impact of muslim michiganders
faces of Muslim Michiganders
Imam Saleem Khalid is the executive director of the Muslim Enrichment Program, a project providing educational and social support to new Muslims. He was formerly with Standard Federal Savings (currently Bank of America), where he served as the first Muslim and African American vice president. Imam Saleem previously served as the executive director of the Detroit Alliance for Fair Banking and as the director of economic development for New Detroit, Inc., one of the nation’s oldest and largest race relations coalitions.
We have a unique opportunity here in North America, and that's the opportunity to express ourselves unbridled; to say what we feel.
That's critically important to me. That's something that should be protected. People worked hard for that. It's something that should be honored and it's a tradition that I believe works.
But listening is also a gift.
The capacity to listen can be increased through discipline. It’s also a function of your level of comfort with who you are and what you believe. I'm not disturbed, I'm not shaken up by someone else's interpretation of me, of their sense of me, their sense of my space, their sense of my intentions.
I'm seeing fewer people willing to engage in an objective conversation, people willing to sit down at the table and share whatever it is, whether it's their faith belief, political belief, local belief, or national or international belief. I'm seeing more and more distance between people, and less and less willingness to do that. But I think it's necessary, healing, and therapeutic.
The world we live in necessitates human beings being able to reach the point at which we can converse and agree to disagree. We can’t agree about everything. We don't agree on everything. God has created us individually, uniquely differently, and sometimes starkly different.
It’s occurred to me in my travels that the space we occupy is so small. No matter the distance you travel, no matter the number of days you travel, the world is very, very small. We're connected. We need to understand that the speaker and the listener are the children of Adam. We have everything in common.
Rahaf Khatib is a stay-at-home mom; an international marathon runner; the first hijabi to appear on the cover of a U.S. fitness magazine; and was a top ten finalist in the 2015 Runner's World cover search. Rahaf uses her running to empower the community through advocating for healthy living while organizing local runs.
I was a stay-at-home mom with two kids under age two. I felt empty and out of touch with society. Being at home all the time makes you feel like you’re left out from the greater community and like you’re not contributing to anything. I felt like I needed to get out there somehow.
I started going to the gym, not to lose weight or to look good. It wasn’t even about looks at all. I went to blow off some steam. Just get out of my house. Slowly, I started loving it.
Then I was like, “You know what? I need something more.”
My son’s school registered for the Martian Marathon here in Dearborn in 2012, and the gym teacher said, “You should sign up for the run and try to do that.”
So, I signed up for the 10K, not the 5K. I love to challenge myself. I trained and just did what I could, getting out there and running almost every day. Crossing the finish line, I had such a euphoric feeling that I came back for more, and more and more.
Being a stay-at-home mom you need to push through when things get bad. You know that eventually you’re going to get rewarded at the end.
There’s a saying, “If you want to see the positive side of humanity, go watch a marathon.” Go watch people crossing the finish line. People are in tears, people are hugging each other, people are on the floor prostrating, people are just—it’s just raw, deep emotions. Like giving birth.
Bilal Amen is the co-founder of HYPE Athletics Community, which supports the positive development of Wayne County youth through athletics.
When I was younger, my goal was to be a millionaire by the time I was 30. I wanted to be retired by the time I was 32. That was my goal. I was working odd jobs, crazy hours just so I could collect a paycheck. I got to a point at which I asked myself, “what am I doing?”
What I do now, I don't do it because the pay is great. I do it because I love it. I've had other offers, other jobs that would pay me double or triple what I make right now. I've turned them down because I get to work with kids every day. I get to watch them grow up—watch them turn from kids to men. I can literally say I’m helping build my community.
These aren’t just kids from Dearborn. They are from Detroit, Taylor, Wayne, from all over. Our whole goal was to bring kids together through sports, to get them to make new friends besides the ones that they see daily. Our kids are walking into tournaments that they don’t belong in and beating some of the top teams because they came together as a family. They worked as a team. But we’re not looking to build crazy champions, we’re looking to build role models for the community.
Many people say that in this young generation there are a lot of kids who have attitudes. Me? I see it differently. I see a generation that wants to make change.
Rashida Tlaib is an advocate and activist, and was the first Muslim woman elected to the Michigan Legislature. She currently serves as the community partnerships and development director at the Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice.
When I was going to law school, I did the weekend program—I couldn’t afford to go full time. I found a program where I worked Monday through Friday at a nonprofit organization as an executive assistant, answering phone calls, pushing paper around, trying to support the administrative staff.
And on the weekends, I’d go to class—two on Saturday, two on Sunday. And when I was done I had this tremendous amount of debt. So, I went and worked at a firm, a very small one. And I was miserable. I worked there only eight months and I couldn’t take it anymore.
I decided to go back into the nonprofit sector and I never regretted it. It opened doors. I felt like every single day I was making a difference. It’s such a privilege to feel that way.
I ended up running for office because I was upset about this English-only legislation in Lansing. I remember going to lunch with someone and saying “Who do you know on that committee that could understand that this is so un-American?”
That’s how I met the state representative at the time. I didn’t know him very well—now he’s one of my closest mentors—and he convinced me to run. I became the first Muslim woman ever elected to the Michigan legislature.
If I stayed where I was, I probably would have never known about the bill. I helped kill it, which I’m very proud of. So many of us feel stuck right now. But there are ways you can get around, especially now with everything on the Net. Nothing prevents you from writing an editorial or getting engaged on an issue that’s important to you—and that always opens doors to happiness.
Dr. Mahmood Hai is an internationally renowned urologist known for his pioneering work on the GreenLight Laser device, which revolutionized prostate surgery.
I remember a gentleman who was totally bedridden because he had to live with a catheter all the time. He had gone to several doctors, and they all said, “You’re too old. You have too many medical problems. You’re on blood thinners. We can’t operate on you.”
He came to me and said, “I’m 92 years old. Can you do something to get rid of this?” I did the surgery. A week later, I saw him in the office and he hugged me and wouldn’t stop crying. He said, “I never dreamt that I would ever be without a catheter. I never thought I’d be able to urinate.”
It leaves deep impressions in your heart. I’ve been very close to my patients. I tell them, “The day you come to see me, you become a part of my family.” And I treat them like that. I hug them, I cry with them when they hurt. I go to their funerals when they die. I go to their son’s wedding when there’s happiness. Because to me, that is life. They are my friends. They are my uncles. They are my aunts. They are my children. It’s not a profession. It’s part of who I am.
When I was leaving for medical school, my father said, “When you see your patients, look into their eyes, and tell the truth. They will trust you and believe you. During your meeting with them, make sure you touch them. If they want to hug you, if they want to physically shake hands with you—that’s how you can communicate.”
That was very good advice. If they don’t trust you, then they are not going to get better with your treatment. And, you must have trust in them. It’s a relationship.
Patrice Bryson is the founder and executive director of Martha Pearl, which protects the dignity of displaced, marginalized, and disadvantaged people.
I know homelessness because I've experienced homelessness. My children and I have been homeless, in and out of homelessness since their birth. I'm homeless now. Many of the people who I serve, I've laid next to. I've witnessed their addictions and their flaws, and they've witnessed mine.
I am empowered with voice despite my circumstances. I approach my homelessness as a means to help other people. There are people out there who don't know that their walk isn't just theirs, that they're also here to affect other people.
Yes, you have an obligation to be gracious and to appreciate what's being done for you. Yes. But you don't have to accept anything simply because you're in a state of poverty.
Allah talks to me every day. Every day. And He's reminding me of gratitude, of being grateful for every little thing, the good and the bad. I think I understand that concept now. He has reminded me of my joys in life. My two little boys—they're growing spiritually and mentally from this. They're not victims. They understand things in a real way. They're five and six.
I'm so blessed that Allah has given me the insight and the patience to teach them and explain things to them in a way they can understand and still be happy with.
So, thinking on those moments, and the gratitude I have for teachable moments to give to my children, the gratitude I have for every little thing, I'm happy. We get giddy just to go to Whole Foods and get our chocolate milk.
We get a half-gallon and we put it into cups and divide it, and that's like the best thing ever. The gratitude for the simple things. The ability to just connect with people.
Razi Jafri is a designer, entrepreneur, photographer, and co-founder of NeighborFix, a marketplace for neighbors to help neighbors.
I've always loved taking pictures and I've always loved looking at images. I find them to be very beautiful. It's a moment in time that will never happen again. It's a fantastic way to tell a story. It supplements the story, it enhances it.
I'm in a photography fellowship right now called documenting Detroit. It's a cohort of 22 photographers who were chosen to document a project in the city of Detroit. We're all working on different stories. My work focuses primarily on spirituality and ethnicity. We had a major milestone last Friday when we had a show at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
It was an outdoor event, the work of all 22 photographers was presented on the back lawn of the DIA. It was validating in so many ways. I mean, for me as a photographer, and my skills and my abilities, and my motivations to tell the story about Muslims in Detroit.
A lot of friends and family came—even my parents came. To hear people recognizing the value of my work and how important it is—friends who are Muslim, who are not Muslim, who are Jewish, Christian, whatever background—was so validating. My parents told me they had no clue that I had spent so much time on it. They congratulated me, they told me it was incredible work and they even told me that they were very proud of me. That was one of the best nights of my life.
Yumn Elkhoja is an international marathon runner, a mother of two, and a registered nurse.
Being a single mom is a struggle—it doesn’t feel balanced. It doesn’t feel balanced when you have to do everything. I work full time as a nurse. I have two children. They have their father, who’s involved in their life. He’s very helpful. But still, it’s me on my own at home.
When I was married, it was not the best marriage. I feel that a lot of people, when they get divorced or when they leave their marriages, or when they leave bad relationships, they tend to blame the other person.
There’s a lot to blame him for, but I feel that there was also a lot about myself. There were sides to me that I didn’t know I had until I was in that marriage. It was almost like a mirror for me. I saw a lot of very ugly parts of myself. I could say all the things he did, but there was a lot I did too. When I left the marriage, I said, “I don’t want to be that person. I don’t want to be that way.”
So I started to work on myself. I mean it might sound selfish, but it’s not for selfish reasons. I became consumed with trying to work on myself and be a better person, and not worry about external factors. That is why I turned to running. To just work on myself internally.
It was one of those times when I compare myself to a phoenix. At the end of their life, they burst into flames and then they come back as a new person. That, for me, was a big transformational time.
Dr. Yahya Basha is the president and founder of Basha Diagnostics PC; he is a radiologist, businessman, and champion for refugees. He has worked with the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations.
I am one of 11 children. I brought most of them here and they have their spouses and children. Now we are more than 100 people, and we have 22 doctors in the family.
If I'm alone, I’m weak. When you are part of a community, you see what's weak, what's wrong, what's good about the community. You start to work to improve humanity, and you start with the closest people to you—your family, neighborhood, the people you share heritage with.
My dad's father died when he was four, his mom when he was 13. All the time he used to speak about feeling lonely. He worked very hard from the age of 13, supporting himself. He used to describe how hungry he was as a child.
Even though he started very poor, he had a candy factory. I used to see the happiness in the eyes of the kids taking candies. It made me feel so good that my dad made a lot of kids happy.
All that developed empathy in me but also a sense of insecurity; about how fragile we are. Without being linked to other human beings, life can be totally wasted and destroyed for no good cause. My dad taught me to value hard work, education, and charity.
You know, the other value I want my children and grandchildren to hold is loyalty to this country. I know we have a lot of heritage. We inherited our culture, religion, names, language, and memories from the old country. But I want them to feel that wherever you are, you belong to the people surrounding you.
Zain Shamoon is a therapist and founder of Narratives of Pain. He is pursuing a Ph.D. at Michigan State University in human development and family studies, currently focused on domestic violence in South Asian communities and how storytelling helps address services.
I had a lot of internalized messages about myself in a space where there were a lot of white people. How can you not, growing up? How do you know anything else at fourteen? At the time, you don't know that you are shaming yourself.
You don't know that you are keeping things inside. You just know that it feels better not to get in any conflict with your peers. You know it feels better not to get yelled at or picked on. You might even start to make fun of your own race just to navigate the social situation.
We start to do it to each other later, right? If I managed to keep myself emotionally alive by the end of high school, then maybe I maintain that comfort by making fun of some other desi folks when I get into college.
We were afraid of white people. I don't think it’s a malicious, unintelligible fear. It’s because it’s vulnerable to leave that space.
The problem is that it’s not wholesome. It doesn't work. It ruins your relationships, and it ruins your family for you to posture and put on a show to be safe.
It’s not even true. People who don't like you because of the way you look—you can pacify them as much as you want. They’ll let you into their country club but when it comes to being let in, it's not the same thing.
So, if I'm a brown person in school where we have mostly wealthy Republican-voting white students, you know it's all about grades and upkeep.
Their parents and our parents are reinforcing it. There is this sort of “model minority” complex. That's how you survive.
Al Haidous currently serves as a Wayne County commissioner. Upon his election as mayor of Wayne in 2001, he became the first Muslim mayor in the United States.
2001 was a difficult year for us as Americans. Some people thought it might be difficult for me to get elected. But the people in Wayne approved, saying, “He’s our son and we believe in him through the reputation he has built.” I was honored, and I can’t thank them enough. I served for 14 years.
I’m not the only contributor to my success. A lot of people contributed to that. I wouldn’t be here without my wife, God bless her. She was the backbone. If I’m busy with the city, she’s running the store. When the kids get out of school, she’s home to feed them and make sure they do their homework.
We worked hard. But we didn’t feel it because we always managed to laugh together when we sat down at the dinner table.
Yesterday, I turned 74. I’m in the sunset of my life. But I enjoy what I’m doing, and I hope I can serve as long as I can. The day I know I’m not too happy with my performance, then I’ll call it quits. But as long as I’m happy and feel I’m doing what the people expect me to, I’m doing it.
The salary when I started was $2,800 a year. A reporter asked me, “If you’re not making money, what do you want out of this?” I told him, “I have a small business in this community, and through that, the community supports me, and loves me and my family, and educates my kids.”
I want one thing: one day, when somebody sees my son, my daughter, my grandson, my granddaughter, to hug them and tell them, “Grandpa was a good man.” That’s all I want to take with me. If I could accomplish that, I’m the most successful person.
Leah Vernon is an author, fashion blogger, and body-positive activist.
My mother was very … eclectic. We thought that was normal growing up. Whatever world she created for us, that's what we believed.
She home-schooled us, so afterward I’d ride my bike to the library and read for hours—C.S. Lewis, R.L. Stine, and J.K. Rowling. I pretended to be the characters. I had my own little world. Then, I’d go home and have to deal with whatever stuff my mother was going through.
My father wasn’t around much, but when he was, he was either making me feel bad about being Muslim, calling my mother crazy, or making me feel bad about my body. He would feed me a lot and then make fun of me afterward for being bigger than the other kids.
My parents shaped who I am now. It’s why I am a writer, because I can create with words these colorful images and stories. It’s why I like fiction more than nonfiction, you don't have to expose that you came from poverty or that you’re even African American. Writing was an escape. And it still is.
In my own little world, I was the protagonist who would save the day. I used to be into superheroes like Superman and Sailor Moon. During that time, there were little to no people of color in any of those roles. So, I imagined myself as a caucasian superhero or heroine. There is a split identity, or identity crisis that I went through as a young adult because I looked like this, but I thought I was that.
I try to make my stories multicultural because that’s what the world is really like.
Chris Abdur-Rahman Blauvelt is the CEO of LaunchGood, a Muslim crowdfunding site. LaunchGood has helped raise more than $10 million for more than 1,000 campaigns across 71 countries.
As a person of faith, I believe that our hearts are our connection to and guidance from God. Listening to our hearts, despite external pressures or other misgivings, can help guide us.
Working in a corporation rather than in education was better financially, but I knew that sitting in a cubicle was not fulfilling. During my internship, I helped save Intel $10 million a year. But the next day nothing had changed. I just helped a company with billions of dollars of revenue a year save a tiny fraction.
My mentor there—Jim Kelso—gave an inspiring speech telling us not to be afraid, and to go after and get what we wanted in life. Then he asked us what we wanted to do. When it was my turn, I said, “I want to open a school.”
I was 16 years old when I became Muslim. Therefore, the idea that you could do anything you want was totally reasonable to me. The idea that you could be in your 20s and do something new felt both revolutionary and right.
After that talk, I went back to school for a master's in education. But now I’m in entrepreneurship. How did I get here?
A friend asked me to move to Detroit to work with him. I was waiting on a six-figure salary job with the Islamic Development Bank to be finalized. I would effectively have been building schools across the world.
But when I looked into my heart, I felt I should come to Detroit. If I hadn’t done that, then I never would have begun a Kickstarter a year later, gone into crowdfunding, or founded LaunchGood.
So, I try to trust my heart. If it's indicating that a certain direction is a good way to go, I do it.
Nausheen Shah is a high-energy theoretical physicist and a professor at Wayne State University.
I loved physics when I was a kid, because I would always ask, why, why, why, why, why. I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, because I had to answer the “why.”
I had amazing teachers who always encouraged me. Ms. Soares taught me math from sixth grade onward. She was one of my favorite teachers. It wasn’t just her teaching. It was just the relationship I had with her, as her student. It was always like, “Yeah, you’re really good. You should try to be more. Do whatever you want.”
I must say that she wasn’t a very encouraging person. She was an abrasive person. Her brand of encouraging was very weird but it worked for me. She was what would be considered completely politically incorrect. She’d say, “You don’t come to school to warm benches.” It didn’t work for a lot of other kids who were intimidated by her. I remember, she’d make my friend cry. But, somehow it worked for me.
I don’t get knocked down by criticism.
Leon El-Alamin is the founder and executive director of M.A.D.E. Institute in Flint, Michigan, a nonprofit that serves formerly incarcerated individuals and at-risk youth.
I deal with a lot of different types of people. I’m always me regardless of who they are. Whether it’s the governor or mayor, I’m still going to be honest and tell you the truth of what's going on, and the things that you can do to help.
Often people have stereotypes and prejudices about people who come from the inner city or have been to prison. I tell people I have three strikes against me. We know our country is founded on racism. So, I am of African descent, first and foremost. I have that on me. Then, converting to a religion that is not the dominant religion is a barrier. Next, I’m a felon. I have a number on my back. So, not only do I have to struggle with just being a black man in this racist country and society, but I’m also a former felon, and I practice Islam.
So—be inspired, surround yourself with positive people, always educate yourself beyond what's being taught in classrooms. The world and life around is just one big classroom; you can learn so much from it. Never look down on anyone. You can learn from a child. You can learn from the homeless. You can learn from anyone. Always have that mindset that is an example of our Prophet, peace be upon him.
Rose Khalifa is a registered nurse and chief executive officer of Metro Solutions, a firm that helps connect small nonprofits to funding.
In 1977, when we came, it was to a very welcoming city because it was a growing Arab American community in Dearborn. Having a lot of family members on my father's side here, we didn’t feel too much of the displacement. And, at six years of age, you adapt very quickly. It’s the adults who struggle the most.
Going to school, I didn't have a challenge because there were bilingual teachers, and there was English as a second language class. The struggles weren’t there until my teens, when the cultural clash kicked in. I was beginning to lose my ability to speak Arabic while trying to embrace and perfect my English. I was torn between what I want to do and what teachers were asking me to do, versus my parents being worried about me losing my cultural and linguistic skills.
When I was 12, I went to the hospital for an outpatient ear, nose, and throat procedure. When I dealt with the staff, I spoke in English, but when my parents came I spoke in Arabic. One nurse let me have it. “Why are you speaking another language? You can speak perfect English.”
I was torn between the mercy of the person who's got her hands on my pain medication versus trying to satisfy requirements set forth by my parents. I should never have had to feel that as a patient.
That was the moment I knew that my calling was in nursing. It was to nurse differently than that person did. It wasn't just nursing but the empathy and passion that goes with any service industry, particularly for a most vulnerable population.
Dr. Ghulam Qadir is a psychiatrist who helped create Michigan’s patient bill of rights; he served as a vice chairman of Controlled Substances Advisory Commission for the State of Michigan for four years.
I was the first in my family to finish elementary school. I walked three miles each way to get to school. At the ages of five, six, or seven, you don’t want to go to school. I wanted to be a farmer.
I asked him why I had to go to school. My father replied, “You can always come back to farming.”
Coming from an uneducated family, my dream was to see them all become professional or business people. It took a long time, but that’s exactly what happened. So, education is very important to me.
I was the middle child. My brother was the third one. There was a difference between us: I’m more reserved, he’s more open. I thought that he would be the leader of the family.
I was here in the U.S. when my brother wrote me a letter saying, “Get me out of here. I think my life is in danger.” He implicated our neighbors. I laughed. “You must be crazy. We have a good relationship with them. We helped take care of them.”
I literally ignored it. He was killed at the age of 22 by the same people. I spent six months in Pakistan to see that they got the punishment they deserved. But there was no justice.
It happened on Jummat ul Wida, the last Friday of Ramadan. That was always a difficult time for me, afterward. [I wasn’t] interested in doing anything. I always kept it to myself.
I used to have nightmares. My wife is a therapist, and we’d talk about it.
Zarinah El-Amin Naeem is a cultural anthropologist who uses travel and art to build connections between people. She is an author and owns her own publishing company, Niyah Press.
My family is mixed. My parents converted to Islam, so they were the only Muslims in their family. I didn’t celebrate Christmas, but we respected Christmas. At Christmas time, we went to my aunt’s house for dinner.
It was never, “Oh you’re a Muslim, you can’t go there.” I always said, “No, I’m a Muslim, I know who I am. My aunt is Christian. We know who she is and we’re going to celebrate her holiday.”
That type of blended upbringing never made me feel weird about being different. That was important for my parents—instilling that in us. My father did a lot of interfaith events and programming. We were always around other people.
We’re working on it more with our children. I took the children to the Sikh temple. It was a nice experience to sit down outside of where I normally go and see how other people worship and talk to them about their faith.
That was powerful for me. The children have friends from all backgrounds, but we do need to be a little bit more intentional. It’s good for them to be able to meet other people. The more types of experiences they have like that growing up, the more it’s going to open their minds. They won’t be afraid of what they know.
Sultan Sharrief is a filmmaker, educator, and activist.
I had just given up on this giant project that I spent four years of my life on. It was a film and I thought it wasn’t going to get anywhere. You don’t sell DVDs of a film unless you are going to bypass a premiere. I did a new edit of the film to start making DVDs and start selling them out of the trunk of my car.
It was the week of Thanksgiving. That Wednesday, I drove down to Mississippi to a little house I had grown up in. My whole family was coming down. It was the first time we were all in the same house since I was in first grade. I'm 25 now. I get to the house, and get a call. It was Sundance. Someone had submitted my film.
I got into Sundance.
As I'm processing this life-changing information, my whole family is arriving from all over the country. Cousins from Chicago walk in—everyone. They’d all helped with the movie, fundraising, and all that stuff.
Every time somebody arrives, they’d say, “Bilal Stand! The film got into Sundance!” And everyone would be like, “Ahhhh!” And there would be tears and hugging. And someone else would arrive, and again, “The film got into Sundance,” and “Ahhhh.” All of this repeatedly, within, like, an hour.
It was just the most awesome thing. Everything I want, the day before Thanksgiving.
Ayesha Fatima is a pediatric gastroenterologist at Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Michigan; the founder and chair of Women Physicians for Humanity, a nonprofit organization that serves women and children domestically and internationally; and the vice president of the Syrian American Rescue Network (SARN), a nonprofit that assists incoming refugees.
I could see the differences in the opportunities my brother got versus me. He was expected to be a physician. I was expected to do a bachelor’s in science, marry, and be done. It was surprising for my family when I wanted to get into medicine. I got engaged at 19, and before 20 I was married, but with one rule. My dad said, “She wants to continue her education.”
When I had my daughter during residency my dad came to visit, but he had a massive stroke. When he lost his speech, I felt like I lost him. I couldn’t talk to him anymore. I went through depression. It was one of the hardest times of my life.
But I knew I had to carry on because of my dream, for the kids’ sake, and to be independent. I got into Brown [University] for a pediatric GI fellowship—I could have let go, but I wanted to finish.
He went in for routine surgery but had complications. One of the hardest things I’ve ever done was making the decision to withdraw life support. That is a huge burden on kids. The worst burden. Oh, my God. The hardest thing was pulling the plug and seeing his heart rate drop down, 10-9-8… I can’t forget that.
My dad was one of the biggest humanitarians I’ve ever met, and was also my biggest strength. He was a physician, but he had no savings because he would give away everything. I wanted to continue his legacy. I find peace in my humanitarian work. I started considering it right after he died.
And since last year, when I could put that in motion, I feel like he is here.
Dawud Walid is executive director of the Michigan chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MI), a U.S. Navy veteran, and a member of the Michigan Muslim Community Council (MMCC) Imams Committee.
My greatest struggle right now is fighting cynicism. It’s not cynicism with individuals I deal with, but cynicism about America, about American society, about how things are unfolding regarding race relations.
Racism, xenophobia, Islamophobia are out of the closet now. They’ve always existed in America, but [now] they’re on full display. And a lot of things that have taken place historically, to the African American community in particular, haven’t gotten any better since the 1960s.
We’re talking about police brutality, increase in mass incarceration, the income-equality gap not closing, and other factors. So, sometimes I wonder, is the American project a failure? Is this society redeemable? I struggle with that.
I do what I do to make a difference, but it’s not simple, especially when every day I go on social media or watch TV and see some unarmed African American or Latino getting shot by the police.
What I have been focused on more is working inside the Muslim community. I have a strong belief that American Muslims can’t effectively deal with racism and xenophobia without addressing the racism and classism that exists in the American Muslim community. I’ve seen some progress in our community in the last 3 years. We have a long way to go.
Dr. Jacqueline El-Sayed is the vice president for academic affairs and professor of mechanical engineering at Marygrove College. She has served as a trustee of the Bloomfield Hills Board of Education since 2011, and as commissioner of the Michigan Truck Safety Commission.
I was 18 years old when I started working on the line at General Motors, as a co-op student at General Motors Institute. Even today, engineering is 82 percent male. Back then it was like entering a jail. The men on both sides of the line would rattle their machines and catcall. You could always tell where a woman was in the plant by the roar as she walked through.
There weren’t the laws there are now. That’s the way it was. I remember what I was wearing the first day I went to work because I was looking down. I was wearing my high school track sweatshirt and New Balance tennis shoes.
The security guard called out to me, something like, “Is that your age or your bra size?” That was the security guard who was supposed to protect me in this plant in Pontiac, where there were knifings. It was a dangerous place. I didn’t react. I knew it was uncomfortable, but everything about moving away from my family was uncomfortable.
My dad always said, “Keep your eyes straight ahead and walk as if you know where you’re going, even if you’re just going to the bathroom.”
So, I have my safety glasses on, and my “plant walk”, where I’m walking rapidly to wherever I’m going, looking straight ahead. This thing happens, but I don’t make it personal. I know they’re doing that to every single woman going through the truck plant.
It wasn’t until I was more mature that I realized that was a hostile environment. I was just trying to do what GMI asked me to do. I was on full scholarship, but I needed a satisfactory recommendation from my co-op work. At that time, two-thirds of the class would fail out. You had to make it through.
Dr. Luay Shalabi is the principal of Central Academy in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he won the 2015 Michigan Charter Schools Educator of the Year award. He serves as a mentor and coach to principals at Global Educational Excellence, an educational service provider serving schools in Michigan and Ohio.
In the 1990s, I was teaching here in Dearborn, and we had an influx of immigration, like what we are having right now.
Students came from refugee camps where they had lived for about four or five years. And when they came to our system, teaching them grammar and English and social studies were not the top priorities. The top priority was to survive and deal with the trauma they had lived with for years.
So many students I can never, ever forget. I remember discussing a grammar point with one girl in the class, her eyes looking nowhere. She put her hand in her pocket and she showed me a picture. She said, “This is my brother who was shot next to the tree.”
Nothing against teachers, but teachers don’t know. They think, “My job is to teach them. I want them to be the best writers. I want them to be speakers. They’re new in this country, so English is my number-one priority.” But there’s much more than that. Right now, we are experiencing the same thing again.
We’ve been getting many immigrants from Syria. The first day of school, two weeks ago, there was a high schooler who I knew had enrolled along with his five siblings at this school. I knew that they hadn’t been in school for the last four years. They were in camps in Turkey.
After everyone went to class, he came to me and he was shy. Of course, he did not speak any English. He said in Arabic, “Is there anything I can do in this school? Cleaning the bathrooms, cleaning the kitchen, whatever it is, so I can make more money to help my family?”
The idea of learning is not at the top of his list.
Dr. Farha Abbasi is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Michigan State University; she established the Muslim Mental Health Conference, and is the managing editor for Journal of Muslim Mental Health, hosted at Michigan State University.
I was scared to move to the United States. Now, since becoming a psychiatrist, I talk about it. I was very reluctant to move. I was in my 40s. We were very well settled, established. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to continue my career as a physician. We gave up that life to start a life all over again.
If I think back, I realized I got very depressed. There would be days I did not feel like opening my window, looking out, because it was scary for me to find a completely new scene and new faces. I felt a loss of identity. It was like somebody had cut my hands and feet and put me in a corner, and I was waiting for them to grow back. That’s how helpless you feel, even if you have family or can speak the language or have an education. Immigration is traumatic, even if it’s out of choice.
9/11 happened a few months after we were in the country. That, I think, was kind of a defining moment. I could foresee that this was a moment to become more loved and visible, and transparent in some sense. I realized we needed to go and reach out. That this is the only way to fight paranoia, fight stigma.
The first thing I did was reach out to the neighbors and then school, and then I needed to be part of the civic situation—whatever was happening in the community, get involved there. So I started talking to my Islamic center, to the community. They were telling us not to dress a certain way, not to show that you’re a Muslim. But I wasn’t comfortable with that. That was not me.
Ray Essa is a police officer in Dearborn, Michigan.
When I was 14 years old I was shot hanging out in my uncle’s gas station. A Detroit police officer rode with me in the ambulance to the hospital and they stayed with me the whole time. That left a big imprint on my heart.
At first my mom was scared when I said I wanted to join the police force. I explained to her, “Mom it’s not what you see on TV. I’d be helping the community.”
Nowadays, policing is totally different. You need to get the community involved. Back in the day, people thought they were invincible when they wore a badge. That’s gone. Nowadays, I’m going to respect you 150 percent and I expect the same.
I’m not going to call you out. I’m not going to disrespect you. I’m not going to pull you over for no reason. In my opinion, respect starts from home. Kids learn, they’re like a sponge. They learn everything from when they’re first born till they’re five years old. If they don’t learn respect—whether it’s your aunt and uncle, your grandmother, police officer—they are not going to have respect.
Zaynab Salman is a public high school history teacher in Canton, Michigan.
I'd like to think of myself as an educator who teaches from a unique perspective and cultural background. Although Canton is diverse, unfortunately, that isn’t represented in the educators in the district. Maybe this is the first time they have been in contact with an adult Muslim.
While I don't talk about religion or wear that on my sleeve—well, I wear it on my head—it’s interesting that they come in and see this totally normal person in front of the classroom who cares about protocol and procedures and is empathetic, and cares about them as a person as well as the student.
Just the other day I had a student who came in the morning. He was starting work and he got a small paper cut. I said, “Just go to the bathroom and wash it off.” He came back and it was on his right thumb.
I asked him if he was right-handed and he said yes. “Okay, let me just put on a Band-Aid on for you.” The entire class stopped. They couldn't believe that I was putting a Band-Aid on this high school student. I was like, sorry guys, this is a motherly instinct. Or maybe it's just a natural instinct.
How else was he supposed to do it?
A few students came up to me afterward, and [said] they appreciated that. They had never seen anybody do that for anybody else other than their parents.
It’s those little moments that you realize: God. That was the teaching moment today.
Dr. Abdul El-Sayed is the executive director and health officer of the Detroit Health Department.
I've always been deeply impatient. It’s probably one of my biggest flaws.
A life of service to me is a life that matters. My impatience derives from a deeply held religious belief that our permanent place is not our life on earth; it is after having passed. Imam Shafi said, “Time is a tool: either you use it, or it will be used against you.” There is a responsibility to address imminent challenges today—with the recognition that you don't always have tomorrow.
You only have 24 hours a day, and people have rights on you. I serve a community of 700,000 people, and what we are building in Detroit is going to affect how people think about urban public health in the future. I also have the responsibility to be a good son, a good husband. I am not a father yet, but, when and if we get there, a good father.
I struggle with what balance and presence mean across different facets of my life: what the trade-offs look like, what you can ask your family to give up for the work that you do, and what you should give up for the people you know need you most.
Presence is the courage to be willing to just experience what the world is giving you at the moment. That is the problem I struggle with and spend most of my time on. I don't think there is a right answer. Like many things, it’s probably a pendulum.
Bilal Saeed is a sports enthusiast, entrepreneur, and general manager and co-owner of AFC Ann Arbor.
I’m competitive at heart and really want to do good. So I probably have a different mentality than most business owners since I’m not looking to expand and expand and grow and grow. I’m looking for contentment.
I guess contentment is knowing that I don’t ever have to cross any thresholds or boundaries that I’m not comfortable with, and that these things are attainable. I just think that we’re given so much. I don’t mean material things. I mean health, opportunity, love.
I think those are the things that we misvalue. We just don’t prioritize them the way they should be. This is a struggle I have. It’s not like I’ve figured out the magic formula. It’s just something I work toward—to continue to keep those things a high priority in my life.
I see my dad as a grandfather now and think he’s achieved his contentment. I don’t think there’s anything else in life he wants. It’s that simple. That’s what I’m looking for.
There are people I’ve looked up to a lot in my life. My grandfather was one of those people. When I was younger I thought he was everything, the most amazing person. He taught me about love, because in a grandfather-grandson relationship you don’t know what he was like when he was 18, you don’t know so much about his life, but you know all you need to know based on the fact that he's reached a point in his life at which he understands that love is the most important thing.
Fatima Kebe is an industrial engineer and a member of Ford Motor Company’s “Thirty Under 30”, a philanthropic program working with nonprofit organizations to provide innovative solutions to their everyday challenges and increasing volunteerism among millennials.
I graduated from high school with a 4.6 G.P.A. Straight As. Then in college, my first semester I had a 2.3 G.P.A. I realized that I was behind in a lot of areas and that I had to do something different.
It was overwhelming and surprising. It was the difficulty of college, and taking five classes at once. It was a defining moment for me—I had to rebalance myself. It was stressful, but the fact that I got through it was good.
Speaking to people and reading testimonies helped. I learned how other people go through similar things, especially when they first get to college. I was involved with the Minority Engineering Program. Some of those students were first-generation college students and went through similar experiences.
One of the things that I saw was how people were stressing themselves out, putting added pressure on themselves by feeling like they were not only disappointing themselves but also their families, friends, and mentors. Once I realized that, it helped me. I needed to do this for myself, not for anyone else.
Even if I failed and someone could look down upon me for failing, I no longer cared about what other people thought. That allowed me to appreciate the struggle, and focus on myself and the work that I had to do.