US Muslims Debate How to Build Diverse Communities

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SHAFAQNA - Discussing ways to reassure Latino, elderly and refugee Muslim communities, Muslim community leaders and activists have come together to discuss ways towards building diverse communities during North America largest Muslim convention.

“Islam is the fastest growing faith in the world, and within the US, Latinos are among those most readily accepting of the faith,” Hazel Gomez, currently an advisor to Dream of Detroit, a Muslim-led community development corporation, said.

“It is our responsibility as Muslims to help create an environment for converts that is as welcoming, supportive, and as sustainable as possible for Muslim converts.

“For the Latino community, this is manifested through engaging family when possible, creating space for culture to co-exist with deen, and providing access to healthy and balanced Islamic education,” she said.

Gomez pointed out the need to encourage Latino converts to hold onto their Latino heritage rather than to abandon it.

She cited Dr. Umar Faruq Abd-Allah’s paper “The Cultural Imperative” that advocates similarly.

“Like a crystal clear river,” she read, “Islam and sacred law are pure but colorless, until they reflect the Chinese, African, and other bedrock over which they flow.”

The discussion was held during this year’s ISNA’s 52nd annual Convention in Chicago, which saw the introduction of a new initiative, the Roundtable Discussions. There were six 6 different discussions this year, ranging in topic.

The Roundtable titled “Building a Diverse Community” featured writer, Naazish YarKhan; former refugee and refugee advocate, Ahlam Mahmood, both representing ICNA Relief; Shaykha Anse Tamara Gray, founder of Rabatta.org; and Hazel Gomez, a community activist.

The session was moderated by Asif Jafri, Cultural Producer and President, Sukoon Creative.

After each speaker presented opening remarks, attendees were divided into three small groups to further discuss barriers to diversity and brainstorm possible solutions.

The discussion centered on ways to ensure that Muslim women, Latino converts and refugees felt welcomed and included in the Muslim community, so as to overcome feelings of isolation and to make sure every person had a sense of belonging.

No Isolation

Working towards solutions to make sure every person has a sense of belonging in US Muslim communities, Ahlam Mahmood elaborated on the culture shock and sense of isolation that refugees to the US are mired in.

She touched on her own fear-ridden experiences as a refugee landing in Chicago seven years ago, fully expecting Al Capone and crime-infested streets.

“That’s all I knew of America. That’s all many refugee families from Iraq knew.” If there were more Muslims who would befriend a refugee family, ask how they were doing, and use their friendship to teach these families about American culture, refugees would not feel so isolated and afraid, she added.

“We had such an outpouring of global support for the Syrian refugee cause when we saw the photo of the Aylan Kurdi, the toddler who was washed up on a Turkish beach. There are more refugee children, in the US, just like Aylan and they need supporters right here, in the US, to survive,” said Ahlam.

Even one person can make a dent in the refugee crisis, was the message Naazish YarKhan had.

She spoke of her own experiences where, as a single individual, she first began helping refugees at her children’s school. It set off a ripple effect and two of the programs she helped start, ‘Community Outreach’ in her children’s school, and an ESL inter-faith tutoring program at a local church, continue to thrive ten years later, even though she is no longer involved. “It is, inshallah, my sadaqa jariyah,” she said.

Speaking of ICNA Relief’s nation-wide services for refugees she listed solutions.

“Whether it’s monetary donations towards rent payments for a refugee, car donations, in-kind donations to our annual Kitchen Kit Drive, or offering emotional support as a mentor for one hour a month, there are so many ways every single person can help.”

Catholic Charities, Heartland Alliance, Refugee One and World Relief are other resettlement agencies seeking volunteers.

Shaykha Anse Tamara Gray spoke of the need to make Mosques more inclusive of women and that meant going beyond having women represented on Masjid Boards.

She drew on her own experiences as a Shayka in Minnesota, and being denied a voice in the Masjids.

In her small group discussion, participants agreed that masjids need to proactively recruit women leaders, and to have the masjid  be a welcoming space for them.

Potential solutions ranged from having barrier-free women’s prayer spaces in the main musallah to adding women’s voices in the decision- making processes, in every mosque, she said. Further, education as to the historical role of women in Islam would serve as a catalyst to change.

To build “inclusive communities, I learned that it is important to first define Diversity and Community before we can attempt to be inclusive,” said Jafri, summarizing the discussion.

“It was also evident that collaboration, research, and sustainable solutions will help us create communities that can respond to the needs of their existing and potential members both now and long-term.

“Lastly, listening to the needs of the people we serve is more important than assuming or imposing our ideas for solutions on them.”

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