Of course we know Sally," says one student. "She's my hero," offers another, and a third volunteers, "She's like a sister to me."

Students say they like Khan because she's upbeat and full of praise for others. Sitting under a tree's wide shade in the school quad, senior C.J. McKenzie says he and his friends were just talking about how Birmingham needs more people like her.

McKenzie says tensions on campus between ethnic groups have dissolved in recent years, but divisions remain, especially at lunchtime.

"The Armenians are over here," he says, pointing to the school's old counseling center. "The blacks are over here in the cafeteria, in J building. The Samoans and Tongas are right here, under the cafeteria. The Hispanics are everywhere."

Fights between Armenian and Latino students were so bad four years ago that the Los Angeles police had to be called in. This year, 40 students, including Saaliha Khan, took part in a mediation program.

Speaking the language of mediation

Birmingham's principal calls her a "peacemaker." So does Princeton University. She was one of 29 high school students from across the United States to win the Princeton Prize for Race Relations.

Khan's taken on the challenge of learning the language of mediation.

"I know a little Spanish because of my Spanish classes," she says, in Spanish, then switches back to English. "So I know a lot more Spanish than I know Armenian because I've taken three academic courses throughout my high school career. And for Armenian, it's among friends, 'Hello' and stuff."

She recites a few of the phrases she knows in Armenian.

She may not be fluent, but her effort opens the door of understanding.

Saaliha Khan was born in the United States but lived in her parents' native Pakistan until seven years ago. The family returned here about a year after the September 11th, 2001 attacks. Khan remembers the taunts from kids and adults.

"It made me feel sad; it made me feel angry. It made me feel embarrassed, even though it shouldn't, because it wasn't my fault," she recalls. "They say, 'Your people did this.' They put you on a guilt trip, but I've realized that no, I don't need to be guilty, because it's really not my fault."

A lesson from the Koran

Her Muslim faith drives her effort to mediate tensions at school. She says the Koran teaches that a smile is a form of charity.

"I've realized dialogue, just talking to people, connecting, making that real connection with people. I think that Birmingham and throughout my experiences outside the classroom and being involved in a lot of stuff, I realized that communicating and connecting with people is very important."

This fall, Saaliha Khan will be a freshman at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. She earned a full scholarship, and she's thinking about joining the U.S. diplomatic corps. For now, she's listed her major as "undeclared." She'll keep her options open, she says, and embrace what the future has in store.