BY BOJANA GALIC Sitting in a café near the New York University campus, Ismail Ibrahim, 19, takes a sip of black coffee and adjusts his cotton shirt. A bold Arabic script runs down the sleeve, featuring one of his own designs. More than 500 orders later, Ibrahim, the founder of Salam clothing, admits he never intended to mass produce sweatshirts, tees, and hats. He wanted to find a way to aid the Syrian refugee crisis, while spreading the message of Salam, or peace for alienated Arabs and Muslims.

The son of two Egyptian-born parents, Ibrahim was born and raised in a cultural home in Chicago. His family ate Arabic food, listened to Arabic music, and visited Egypt each summer. At age 11, Ibrahim’s family moved to the United Arab Emirates, where he lived until he began at NYU, studying journalism and politics. Clothing was always a thought in the back of Ibrahim’s mind but not a central aspiration. However, the growing political turmoil in Syria inspired Ibrahim to combine his interests in politics, journalism and clothing to aid the nation’s refugees. His clothing brand Salam donates 50 percent of all earnings to the cause, while the other half goes to fabrics and production.

 What inspired you to study journalism and politics?

My passion for journalism came from the lack of balanced reporting on the Arab Spring. I remember that nothing my Egyptian family said lined up with what western media was really saying about the revolutions. It was a very interesting time and I started to realize that the explanations often given may not be correct, and I decided I wanted to tell people’s stories in a fair way. I wanted, originally, to be a novelist or a screenwriter. I found out that real stories are more interesting, and more worth telling.

Did your passion for journalism drive you to create Salam?

Yes, I wrote an article last summer in a journalism class about the stereotypical and racist portrayals of Arabs and Muslims in Hollywood. A lot of the portrayals of Arabs and Muslims in popular media, including news media, tends to focus on violent and terroristic actions of Islamic people or Arab people. So, I catalogued the various stereotypical portrayals, from Indiana Jones, to Back to the Future, to True Lies, even Aladdin. The article ended with this question: ‘This doesn’t reflect who I am. I’m an Arab, I’m a Muslim, but I’m peaceful and who’s telling my story?’ And the answer was blatantly, nobody. Nobody is telling this narrative and I wasn’t going to wait around for it to happen. I created Salam to tell that narrative.

Did you expect Salam to be so well received?

I started with one sweatshirt for myself on a crappy design website, where you just draw it and they send you the garment. Then, a lot of my friends kept asking me about it. Soon, friends of friends started asking them where they bought the clothing. My initial investment was $860 and I was so worried. Then, it just exploded and I expanded to four designs. At one point, I received 50 to 100 orders per day from people all over the US. The philanthropic aspect behind the clothing resonated with customers. Originally, I didn’t have any expectations for Salam. I thought maybe a couple of my friends would buy the products and that it would just fizzle out over time.

 Salam is the Arabic word for ‘peace.’ Why did you choose this message?

I like hip-hop music and in their songs, a lot of rappers say ‘As-salamu alaykum,’ which is Arabic for ‘peace be upon you.’ This phrase resonates a lot in hip-hop and street culture, which is what street wear and clothing revolves around. Hip-Hop and music in general are a big part of street wear and it’s a big part of who I am. The brand name is cool and it’s hip, but it’s also reflective of something more important, which is this prejudice and alienation of Muslim people. Let’s say you’re a second-generation Arab Muslim living in rural somewhere, and people have been bullying you. You feel unwelcome in America because your president is calling you dangerous. But then some white kid is wearing a shirt that says ‘Salam,’ and you’re like ‘Wow, that’s my language. This person is embracing me and they think I’m peaceful.’ Salam could change something–at least I hope to think so.

How did the Syrian civil war motivate you to donate to Syrian refugees?

The current event that spurred the philanthropy behind Salam mostly was the fall of Aleppo to the Syrian regime. This is a dictator that Barack Obama addressed, saying ‘If you use chemical weapons, we will come in.’ And then when they used mustard gas, nothing happened, the American army didn’t enter. Now we have one of the biggest refugee, humanitarian-aid crises on our hands. I remember reading this news in class and being filled with a sense of dread. There was a lack of compassion, nobody gave a damn. The Syrian government was rounding people up and killing them en masse, people were disappearing. It was disheartening.

What are your hopes for the brand?

If more people wore Salam, I feel like it would be great because it shows a tremendous amount of support to Arab and Muslim people. There’s also the monetary support–there can never be enough donations to this cause. The message of Salam only grows when more and more people wear it. Maybe the designs and logo may change in the future, but so long as there are refugees, the brand will be a way to make some money to send their way.

After college, do you see yourself continuing Salam while pursuing journalism?

As long as there is interest, I see the brand continuing. I am planning on pursuing Salam and my journalistic career side by side, if that’s possible. I even hope to launch a Salam publication at some point. It will be more literary and less journalistic, but still nonfiction. I’m still young and it’s all kind of up in the air. There will undoubtedly be refugees forever, maybe not from Syria, and maybe not Arabs. I wish the brand didn’t have to exist, but as long as it needs to, it will keep going.