When the older kids first saw Mohammad Modarres, they saw not only a freshman but a Muslim. So they bullied him. They pushed him down. Got on top of him. Smacked his head against the ground.

But Modarres never let it make him vengeful.

“You fall — get back up,” he says. “If you’re not optimistic in life, if you see the glass as half-empty, it’s a bit harder.”

Modarres, who is now 19 and a senior at Paramus High School, has applied that credo with gusto. He has initiated a school recycling program and a senior-freshman mentoring program. Most recently, he founded a non-profit group that will raise money for poor people in the Middle East, Africa and Europe.

He’s the class president who is bound for Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He is also an American-born Muslim of Persian descent.

After 9/11, vandals splattered blue paint on the Modarres’s home. His sister was forced to stop wearing a veil at school. His mother had to leave her job as a pre-school teacher after a supervisor said her veil scared the students.

Instead of becoming bitter, he asked himself how he could make a positive change.

First, in 2004 he entered his satirical drawings in Newsweek’s political cartoon contest and took second prize. Since then he has furthered that message with the Peace Project, the non-profit that he founded.

His goal for this year is fairly modest. He wants to raise $7,500 – $5,000 for United Nations anti-poverty initiatives and $2,500 for a Rotary Club program that provides health care to children whose families can’t afford it.


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