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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, September/October 2005, pages 58-63

Muslim-American Activism

ICNA Convention Confronts Post-9/11 Backlash

British journalist Yvonne Ridley received an award from the Muslim Weekly Readers’ Club after her talk, whereupon she cried, “Victory to the Intifada!” (Staff photo M. Soliman).

THE ISLAMIC Circle of North America (ICNA) held its annual convention July 1 to 3 at the newly built Connecticut Conference Center in downtown Hartford. Sponsored jointly with the Muslim American Society (MAS), the convention’s major theme centered around the importance of the family in the American Muslim community. In addition to listening to a variety of speakers, attendees enjoyed a huge bazaar of stalls selling food, clothes, crafts, books, CDs and games. An area of the bazaar morphed from a basketball clinic one day into a successful Red Cross blood drive the next.

One panel discussion examined “the PATRIOT Act and the Future of Muslim Families.” The son of panelist Talat Hamdani, a member of September 11 Families for Peaceful Change, was Pakistani-born Salman, 23, a paramedic and an NYPD cadet who was killed rescuing victims at the World Trade Center. Ironically, this hero was suspected and investigated as a terrorist after his remains were discovered in the wreckage. His mother said Salman’s death has propelled her to take action to correct serious injustices being committed in the name of security and the so-called war on terror.

Lamenting the environment of fear, intimidation and demonization facing Muslims after the 9/11 tragedy, Hamdani said, “I feel we’ve stayed quiet for a long time—three and a half years. Silently, quietly, we accepted whatever was said in the name of our religion, how it was desecrated, how it became synonymous with the word terrorism.” She urged the audience to be activists and stand up for their rights and opinions regarding the PATRIOT Act, “first and primarily as American citizens, and then as Muslims.” She recommended writing to senators, members of the House of Representatives and the White House: “This is the land of the free, but if you want justice, you have to speak up.”

The following day, Mahdi Bray, executive director of Muslim American Society’s (MAS) Freedom Foundation, held a workshop to discuss various ways for Muslim Americans to speak up. Civil activism is necessary for Muslims, Bray said, because they are being affected by U.S. laws and policies, as well as by social and educational programs. He then outlined the potential benefits of reaching out to media, public schools, professional associations and interfaith communities, and even of interacting with neighbors.

Bray emphasized the need for Muslims to engage in coalition-building with other groups having similar interests, such as civil rights, environmental, health, and even animal rights groups. “If we look at the history of America,” he said, “all great social movements were led by people, but accomplished by coalitions.” These coalitions were successful, he noted, because they were led first and foremost by the constituents most directly affected. Muslims need to move to the forefront of the present anti-war and civil rights movements, Bray argued, to preclude the development of what he called a “paternalistic aspect” to such activism.

Turning to “how Muslims are to define themselves in America,” Bray said it’s the media and the U.S. government who are deciding who represents Muslims in America and who, as a result, are promoting a particular view of Islam that is not representative of U.S. Muslims.

Describing civil rights abuses in the post-9/11 Islamophobic environment, Bray explained why Muslims must engage in civil activism. He cited a Cornell research poll in which 44 percent of Americans favored the circumvention of Muslims’ rights “for the sake of national security” as exemplifying “a certain mindset” that permits the marginalization of minorities.

Another panel the same day discussed “The Desecration of the Qur’an: Where Do We Stand?” Panelist Dr. Abdulla Idris Ali, the founder and director of the Center for Islamic Education of North America, said that although Muslims cannot accept the desecration of the Qur’an or any other assault on their religion, Muslims should act wisely and calmly (using Islamic principles), and channel their efforts through Muslim organizations or media circles.

Syed Ali, a New York businessman, describes a post-9/11 horror story: false accusations, searches and his four-month detention (Staff photo M. Soliman).

A panel entitled “One Big International Family” featured a talk on the “Asian Quakes and Tsunamis” by free-lance writer Shakeel Syed, who recently visited Indonesia. Describing the immense destruction and deprivation he saw, Syed encouraged the audience to contribute to and expand upon existing international efforts to help the tsunami victims.

A talk on the “Global Village: Our Responsibilities in Palestine, Kashmir, Iraq, and Sudan,” featured Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist who was captured while on assignment in Afghanistan during Taliban days. According to Ridley, 32,500 Afghans have been killed since the war on terror was launched. Describing the current chaos today, she said: “Their country is in turmoil...the warlords are coming back...Afghanistan is the world’s number one heroin distributor.” She told of a woman who lost nine children, killed by an American laser-guided missile. “They talk about the living dead. That is how this woman appeared to me.” Americans may offer token monetary compensation to the victims of their attacks, Ridley said, but to them “Muslim lives and Muslim blood are very, very cheap.”

Ridley then described her experiences in Iraq. “The resistance is growing stronger all the time,” she said. “Where there is injustice, the only answer is resistance. It isn’t coming from outside. It’s coming from Iraqi people themselves.”

Ridley spoke of the other killings of Muslims around the world, including Gujarat, India where, she said, 12 months after the first anniversary of 9/11, 6,084 Indian Muslims had been killed. In 12 months in Chechnya, she noted, 5,078 Muslim civilians were slaughtered by Russian aerial bombardments. Finally, Ridley talked about Palestine, where “Israel ignores international law” with impunity and American support. And, according to Ridley, Chinese Muslims “were being persecuted and executed in public.”

In a separate session, Dr. Parvez Ahmed, chair of the National Board of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), delivered an address on “Challenges and Opportunities,” focusing on the image problems facing Islam and Muslims in contemporary America. Presenting statistics from various polls, including the 2004 Pew poll, Ahmed concluded that “overwhelmingly the public opinion is turning against us...and things are only getting worse.”

Public opinion can have critical implications on government policy, Ahmed said, citing the December 2004 Cornell poll cited by Mahdi Bray.

The Muslim Games booth at ICNA introduced enthusiastic players to a new fast-paced card/dice game called “Mecca to Medina” (soon to be available from the AET Book Club). For more information visit (Staff photo D. Hanley).

He also discussed the opportunities American Muslims have to reverse the current trends. “People who have an understanding of Islam, and have met and interacted with Muslims, have significantly positive attitudes toward Islam and Muslims,” Ahmed noted. The task, he said, is to educate people about Islam, with the hope that five or ten years from now the negative poll numbers can be reversed.

Ahmed closed by advising the audience to write letters to their representatives and newspapers and to get involved in organizations like CAIR.

The final day of the convention included a panel discussion of “Civil Rights and Detentions.” Panelist James Yee, the former U.S. Army Chaplain at Guantanamo Bay, described his ordeal after he was accused of espionage and other capital crimes, his subsequent release, but the continuation of a smear campaign. In the current climate, Yee warned, Muslims can easily expect authorities to “come and take you away.” In response, he urged the audience to “support those groups and organizations committed to protecting you and your civil rights and who are making the effort to correctly portray Muslims in the way they want to be portrayed.”

Following his address, Yee introduced Syed Ali, a New York businessman and a teacher of constitutional law, and a former detainee. After 9/11 Ali’s business partners accused him of being the financier of the attacks. His home was searched by agents “looking for weapons of nuclear and biological warfare,” he said, and he was taken into custody. In the search and seizure, Ali explained, “everything was emptied from my house, right down to my kids’ homework.” The agents claimed that they found various suspicious things such as computer programs “teaching you how to fly” and foreign currency.

Ali was then detained and sent to Ryker’s Island for four months, but was released because “they could not come up with one single charge in relation to terrorism.” Ali said he suffered from “a lot of emotional stress,” and lost his home and everything else he owned. Concluding his remarks, Ali thanked the Muslim community for the support they had given him and emphasized the need for Muslim unity to prevent abuse and harassment in post-9/11 America.

Motazz Soliman

Muslim Taskforce Gears Up For Elections in 2006, 2008

The American Muslim Taskforce panel at the ICNA Convention included (l-r) Imam Talib Abdul Rasheed (Muslim Alliance of North America), Imam Mahdi Bray (Muslim American Society), Dr. Ahmad Al-Akhras (Council on American-Islamic Relations), and Dr. Agha Saeed (American Muslim Alliance) (Staff photo D. Hanley).

“I am afraid, now that the elections are over, the major Muslim organizations will busy themselves with other pressing matters and, as far as elections are concerned, we won’t hear from them for the next four years,” wrote a columnist shortly after the 2004 presidential election.

That did not happen, however, because the American Muslim Taskforce on Civil Rights and Elections (AMT), an umbrella group representing 11 national Muslim organizations, had chalked out a four-year action plan which entails quarterly town hall meetings jointly organized by those organizations. The most recent one was held in Hartford, Connecticut, during the Islamic Circle of North American (ICNA) convention. The next AMT town hall meeting is scheduled for Sept. 3 in Chicago, during the Islamic Society of North American’s (ISNA) convention.

The main thrust of these meetings is to involve the community in setting up goals and strategies for 2006, 2008, 2010 and 2012. Participants will identify milestones and establish clear criteria to measure success, help maintain a grassroots-based, bottom-up, democratic decision-making system, and build a clear community-wide consensus about electoral goals and strategies.

Since January 2005, the AMT has formed state chapters in Florida and New York, and is currently negotiating similar chapters in New Jersey and Texas. Not only are these state chapters beginning to develop a genuine grassroots activism in their communities, but this structural expansion is proving to be quite useful.

Sensing greater organization and activity among New York Muslims, for example, various mayoral candidates are beginning to pay greater direct and indirect attention to the Muslim community. As reported in the New York Sun, Manhattan borough president and mayoral candidate C. Virginia Fields told leaders of the New York Chapter of the American Muslim Taskforce that ”she opposes the PATRIOT Act” and, as mayor, would create a more inclusive “New York City, in which Muslims would have more of a voice.”

Cognizant of the role that American Muslim voters can play in city, state and federal elections, the AMT panel urged the ICNA audience to keep their eyes on real issues like civil liberties, human rights, war, jobs, and health care. The four-point AMT program is detailed below:

  1. Continue with voter registration, especially in those states where off-year elections will be held in 2005.
  2. Continue with community education forums and seminars, focusing on “ballot literacy,” candidates’ forums and consensus building. “If people don’t know what or for whom they are voting, then why should they vote?” AMT chair Dr. Agha Saeed noted at ICNA. The purpose of the ballot literacy programs is to teach voters about the “what” and “how” of the actual contents of the ballot.
  3. Community leaders need to be aware of and help solve any logistical reasons people may have for not voting. For instance, they can help those who are going to be out of town, or who are ill, to obtain absentee ballots.
  4. Help document and publicize the Muslim vote. “A proven record of the American Muslim vote—voting in high numbers, together, and for a common purpose—is one of our greatest strengths as citizens of the United States,” one of the panelists observed.

For more information visit AMT at <www.AmericanMuslimVoter.Net>.

Hazim Kira

Islamic-Based Counter-Terror Campaign Launched

(L-r) Dania Ayoubi, Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, and Dr. Esam Omeish describe the new counter-terror campaign (Staff photo M. Soliman).

At a July 25 press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, the Muslim American Society (MAS) announced the launch of an Islamic-based counter-terrorism and counter-extremism campaign entitled “Faith Over Freedom and Justice for All.” Moderated by MAS Freedom Foundation’s executive director Mahdi Bray, the panel included MAS president Dr. Esam Omeish, vice president Dania Ayoubi of Georgetown University’s Muslim Students Association (MSA), Imam Johari Abdul-Malik of Coordinating Council of Muslim Organizations, and the Rev. Walter Fauntroy of National Black Leadership Roundtable.

Introducing MAS, Dr. Omeish emphasized that “we...are uniquely positioned and equipped to provide a comprehensive, multifaceted approach in pro-actively combating terrorism and eliminating its scourge.”

According to Omeish, there is a need to “protect the mainstream Islamic community” from extremist ideology and violent action.

The MAS president noted that the central target of the campaign’s strategy is to “mentor young American Muslims who are torn between the growing Islamophobia at home and the twisted misinterpretation of their religion elsewhere.” To combat feelings of alienation, Omeish noted the establishment of youth centers and programs across the nation to educate American Muslims on the compatibility of their religious identity with civic participation.

Omeish also identified the need to address “through legitimate means...the rampant injustice in the world causing real legitimate grievances.” He pointed to suffering and “illegitimate occupation in Palestine, Kashmir, Chechnya, and other parts of the world.” He condemned bombings and violence as counterproductive means to express these grievances.

The success of the campaign requires the government, civic leaders, media, and citizens to take certain measures domestically and internationally, Omeish stated. The government needs to “rectify any misguided policies” and to “include Muslims in the national debate” on policy and homeland security. He also called for an end to “unfair targeting of Muslim organizations.”

Internationally, Omeish said, the U.S. should work harder to generate dialogue with the Muslim world, which would help “dry up the wells of extremism.” He criticized U.S. support for some regimes and the marginalization of Islamic groups which may better represent Muslim aspirations. Political reform as well as economic progress will eliminate frustration and desperation in Islamic countries, Omeish concluded.

Imam Johari Abdul-Malik acknowledged that some see violence as a solution to problems, but noted that violence is not unique to the Muslim community. He cited the Columbine massacre in the U.S. and the ongoing tragedies in Palestine and Iraq, and the reaction of people who feel “alienated, isolated, in despair.”

Dania Ayoubi condemned “barbaric attacks against all innocent people in the world that blindly kill scores of innocent people.” She affirmed Islam’s zero-tolerance toward “all forms of terrorism,” which, she said, are committed by a “fringe minority” of Muslims who tarnish the “sources of our beautiful traditions.”

Ayoubi described Muslim youth as “vibrant, active, moderate, and aware,” and eager to create a “more peaceful and tolerant environment.” She identified the MSA as a venue for students “seeking increased political and social integration into the tapestry of American society.”

Rev. Walter Fauntroy, whose political career began during the civil rights movement, served as Martin Luther King, Jr.’s representative to the president and Congress. He himself became the District of Columia’s non-voting congressional delegate and a founder of the Congressional Black Caucus, and played a leadership role in the Free South Africa Movement.

Elaborating on the Faith Over Fear campaign, Fauntroy focused on the commonalities among the Abrahamic faiths. He concluded by quoting Dr. King: “Either we learn to live together as brothers and sisters on this planet, or we will perish together as fools.”

Motazz Soliman

“Forgotten Roots: African American Muslims in Early America”

Portrait of Yarrow Marmout, who was enslaved before the American Revolution. He was given his freedom in 1807 by Upton Beall of Montgomery County, MD, and established a hauling business in Georgetown (Photo courtesy of the Georgetown Public Library).

“Forgotten Roots,” an exhibition on early African-American Muslims, opened July 11 at the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. The exhibit, a project of Collections and Stories of American Muslims (CSAM), will run through Oct. 16.

The fascinating exhibit looks at individual stories of enslaved Africans through a Muslim lens, featuring the stories and artifacts of 10 Muslim men and two Muslim women beginning in 1730. Some of their stories follow:

Abdur Rahman Ibrahima ibn Sori (1762-1829) was born in a village in Timbo Guinea. A Fulani prince and captain in his father’s army, he was kidnapped in 1788, at the age of 26, and sold to British slavers in the Gambia. Eventually sold to a Thomas Foster in Natchez, Mississippi, Abdur Rahman, who was fluent and literate in Arabic due to his royal Fulani upbringing, wrote to his family in 1826.

Sen. Thomas Reed received a copy of the letter from a journalist and forwarded it to the U.S. consul in Morocco. The sultan read it and requested Abdur Rahman’s release from John Quincy Adams, who in turn put pressure on Foster. Abdur Rahman eventually was freed at the age of 60. He promptly raised enough money to purchase the freedom of his wife, Isabella, and conducted a speaking tour until they could afford to return to Africa. Six weeks after arriving in his home continent, Abdur Rahman died from cholera. When Thomas Foster died in 1830, the American Colonization Project purchased two of Abdur Rahman’s children and five of his grandchildren, reuniting them with Isabella in Liberia. The Anacostia Museum exhibit includes an original hand-written autobiographical note and the al-Fatiha (opening of the Qur’an) in English and Arabic by Abdur Rahman.

Hajj Omar ibn Sayyid (1770-1864) was also Fulani, from a Serehule family in Fur Tur (Futa Toro) in present day Senegal. Omar had made Hajj before his capture in 1807, when he was taken to Charleston, NC. He escaped in 1810 and was imprisoned. Hajj Omar was eventually purchased for $900 by John Owen, a general in the state militia, who gave him an Arabic Bible and Qur’an. Both are on display, as are Omar’s autobiography and handwritten scriptures, passages and phrases in Arabic.

The exhibit acknowledges its limited information on Muslim women, but does include two.

Old Lizzy Gray was estimated to be 127 years old when she died on Sept. 12, 1860. She had seen many things in her life, including the inside of a prison aboard a ship in the American Revolution. She was known for having an Islamic education before her enslavement. Combining Islam and Christianity, she said that “Jesus built the first church in Mecca,” and she joined the Methodist Church.

Margaret Mohammit Hagan was the daughter of Po Mohammit, a Muslim from central Madagascar. She was an entrepreneur and dressmaker in the mid-Atlantic region and also certified as a practitioner of medical electricity. One of her descendants is Frederick Gregory, the first African-American to pilot a space shuttle.

“Forgotten Roots” is striking in that most of the stories recorded are of people captured from the upper classes of African society, who were well educated, and had access to powerful contacts in their homelands. As the exhibit makes clear, these class and educational advantages mixed with the brutal conditions of slavery in predictable ways. Many of the men held positions of power, such as slave manager, and others were able to secure their release—something unthinkable for most of the millions enslaved.

The exhibit’s primary documents, artifacts and detailed personal stories of Muslim slaves form a unique and important educational experience and are a must see for everyone. For more information on “Forgotten Roots,” please visit the Anacostia Museum Web site, <>, or call (202) 633-4820.

Matt Horton

Anacostia Museum Tour

Amir Muhammad describes tracing his family’s roots (Staff photo M. Soliman).

Amir Muhammad led a July 23 “Curator’s Talk” on the history of early African Muslims in America at the Smithsonian’s Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. When he began tracing his family’s genealogy, Muhammad said, he discovered that one of his paternal great-grandmothers was born to an African Muslim woman brought to America as a slave who married a white indentured servant. Next to her tombstone in the “coastal Georgia, or Gullah” area lay the tombstones of African slaves. These tombstones and the surviving African locals provided a starting point for Muhammad’s quest.

Muhammad explained that Muslims came to the United States in four waves. The first comprised explorers from West Africa, who landed in the Gulf region. Abu Bakr, a brother of the famed Mansa Musa, journeyed to the continent in 1310 and brought back gold. In 1312 Bakr set off for more adventure—and disappeared.

Early Arabic script was found among Apaches and other Indian tribes of the Southwest, according to Muhammad, which suggests that Africans of Mandingo heritage intermarried or interacted with native Americans. He also pointed to tombstones in the Last of the Mohicans Burial Ground in Connecticut as evidence of early African-Muslim-Native American interaction. The tombstones, Muhammad said, which face east toward Mecca, identify a Mohican Chief Uncus, who had a son by the name of Muhammad. Uncus’s grandson also was named Muhammad.

The second wave of African Muslims was made up of North African Berber, sub-Saharan African, and Arabic-Spanish refugees fleeing the Spanish Inquisition between the late 1400s and early 1600s. These people were commonly referred to as “Moors” (or, in the U.S., “melungeons”).

The third wave came to America as slaves, beginning in the 1600s. Muhammad estimated that between 20 to 30 percent of enslaved Africans were Muslims, although more conservative estimates place the numbers from 10 to 15 percent.

The fourth wave of early Muslims arrived in America during the major wars of the last two centuries. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI, Muslims from Eastern Europe established a town in Indiana called Mecca. This town is home to tombstones with a carving of an index finger pointing up. According to Muhammad, the index finger is a symbolic affirmation of Islamic monotheism, as well as a physical symbol of Bilal Ibn Rabah’s testimony of monotheism. Ibn Rabah, the first Black Muslim in history, was persecuted by his Arab master for his faith. In the midst of that persecution, Bilal said “ahad”—the Arabic word for “one”—in reference to God, according to the curator. Similarly, Muslims acknowledge their monotheism in prayer by pointing with a single index finger.

Motazz Soliman

Impact of London Bombings on American Muslims

A state of increased nervousness has descended on American Muslims, particularly after the July 7 bombings in London. This was evident at the Qutba (sermon) that was delivered Friday, July 22, by Dr. Jamal Barzinji, a well-known Washington, DC community leader. The ADAMS Center in northern Virginia, where Barzinji spoke, is the area’s largest Friday congregation, with more than 2,000 Muslims coming to pray each Friday in three separate shifts.

While Barzinji said he appreciated that British Prime Minister Tony Blair reached out to the Muslim leadership in his country to get to the causes of the problem, he said he did not see such a gesture here in the United States following the 9/11 tragedy.

Reassuring President George W. Bush of the loyalty and patriotism of American Muslims, Barzinji said Islam is a peaceful religion, and that the deeds of a handful of misguided youths should not be cause to condemn the entire Muslim nation.

Barzinji urged government officials to take American Muslims into their confidence and work with them in establishing peace. “We have come here in search of peace, freedom, and economic opportunity,” he said. “We have already raised two generations here. The stakes are as high for us as for any other American. Let us work together toward peace and prosperity.”

Barzinji appeared to echo the sentiments of the entire congregation.

M. M. Ali

Pittsburgh Muslim Youth Camp Message: Respect and Tolerance

A group picture of Pittsburgh campers, organizers and junior counselors (Staff photo M. Abdul Rahman).

For more than eight years during the month of June, Pittsburgh Muslims have sent their children to the Pittsburgh Youth Summer Camp. This year more than 110 boys and girls between the ages of 10 and 17 boarded the bus and headed to Laurel Hill Park in Somerset County, PA. According to Ahmad Abdul-Wahab, president of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, there are more than 10,000 Muslims in the greater Pittsburgh area who attend seven local mosques.

Elaine Linn, one of the camp’s main organizers, told the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, “the purpose of the camp is to bring the diverse Muslim community of Pittsburgh together. Our community is made up of many different social and cultural backgrounds,” she explained. “In this camp we have children whose parents are both physicians, while others may be recent immigrants who have nothing more than the clothes on their backs. Others are indigenous Muslims who have been here for generations. Each brings a set of issues and experiences that are different and distinct, yet they are all American youth.”

According to Izdihare Hilal, another community activist and camp organizer, “The camp is meant to teach campers about their religion, strengthen their social skills, and make sure they have tons of fun.”

And fun they did have. The campers enjoyed swimming, horseback riding, kick boxing, canoeing, hiking, skits, and nightly campfires. According to Mariam, an 11-year-old camper who has been attending the camp since the summer of 2002, “I enjoy the activities, but the best part is hanging out with friends whom I generally don’t see. I also like meeting new friends from different parts of the city and of different cultural backgrounds.”

Omar, a 15-year-old who has attended camp for the last three years, said, “I enjoy playing basketball with my friends. The camp is lots of fun. I hope to come back again next year.”

The campers also participated in a lecture series that addressed the challenges of being an American Muslim. Faisal Hamoody, who was flown from Chicago to address the campers, spoke about the “privileges of being an American Muslim, along with the responsibilities.“ According to Hilal, Hamoody was chosen to speak to the kids “because he can relate to their experiences as American Muslims. Simply said, the kids like him and he likes them.”

Mariam Abdul-Wahab prepares to “zip line” down the mountain (Staff photo M. Abdul Rahman).

Hamoody advised campers to be kind, respectful, tolerant, understanding and generous with neighbors and friends. He told them a story about the Prophet Muhammad who, in Mecca, was harassed daily by a neighbor of the Jewish faith as he walked by her house. One day he walked by and she wasn’t waiting for him. He was so concerned that he stopped in to ask about her health. “You have the obligation as Muslims to be respectful and kind to all people regardless of their faith or origin,” Faisal told the children.

“This is a message that we need the children to take away from this camp,” explained Hilal. “Regardless of the situation that we face in our day-to-day life, we have to maintain our respect for others.“

She wants children to be proud of being Muslim, Hilal added, and to understand that they are not personally responsible for the political agenda of one group or another. “This camp is meant to boost the children’s self-esteem,” she emphasized. “They must not feel bad about what is going on around them, whether it is in New York, Egypt or London. Our children cannot be held responsible for what some Muslims with a political agenda are doing.“

”We need to teach our kids to be proud to be Muslim,” Linn reiterated, “and to provide them an opportunity to share their common interests, common beliefs, and common experiences in the city.“

Mai Abdul Rahman