As part of our Counter Islamophobia Through Stories campaign, we featured a curated book list on Muslim leaders and visionaries earlier this week - a list of books on Muslims who made and continue to make significant contributions to the world.
As we think about Muslim leaders and visionaries, we also want to remind and share stories of everyday Muslim heroes right here in America. This led us to connect with Zainab Zeb Khan, President of the Muslim American Leadership Alliance (MALA).
Khan says, “MALA promotes diversity by celebrating differences in cultures, perspectives, backgrounds, and traditions. We strive to create awareness and eradicate ignorance by sharing the unique experiences of hundreds of individuals and giving them a platform to be heard; to inspire and be inspired.”
A unique and inspiring program undertaken by MALA is the “Muslim American Journeys” where it provided a platform for Americans of Muslim heritage to share their individual stories. Like MALA, we also believe that personal stories can be a powerful catalyst for change – challenging stereotypes, building bridges, and inspiring action.
MALA’s work is imperative for combating both bigotry and anti-Muslim rhetoric because it takes back the Muslim-American narrative, renews it, and allows for us to see Muslims in a new light. These stories allows for a new level of understanding and respect for the people we interact with on a daily basis. Khan emphasizes,"Essentially, MALA’s work is a reminder that the United States is a melting pot—a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious nation filled with incredible individuals."
Here are a few stories from MALA’s “Muslim American Journeys” program that we are sharing as part of the Counter Islamophobia Through Stories campaign. MALA's stories have the potential to build bridges. The personal stories we present are a sounding board to learn more about not only the storyteller, but also the broad range of diversity within the Muslim American community.
Listen to ‘Saboor Sahely & Jessica Sahely: From Afghanistan To US A Lesson In Love One Thanksgiving At A Time’ podcast, where he talks about his own Thanksgiving tradition to give back to the community.
One Sunday, I came to this restaurant. I walk in there and the dishwasher hadn’t shown up and the manager asked me, when can I start, and I said right away. I did that for a few months and he moved me on as a—I became a cook—and then assistant manager.
After that we opened the restaurant, and we’ve treated every single customer as if they are a part of our family. We have many regulars that eat three meals a day in our restaurant. And if they don’t show up, we call them to make sure they’re okay. And we go to their funerals, we go to their weddings. These people put shoes on my children’s feet and they deserve the best. So, we should turn around and give something back every single chance we get.
You know, my grandmother, she knew that most of the village did not have enough to eat. So whatever we had for dinner every night, she made sure that she’ll have a plate full that I had to carry to different homes.
So when I was in a position to give something back, we thought on Thanksgiving Day we’re going to open our doors to anybody and everybody. Last year, for instance, we had over 800 people that come to the door. We’re very, very lucky. And I don’t take that for granted at all.
Read more here.
Read ‘Imtashal Michelle Tariq: The Diverse Melting Pot in Brooklyn’ on finding herself reflected in the many stories and cultures of her diverse neighbourhood.
If America is the melting pot, then Sunset Park is the stock—the bones—of that soup. For the last fifty years, Sunset Park has been home to a wide range of immigrant communities, including Latino, Middle Eastern, and Asian populations. Strolling through the streets of my neighborhood- a square mile area nestled in South Brooklyn featuring stunning views of the Manhattan skyline- one can bear witness to its history. Its sometimes violent past but also the strong sense of community and cultural pride that emerges from years of struggle. Puerto Rican and Mexican flags hang from windows and balconies.
Murals and graffiti cover many buildings—some of them your standard tags, and others including themes around social issues. Others commemorate the young men killed on the streets when the neighborhood was still one of the poorest, most violent, and drug ridden parts of the City. My favorite mural, on 5502 Fourth Avenue, depicts the diversity of women in the neighborhood. One side features two Muslim students wearing the hijab and shows a pair of hands that belong to a Jamaican mother. The other side of the mural depicts three generations of Puerto Ricans- a mother, daughter, and grandmother, as well as an elderly Chinese woman, representing Sunset Park’s most prominent and growing communities.
I feel a strong sense of connection to my diverse neighborhood, and I often find myself identifying more as a girl from Brooklyn than a Muslim. Yet, as I’ve grown up and traveled farther and farther from my home, I’ve come to realize that those two identities are really two sides of the same coin. Today, Sunset Park is roughly fifty percent Latino and forty percent Asian.
Yet, watching the experiences of the new immigrants in my neighborhood reminds me of my mother’s journey. She worked in the warehouses along Third Avenue which are now retail stores and trendy coffee shops. I worked in those same factories as a teenager, and my mother often chided me to do better in school so I could make something of myself.
Read more here.
Follow along with 'Ahmad Zabi: A Journey of Continuous Self-Discovery' as he discovers a new world and makes new lifelong relationships in America
I finally arrived in America in summer of 2007.
The program placed Afghan students randomly with American families around the US. I was placed with the Martin family in Berne, Indiana. Berne is a small town. It was settled around 1852 by Mennonite immigrants who came directly from Switzerland, and named the community for the capital of Switzerland. The Martin family is also from the Mennonite cultural and religious background. Mennonites are Christian groups belonging to the church communities of Anabaptist denominations named after Menno Simons(1496–1561) of Friesland in what is now the Netherlands. Mennonite emphasize adult baptism, rejects violence/war and are immense advocates of peace, building relationships and solidarity with other faiths and cultures.
In Kabul, my high school had over eight thousand students, more than the entire town of Berne. Berne is not a very diverse town. So, when an Afghan student moved there, the word got around. Before coming to America, I was nervous, afraid and uncertain about what I would be facing.
The Martin family, whom I consider my family now, and the Mennonite community welcomed me with loving, caring and open arms. I was able to speak to church members and the community about Islam, Afghan culture, and the relationship between Christianity and Islam. I was able to share how Islam viewed Jesus and Mary and how I grew up learning about Jesus, his teachings, and his importance in Islam. I quickly became a bridge between the two cultures and the two religions.
Although I am not versed in theology for either Christianity or Islam, I quickly began connecting the dots and saw many similarities between the two faiths, particularly how they viewed spirituality, one’s relationships with God, family values, and community ethics.
Read more here.
Read Tayyib Mubarak Rashid: A Muslim Marine’s Perspective interview where he says there is no conflict between his faith and serving his country.
Do you have any stories about how things have changed for the better? Or any stories that show how things have not changed?
It’s hard to argue that things have not changed. Certainly as we advance in technology the rate of change continues to accelerate. While many would argue that things have gotten worse in general, I think for many people who choose not to remain ignorant, things have gotten better.
For example, the current climate has given me ample opportunity to engage with my fellow Americans about what I truly believe being an American Muslim Veteran. People reach out to me all the time to get my perspective.
Several of my acquaintances have volunteered that before they met me or understood my views as an American Muslim, they had a very negative view of Islam based on what they heard in the media and politics. But since following my posts on social media, they have become much more aware of the anti-Muslim, anti-religion, and anti-people-of-color bias that exists in our society. And they express their gratitude for my efforts to educate the masses.
Just to share a quick story, in November 2015 when Donald Trump made the suggestion to have American Muslims carry a special ID badge, I fired off this tweet:
To my pleasant surprise it went viral and today has more than 39,000 retweets and over 53,000 likes. I have been interviewed by MSNBC, ABC, NBC, been featured in the NY Times and many other outlets for standing up to Donald Trump. But the story isn’t about me. It’s about the concept of America and what it stands for. This story goes to show that there are a large number of Americans who value diversity, integrity, and are willing to stand in solidarity with Muslims against hate and bigotry.
So while in many ways things have changed for the worse, in many other ways things are changing for the better. We as American Muslims have to set the example and surround ourselves with the tools and advocates to help educate the masses in order to overcome hate and help establish peace in our society.
Read more here.
Read Soraya Deen: Saying Yes to Change story where something personal inspired her to rally the community to rise above religion and politics and create solidarity.
I remember the day when my seven year old son looked up at me-his eyes welled in tears, his face sad and confused- and asked “Mommy, are we terrorists?” It was the sixth anniversary of 9/11. I was picking my son from his school.
I realized at this moment that my words had the power to liberate or enslave my son- to bring hope or fear not only to my son, but to the world. So I took a deep breath and firmly told my son, “Baby, we are not terrorists. You are not a terrorist. Your baby sister is not a terrorist. Mommy is not a terrorist, and Daddy is not a terrorist.”
That day I also realized that my son was bullied because he was Muslim. And I knew that evil will continue to prevail if good people did nothing. I began a personal and profound journey sharing my story with friends and in gatherings. People loved to hear my story, the struggles, the bullying and my journey into social activism and civic engagement.
Women, mothers rose above religion and politics to support my journey. Later I founded the Muslim Women Speakers Movement, empowering women to become better communicators, understand that their story had the capacity and the power to transform the world, give people hope. It became clear to me that no matter how bad the past, how rough the present and how daunting the future seemed, we must not let circumstances define who we are. We have the capacity, if we show up and speak up to change those circumstances.
Read more here.
Read Sofian Khan: Just a simple day of Filming on how his day was interrupted by a citizen’s arrest and his fleeting moment of connection with the man who ‘arrested’ him
The absurdity of my situation suddenly hit me. I felt embarrassed that I had allowed myself to be cornered like this. Why didn’t I just take my things and walk away? What right did he have to keep me there when I’d done nothing wrong?
“If I was doing something shady,” I suddenly started to say to him, “why would I go around with this big camera and a tripod? Doesn’t it seem kind of stupid?”
He looked at me like I was calling him stupid. I took the cue not to proceed any further along this line of reasoning. The following silence was even more tense.
“Where are you from?” he finally asked.
“Long Island,” I replied.
He looked blank. “Where were you born?”
“Plainview Hospital,” I told him. He still looked skeptical. “Sorry, I don’t carry my birth certificate with me.” Now I could hear my anger starting to come out, soaked in sarcasm. I took a breath and continued in a conversational tone. “We lived in Hicksville,” I explained. “Then we moved to Syosset. That’s where I grew up.” After that, I didn’t know what else to say.
“I’m from Farmingdale,” he offered.
That tidbit felt like an olive branch. He didn’t elaborate, but something about his demeanor softened. It was a confirmation of familiarity, however small, that had been planted. He was still committed to having the police come and question me of course— but there was no more aggression in his posture, and far less tension in the ensuing silence.
Read more here.
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