Minarets on a Monday

There is a haunting loveliness about minarets. Deep feelings are evoked and  I feel a mixture of emotions when I see them, even more when I hear the Call to Prayer ring out over cities. Towering above other buildings, graceful and stately, they mark the skylines and landscapes of cities throughout the Muslim world. When I am away from the Middle East, this is some of what I miss. Though I am not a Muslim, they call me to pray for these countries and their people. Here is my photo tribute to minarets.

Churches too Empty – Mosques too Far

Cairo, Egypt, Islam, Minaret“The churches are everywhere but they are all empty!  The mosques are too far!”  – these are the cries from refugees in our area.

I’ve been asked to speak on culture and healthcare at a monthly gathering to providers who work at a refugee center at a large medical center here in Boston. As is usually the case, initially I am honored to be asked and excited about the topic – an opportunity to communicate some of the needs that I have seen through the years in refugee communities. The minute I hang up the phone, or in this case, answer the email I think “What did I do? There is no way I am capable of this. I can’t believe I said yes”.  Somehow I get through that and move forward thinking about both audience and topic as I frame my message.

As I think about refugees and their status in the greater Boston area it is best summed up in the phrase above: “Churches are many and empty; Mosques are too far.” That one phrase holds hopes, dreams, expectations, losses, grief, hurt, isolation, loss of identity and familiarity, and a sense of being ‘other’. Within the phrase, the importance of faith is understood and acknowledged, for without faith, the refugee really has lost everything.

To understand the context of the statement, it is helpful to know a bit about New England churches. Picture postcards show the quintessential New England scene – a church steeple stretching to the sky above trees, brilliant with colors, a sign to anyone who knows the area that fall foliage is at its peak. No matter how small the town, there is always a church, sometimes with the reminders of a time past when parking spaces were limited to the pastor, the church secretary and the church organist, and labeled as such. In some towns, the churches have been turned into antique stores, or condominiums, with rooms that previously held church meetings and potlucks now full of both beautiful and ugly antiques or, in the case of condominiums, the personal items of the owner.

A beautiful brick church in the center of Boston that used to boast a congregation of hundreds now has 50 people attending, most of them refugees from the Horn of Africa. By contrast, until June of 2009 and the opening of a large mosque in Roxbury, the closest mosque was in Quincy to the south of Boston.

While the cry of the refugee may seem dramatic, depending on where they live it’s entirely accurate.

The journey of the refugee is a long one. Under international law a refugee is defined as being outside of their home country and having a “well-founded fear of persecution based on race, religion, nationality, political opinion, or membership in a particular social group.”  This is in contrast to the immigrant, who generally has a choice to leave their home country. The journey begins with fleeing home, whether it be mud hut or mansion and moves on to temporary settlement either in refugee camps or with relatives. Ultimately the refugee is a victim of decision-making that is out of their control but will dictate the opportunities and choices they have for the rest of their lives.

The first option is staying where they are in the initial host country. Host countries rarely want that. Refugees don’t pay well and governments are often dealing with monumental problems with the populations that are already there.

The second option is being sent back to their countries of origin. Refugees never want that, not because they don’t miss home, but rarely is their home country in a place where they would be welcomed and often what awaits them is at best marginalization, and at worst prison, torture, and death.

The third option is resettlement in another country. This is usually the option that refugees long for. They have often heard stories from relatives or friends who have resettled in other countries, and while some of the stories are scary, there are other stories where they know their uncle is building a successful business and has “a house with a bathroom and indoor plumbing.” When you are sharing an outdoor latrine with 100 other families, that sounds palatial. Despite being the best option, this too is a long journey and the task of resettlement is enormous. The journey is also subject to politics and process, making it less about people’s safety and more about government bureaucracy and the political climate.

The organization Refugees International raises awareness for refugees and the issues confronting refugees. An old blog post on the site speaks to the plight of the refugee with this statement:

The vulnerability of being stateless is captured in the descriptive words of a bidun (an Arabic word meaning ‘without’) living in Kuwait who told me, “Our lives have been stolen.  We are just like bodies lying in the street”

Part of resettlement is a chance to regain a life lost. Through resettling and healing, gradually a refugee can learn that every time they hear a car back firing, it’s not a bomb. Or hearing the sirens of a police car doesn’t mean total devastation. No matter how frustrated people may be with the United States, it is still a country that can bring safety and new life to those who have lost both. Cynics may cringe at the words on Lady Liberty, but those who step off planes at JFK view the inscription with hope and promise.

Give me your tired, your poor, 
Your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, 
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore, 
Send these, the homeless, tempest tossed,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.

Cultural Competency & the FBI

In June of 2011 in Miami, Florida the FBI raided a mosque and arrested two Imams that had been under surveillance for some time. It is remarkable that most of us had no idea it  happened, and it didn’t seem to fuel any anti-Muslim sentiment elsewhere. When I heard the story I was impressed. Not one to praise the FBI or government in general, it was a moment where I was amazed with the thoughtfulness and cultural awareness with which the raid was carried out. All the evidence points to actions that took into account the larger Muslim community and efforts that were taken to inform and involve this community.

The story goes that the activity of the imams had been watched for some time. When the decision was made that an arrest and questioning was warranted, the FBI consulted with a cultural broker of sorts as to the best time to carry out the raid. It is a large and active mosque with prayers going on five times a day and activities in between. It was decided that a Saturday morning would be the ideal time, at 6am. This ensured the fewest number of people and the least amount of chaos. Second, the officers took off their shoes before going into the mosque. They took the effort, despite the obvious seriousness of the situation to display sensitivity to this need and recognition that this was a place of worship and it was important to abide by the rules of the mosque. Third, they spoke to the imams in Pashto, through a translator. It was their native language so there was no ambiguity about the arrest and no miscommunication because of limited English. The Pashto was clear and precise. Fourth – they waited until the prayers had finished, they did not interrupt but surrounded the mosque waiting. Lastly, before the media had any idea that this had occurred, the spokesperson for the FBI contacted leaders in the Muslim community. The neighborhood surrounding the mosque is heavily populated with Muslims and, while an arrest of a religious leader within any religious community would be difficult, given the current attitudes toward Muslims this is one of most difficult and potentially explosive things that can happen. They wanted the community to have an opportunity to frame a response before a media frenzy began inciting fear of all Muslims as well as assumptions that all in the community were involved in suspicious activities linked to terrorism.

This is all quite remarkable. We have all heard of police violence, FBI gaffes, and abuse of power by people in the role of law enforcement. There are horror stories in other countries as well that include raids, torture, and untold abuse by secret police and intelligence people. Yet in this case, the FBI went above and beyond expectations of cultural competency as they carried out this raid. Just days before the operation many of the officers had attended a training program that gave tools on working in a culturally sensitive way with Arab and Muslim communities.

I am well aware of the often valid criticism that is voiced about decisions of the United States government and the many organizations that fall under the auspices of the government, including the FBI.  But this is a time to be impressed and applaud, not criticize. Almost weekly I work with a colleague presenting workshops in healthcare organizations on how to give culturally responsive care to diverse communities. What amazed me about this story is that an organization with intent to arrest did a far better job communicating across cultural boundaries than many healthcare organizations do with intent to heal.

Bloggers note: You can read or listen to the full story on NPR here.

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Changing Communities – Mosques on Prairies

A year ago I was introduced by my husband to a delightful show set in Western Canada – Little Mosque on the Prairie. The creator is a Pakistani Muslim named Zarqa Nawaz who grew up in Canada with regular attendance at mosques in big cities. Her inspiration for creating the show is said to come from her move to Regina in the Saskatchewan province of Canada and the connections that she began to make with mosques in less urban areas. While it may be possible to avoid those with whom you disagree in large urban areas, people tend to know each other well in smaller communities and towns, so well in fact that at times it is impossible to avoid differing opinions and viewpoints.

To give you a short synopsis, the show looks not only at Muslims in a community but also digs into their interactions with Christians, as they all sort through life together in a small town, aptly called Mercy. The show has lovable characters that include a handsome young Imam, Amaar, who deeply wants to please his constituents at the mosque. Then there’s Yasir, a Lebanese businessman and self-described leader of the community who runs his construction business out of the mosque;  his Canadian wife who converted to Islam because of her love for Yasir and takes her faith somewhat casually; and their daughter Rayyan, a devout Muslim taking her faith and feminism equally seriously.  Added to this is a radio show host that loves inciting suspicion of the Muslim community, an African woman who runs a café, and a fundamentalist Muslim, Baber, who delights in bringing forth a more traditional view to the community.  There are others of both Muslim and Christian faiths, making up a colorful community in a small Canadian prairie town. The point of the show is to draw the viewer into a greater understanding of a Muslim immigrant community in a way that is non-threatening and effective in its message.

Although set in Canada, the show is a reminder of the changing communities throughout the western world. The success of the show for six seasons is evidence of an audience that understands they are a part of multi-ethnic and multi-faith communities and want to know more about interacting with those around them. It gives a voice to some of the natural conflicts that occur in diverse communities but does so with humor, making the subjects addressed more palatable and the audience able to engage in healthy self-reflection.

There are times when television or movies can portray real-life issues in ways that help us reflect, learn, and change. Little Mosque on the Prairie is a great example of this and serves as a reminder that it’s worth working through some of our biases for the sake of our communities. If you have time today – take a look at this short clip and see what you think!

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