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Pace: Students share experience with Great American Cleanup

I recently participated in a community clean-up event followed by a “get-to-know-your-neighbor” potluck on the Newton County property of Masjid At-Taqwa, a Muslim community from Doraville. Next month I’ll write more about my experience, but for now I want to share the following article written by three Oxford College students about their experience and also as part of their “social issue” project for a course with Dr. Florian Pohl, associate professor of religion. The three students are Nahire Abdalla, Emma Freeborn, and Kanwal Momin.

We had the privilege to participate in a community service event, The Great American Cleanup, with our Muslim neighbors, whom we were very curious to get to know. Some of the individuals in our course are Muslims ourselves, and we found it important to therefore draw on the common humanity between our Muslim neighbors and our Oxford College community. Additionally, we had previously heard of the resistance our new neighbors had faced in their plans to expand their community on rural Newton County property. The negative backlash and our desire to learn more about their experiences are what motivated us to chat with members from Masjid At-Taqwa, particularly those who are women.

The members have occupations ranging from students and teachers to engineers and surgeons. There is a great diversity in backgrounds within the community.  Therefore, we felt it was crucial to ask how Doraville and the United States in general had shaped their identities as American Muslims. All of the people we talked to agreed that living in America had bolstered their religious identities. A member of the community born and raised in the U.S., currently attending Georgia State University, praised the diversity of the U.S.: “Being in a diverse community at college has taught me how to interact with people of different backgrounds, strengthening my own American Muslim identity.” Another woman we talked to who had moved from Bangladesh nine months ago expressed her enchantment towards the United States. One of the examples she gave was how frequently women participated in mosque activities. She continued, “Here we can all show our devotion equally. It’s heart-touching to engage in prayers here.” Another individual who has been in the U.S. for about ten years said about moving to the U.S. that it “was like jumping from a pond into a sea because the culture, religion, and socialization are very different. It’s more free.”

They also shared stories about hatred they’ve endured while living in this country. We were amazed that they didn’t recall these moments with anger but believe people need to be better informed. All the moments they recalled related to their choice of wearing a head scarf. We found this is a common problem Muslim women in the U.S. face, seen through the disproportionately large spike in hate crimes and harassment targeting them. One woman recalled visiting her son’s school and being asked to remove her scarf. Another had her head scarf pulled off forcibly. The women wished individuals wouldn’t judge them based on their attire or false assumptions. Regardless of these unpleasant interactions, we found they focused the blame not on others but on general ignorance. A particularly poignant moment for us was when one woman emphasized following the example of Prophet Muhammad as a way to react to the discrimination, by responding to mistreatment with patience. She continued by recalling a saying from the Prophet to use words, not violence in response to ignorance. Echoing that sentiment, another of our conversation partners encouraged reaching out to different communities: “We aren’t different; we’re humans sharing similar goals.”

We see through the comments these women shared with us that religion provides them solace. The U.S. reinforces this through the freedom to practice religion. This helped us to further understand that more efforts must be taken to facilitate, not hinder, expressions of faith. Creating a much-needed cemetery is an example of such freedom and facilitation. We learned Muslim funeral practices involve green burial, similar to Jewish practices and those of our neighbors in Conyers at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit.  In sum, the clean-up and meet-and-greet event we participated in is one example of the educating, enlightening power that simple neighborly interactions hold.

The Rev. Dr. Lyn Pace is the college chaplain at Oxford College of Emory University. Emma

Freeborn and Kanwal Momin recently graduated from Oxford College. Nahire Abdalla will be a sophomore when she returns to campus in August.