Folks in Nebraska’s Sand Hills are known for their warm hospitality, but an Omaha professor says she had a cold reception on a recent visit.
The Muslim professor wrote an essay saying she feared for her life during a visit last month to Mullen, Nebraska.
The sheriff who has jurisdiction in Mullen, a town of about 500 people in west-central Nebraska, said last week that Pearson was “never in danger.”
“When I read that, I’m thinking ‘Where’s she coming from?’ ” Hooker County Sheriff Wynn Wiens said.
Ferial Pearson, 41, an assistant professor of teacher education at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, wrote that she felt threatened by messages posted on Facebook in advance of her visit to give a kindness-themed presentation in Mullen schools.
One post that apparently originated outside of Nebraska referenced a decorated U.S. Navy SEAL sniper. She said that the posting made her physically ill, and that and other postings left her fearing she would be “lynched.”
“Islamophobia is real in small town Nebraska,” she wrote in her essay.
A Mullen woman, who Pearson expressed concern about in her essay, told The World-Herald that she was no threat.
Deb Cox, 64, of Mullen, who had posted a message of concern that Pearson’s politics and religion could leak into her presentation to kids, said the visitor was in no danger.
“I’m 64 years old, I’ve lived here for 42 years, and anybody that knows me knows that I wasn’t going to go in there with guns blazing,” Cox said.
Cox said the out-of-state post that referenced sniper Chris Kyle was not her doing.
“I didn’t even know who that was,” she said. “Somebody had to explain that to me.”
Kyle wrote a best-selling book published in January 2012 detailing his 150-plus kills of Iraqi insurgents from 1999 to 2009.
Sheriff Wiens said that with the exception of two social media posts, Pearson was “greeted with open arms. The kids loved her. The school loved her. Nobody else had a problem with it.”
“I’ve been in this community 30 years,” Wiens said, “and we have our bad eggs like anybody else, but I didn’t feel that anybody in the community had any ill feelings towards her, besides the couple that expressed their feelings on social media.”
The situation, he said, has been “blown out of proportion.”
Pearson, who described herself as a “brown Muslim immigrant” and “openly queer,” wrote her version of events in a 13-page essay titled “Deceit Wrapped in Kindness” that included screenshots of social media posts by Cox and others.
It appeared on a website called Medium.com.
She told The World-Herald on Friday that she sticks by her account.
In the essay, she wrote that two Mullen Public Schools staff members invited her to give a presentation about “The Secret Kindness Agents,” a program she created that encourages kids to commit anonymous acts of kindness.
Before her presentations on Aug. 19 to 20, social media got buzzing.
Cox said she posted two messages: One called attention to Pearson’s upcoming visit, giving the topic, dates and times of the presentation. In the other, Cox indicated she had researched Pearson and was concerned about her politics and religion.
In her message, Cox wrote: “Some of her causes included race issues (which isn’t bad), transgender and the LGBT.” She wrote that Pearson “demonstrated against Trump concerning his policy to deter terrorist immigrants.”
The post went on to express concern over “total inclusivity” that seeks to “transfer Christian power to Muslim power.”
Cox wrote that children were impressionable and could “buy all this hook, line and sinker, along with their teachers.”
Cox told The World-Herald, “I think a person can have concern about who’s going to speak to the kids. Now, if they’re going to speak to a bunch of adults, that’s a different kettle of fish. But some of these kids are like blank canvases we’re writing on. There is a war for men’s souls, and it starts at a very early age.”
She told The World-Herald that she doesn’t speak for everyone in town, but she felt she had to speak up.
According to the UNO website, Pearson has served on various social justice organizations and initiatives, including as co-founder and leader of Open Arms Transgender Social Group, a committee member and chaperone for Pride Prom and sponsor of Melanated Queerations with the Office of Gender and Sexuality at UNO.
The message that referenced Chris Kyle said: “Okay Steven this is some bs all I can say is Chris Kyle was a cowboy first ... just be a cowboy.”
In her blog, Pearson wrote that the message terrified her.
It implied, she wrote, “that this parent show up and do what Chris Kyle bragged about doing — killing innocent Muslims.”
Pearson wrote that when she saw the post, while in a local Mullen motel, she “ran to the bathroom and threw up several times.”
Pearson wrote that she spent a sleepless night worried about her safety. She considered canceling her presentation to the students the next day, she wrote. But she wrote that she decided to go ahead with it after receiving a supportive email from the school superintendent.
According to Pearson, Superintendent Chris Kuncl wrote her that morning saying “from the bottom of my heart, I want you to speak because I believe it is needed.” He wrote that he invited the sheriff to sit in on the assemblies.
“This is not the Mullen I feel is my home,” Kuncl wrote. “Normally people are kind and do not spew hatred. Unfortunately, we have some that don’t understand the kindness movement and probably never will understand.”
Regarding the sheriff, Kuncl told The World-Herald that the school has no school resource officers and the sheriff is the only officer in the small community. He said community members were invited to attend Pearson’s presentations.
“He was going to be here regardless,” he said.
Kuncl said Pearson was “visibly shaken” when she arrived at school the day of the student presentations.
He said Pearson was professional during her presentations to students.
She talked about how random acts of kindness can brighten your day, Kuncl said.
Cox, who attended both presentations, said Pearson did not mention sexuality or religion.
Sheriff Wiens said he attended and there were no incidents or disruptions. Cox, Kuncl and Pearson said the same.
Wiens said locals feel the incident has unfairly given their town a bad name.
“It’s really stirred this town up,” he said. “We’re a small community, and we’re a proud community, a very friendly community. And it’s really caused a lot of hard feelings in the community.”
Townspeople interviewed last week say the situation doesn’t reflect the real Mullen.
Gregg Mallory, owner of the Chuckwagon ’n Jug in Mullen, said Pearson ate at his restaurant.
“She was a sweetheart,” he said.
He said they chatted, and she shared that she was from Nairobi, Kenya. He said that since opening the restaurant nearly three years ago, people from 38 countries have eaten there.
In her essay, Pearson wrote that the students and school staff were kind to her — she repeated that point in an interview. A school board member came and thanked her for coming, she wrote. Several teachers and support staff did, too, she wrote.
Kuncl said that before Pearson departed Mullen for Omaha, the two talked about possible routes home.
“She said, ‘Siri’s gonna take me where I need to go, and I’m going to listen to my audio book on the way home, and I’m going to have a nice drive,’ ” Kuncl said. “That’s what she said to me, but I have no idea how she felt.”
In her essay, she wrote that she drove home “constantly looking in the rearview mirror wondering if Deb (and other Facebook commenters) were going to follow me and cause me harm. I worried about lynch mobs. I worried about getting home to my children safely.”
She told The World-Herald that wasn’t an exaggeration and that she feared for her life.
Since then, she said she’s been getting messages of support, including some messages from Mullen-area residents apologizing for how she was treated.
“All of those messages have been very positive and people thanking me for being brave enough to speak and then to write about it,” she said. “Many folks ... think that writing about it will shed some light on things that have been pretty hush-hush and that need to be out in the open so we can deal with them.”
Kuncl said the controversy was “extremely unfortunate” for the community, and it gives the wrong impression of his town.
“This wasn’t all Mullen people,” he said. “I think about 95 percent of the people posting on that thread were not people who reside in Mullen.”
He said his district will continue to promote kindness and positivity.
“Most of all, we need to understand that no matter where you go in life, there’s going to be a time you’re just gonna need to agree to disagree,” he said, “because you just won’t agree with the views of that person.”