Community Rallies After Arsonist Hits Texas Mosque

By Rebecca Steinitz

In the early morning hours of Saturday, January 28, 2017, fire destroyed the Victoria Islamic Center, a gold-domed mosque that was home to a thriving congregation of 150 members in Victoria, Texas. The flames erupted just hours after President Trump issued the executive order commonly known as “the Muslim ban,” which barred citizens from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. Although Victoria officials and community members cautioned against drawing conclusions about its cause, news of the fire spread quickly, generating a remarkable local and global response.

By the end of the day, four churches and the local synagogue had offered their sanctuaries to the displaced congregation. The architect who designed the mosque volunteered his services for the rebuilding effort, and individuals offered a handmade prayer rug and a truck to haul dirt. The next morning, an estimated 400 people showed up to an interfaith prayer service held in front of the Center’s blackened remains, where representatives of the mosque, the synagogue and local churches spoke.

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Fire destroyed the mosque on January 28, 2017. Photo courtesy of Victoria Islamic Center.

At the end of the service, a letter was read from retired pastor Bill Hassel, who can no longer speak due to ALS. It concluded, “We need you, we love you and we respect who you are and what you represent. Please call on us for whatever you need.”

Though Hassel wrote the letter on behalf of the local interfaith group Communities of Faith, he could have been representing the tens of thousands of people worldwide who were already heeding the call to meet the mosque’s needs. On the day of the fire, the Victoria Islamic Center launched a GoFundMe campaign that went viral almost immediately, raising over $300,000 by midafternoon. The campaign was shared 103,000 times on Facebook and stopped accepting donations within a week, after raising 1.2 million dollars from more than 23,000 donors in 90 countries. Stories about its success were reported everywhere from the New York Times and Fox News to England, India, Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Few were surprised when the fire was ruled arson on February 8. And on March 3, a local suspect was identified and arrested on unrelated charges. Although he has not been charged as of this writing, investigators revealed that he was in possession of items stolen from the mosque and has made anti-Muslim comments and social media posts.

Since the 2015 attacks in Paris, France and San Bernardino, California, there has been a notable rise in threats and violence aimed at American mosques, with over 60 incidents so far in 2016 and 2017. Yet none of those events received the same degree of attention. Why was the Victoria Islamic Center such a flashpoint? And why was Victoria the epicenter for such support?

For one thing, there was the timing. Victoria Islamic Center member and spokesperson Omar Rachid pegged the passionate response directly to Trump’s executive order. “People were already outraged by the ban,” he said. “Subsequently, a few hours later, when the mosque burned down, people were outraged because it was un-American. Almost every single donation came with a comment of support saying this is not the America we know, we value you, you are welcome to whatever worship you want.”

The religion writer for the Victoria Advocate, Jennifer Preyss, also identified a larger political and social impetus. “It was the polarizing volatility of the election season,” she said. “It’s this movement that’s happening in little pockets of America. People are tired of fighting. They want community. People want to be the person that chooses to go over and smile at their unfamiliar neighbor, rather than pointing at them because they practice a different faith.”

And then there is Victoria itself. Aptly nicknamed the “Crossroads of South Texas,” Victoria is approximately equidistant from Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Corpus Christi. It has just over 60,000 residents, nearly 100 churches, four McDonald’s, two hospitals and a farmers market. Victoria’s residents are mostly white and Hispanic, in almost equal numbers, with a small black population and an even smaller representation of other groups; 6.5% were not born in the United States. In the fall of 2016, 68.5% of Victoria voters supported Trump, 28.5% went for Clinton, and the Victoria East High School football team made it to the fourth round of its division playoffs. In short, Victoria is an ordinary American small city, Texas-style.

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Victoria Islamic Center congregants in their temporary space. Photo by Adriana Monsalve.

But a closer look reveals Victoria’s pride in being friendly and neighborly, a “tolerating community,” as Hassel put it. As a small city, “we’re all in this together,” said Robert Loeb, president of Temple B’Nai Israel, the synagogue in Victoria that offered mosque members the use of its sanctuary.  

Loeb said he has always felt welcome in Victoria, which has had a small (and now dwindling) Jewish community since the middle of the nineteenth century. He, in turn, has welcomed the Muslim community, which has been growing since the first arrivals about three decades ago. Loeb recalled, “It took me a nanosecond to know that [offering the sanctuary] was the right thing to do. Here’s 150 Muslims in town and only about 25 Jews. We’ve got a beautiful temple that we use four times a year. These people pray five times a day. It just made sense.”

Rachid agrees with his friend Loeb. “The community is very tolerant, people are extremely nice,” he said. “It’s a melting pot on its own; we have never felt a sense of discrimination or concern about us being Muslims.” Rachid himself has chaired the Victoria United Way and Chamber of Commerce and ran for mayor a few years ago, losing by fewer than 200 votes.

One more notable point about Victoria is that its religious leaders were already meeting regularly. After the police shootings in Dallas last summer, Hassel invited local religious leaders to join him in forming Communities of Faith because he wanted to be prepared if a similar event happened in Victoria. Although Hassel noted that some pastors declined to participate because they disagreed with the group’s mission or felt their congregations would not support it, ultimately twenty-eight leaders responded to his call. Communities of Faith now meets monthly.

Little did we know that this burning of the mosque would happen,” Hassel said, reflecting on the group’s role. “However, when it did, we already had in place a group of religious leaders that stood together against violence, hate and actions of intolerance. When the fire happened we were the first to lend our love, support, prayers and community action to help.”

A toddler held by his grandmother. Photo by Adriana Monsalve.

Today, the Victoria Islamic Center is moving forward. The mosque site is now a smooth patch of dirt ready for construction. The gold dome was removed from the ruins and will be restored to the roof of the new mosque, whose plans have already been drawn up. And since the GoFundMe ended, the Islamic Center has received over $300,000 in individual donations, as well as countless expressions of support in person, through the mail and on social media.

“On the day of the fire, I cried because when someone burns your house of worship, it’s like giving you an eviction notice from the community,” said Rachid. “The tears that day were tears of sadness. But the tears the next day were tears of joy, of the comfort we have experienced. The people wanted to send a message of solidarity, a message of love. They did not want bigotry and discrimination to win.”

kate-barsotti-pen-bw257Story: Rebecca Steinitz is a writer, editor and literacy consultant in Boston. 

kate-barsotti-pen-bw257Photos: Adriana Monsalve is an in-depth story teller whose documentary work is found at the intersections of identity and race.  She is the Master Artist Grant winner of the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures (NALAC).  For the time being, she is located on the border of US/Mex in Laredo, TX.  She is documenting the many layers and nuances of the immigrant story.  She serves as an adjunct professor of photojournalism at Texas A&M International University.


Copyright © 500 Pens. May 2017.

A Salon Where Women Who Cover Their Heads Can Let Their Hair Down

By Barbara Spindel

The January opening of Le’Jemalik Salon and Boutique in the Bay Ridge neighborhood of Brooklyn was, for Huda Quhshi, the realization of a cherished, long-held goal. “At 17, I sketched out what my dream salon would look like,” the 37-year-old cosmetologist recently recalled. “I’ve always loved beauty. It’s something I always had a passion for.”

Yet for Quhshi, a Yemeni-American from Greenpoint, Brooklyn who wears a hijab, her passion came with a complication. Women who cover only allow men who are close relatives to see their hair, making salon visits a fraught endeavor.

“When I wanted to get my hair curled or blow-dried, I’d try to find the most secluded area, a salon that was on a side street, that barely had any windows, and that seemed small enough that there wouldn’t be too many clients walking in,” Quhshi said, adding that a stylist once hastily moved her into an uninviting hallway after a man walked in midway through her appointment. Over the years, hijabi clients told her stories of beauty parlors that stuck them in basements or others that erected makeshift dividers but then rushed them through in an effort to remove the unsightly barriers as quickly as possible.

Le’Jemalik means “for your beauty” in Arabic. Photo by Sue Jaye Johnson.

Quhshi, who had spent most of her career freelancing, carried her supplies from home to home because many of her clients didn’t want to worry about being in a public space where men might enter. She found herself coloring hair in settings without proper ventilation or doing makeup without adequate lighting.

And so her vision for her own business involved making it a women-only space; Le’Jemalik (“for your beauty” in Arabic) is thought to be New York City’s first salon to cater to hijab-wearing women. Men are allowed in the reception area but not through the double doors that lead to the salon floor and to the downstairs bridal shop, which houses a collection of brightly colored, intricately laced and beaded gowns.  

Quhshi stresses, though, that Le’Jemalik is “open to all women”: among her clients are Muslims who don’t wear hijabs and Orthodox Jewish women, who, like hijabis, only allow males who are close relatives to see their hair. A beaming Quhshi says the community response to her opening has been “unbelievable.”

She has been especially moved by the encouragement she’s received from women of all faiths, whether in person or on social media. “I think women are excited to support another woman who opened a business that’s specifically for women,” she said. The support has been meaningful given the widespread misconceptions about Muslim women who wear hijabs. “A lot of people have this misunderstanding that we are forced to be covered up by our husbands or by our family, and we’re not,” Quhshi, who is married and has three teenage children, said firmly. “It’s a decision that we make based on our faith.”

“If a woman goes out in a bikini, she made that choice on her own,” she continued. “I can’t tell her, ‘You’re underdressed.’ And it’s the same thing for us. Just like she has a choice to reveal her body, we have the right to cover our bodies. It’s a beautiful thing, to me, to be able to cover up and kind of say not everybody gets to see my beauty. I show it to who I want to show it to. It’s my choice.”

Quhshi is aware that some see a contradiction between covering up out of modesty and focusing on beauty. (She’s been asked, “Why would you even do your hair if you’re going to smush it under that scarf?”) “Just because we cover it up to the outside world doesn’t mean we don’t want to look beautiful,” she explained, adding that she socializes often without her headscarf, but at women-only parties. “We want to pamper ourselves as well. We want to get our nails done, we want to get facials.”

“With everything that’s going on, I feel like everyone’s come together more than ever,” said Huda Quhshi. Photo by Sue Jaye Johnson.

The timing of the salon’s opening is striking. In a period when hate crimes against Muslims have surged, when the Trump administration has tried twice to restrict travel to the United States with what many consider a Muslim ban, when Attorney General Jeff Sessions is threatening to withhold federal funding from sanctuary cities, Quhshi has created her own sanctuary for Muslim women.

She demurs a bit at this interpretation. She is, in her words, “not a political person,” and she says the daily conversation at the salon revolves around personal lives, not politics. Still, she does see serendipity in the timing. “It took so long to build this place, but I think it was meant to happen when it happened,” Quhshi said. “With everything that’s going on, I feel like everyone’s come together more than ever. All religions are coming together and saying we are all human and we’re here to support each other. Sometimes something bad happens but a good thing comes out of it, and I think that’s what’s happening right now.”

Of course, there are concerns. Quhshi and her husband have family members in Yemen; they worry about the worsening conflict and humanitarian crisis there. Closer to home, she hears troubling stories from her community: travel postponed, Muslim-Americans who were out of the country when the ban was announced and who struggled to get back home. “It’s installed a fear in all of us. It just makes no sense,” she said. Then she smiles and adds, assuredly, “But we’ll get through it.” 

kate-barsotti-pen-bw257Barbara Spindel is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Slate, the Atlantic, the Daily Beast, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Barnes & Noble Review, Details, Tablet and other publications. She holds a Ph.D. in American studies.

kate-barsotti-pen-bw257Photographer Sue Jaye Johnson is a documentary artist working in radio, photography, film and interactive technologies. A two-time Peabody Award winner and a 2017 TED Resident, Johnson’s work frequently looks at the role of women in society.

Copyright © 500 Pens. May 2017.

Cincinnati Suburb Unites Around Neighbor Accused Of Terrorist Ties

By Anjali Enjeti

One day this past January, upon returning to her home in Mason, Ohio, a quiet suburb 25 miles northeast of Cincinnati, Rawd Saleh learned that fliers accusing her of having a terrorist connection had been distributed to her neighbors.

One side of the flier contained images of Saleh and her home. It listed her first and last name and her address. A Google map image pinpointed the exact location of her residence.

Neighborhood terrorist warning, it began. We have someone linked to terrorism living in our neighborhood.

On the back of the flier was a copy of a 2003 Cincinnati Enquirer article which stated that Saleh’s father, Omran Saleh, may have funded terrorist bank accounts in the Middle East. Though a Hamilton County judge later cleared him of any terrorist connections, he was eventually sent to jail for one year for defrauding the state of tax funds. “That was an awful time,” said Saleh. “The worse thing we’d ever been through.”  

Saleh was stunned that someone could be so cruel as to dig up her father’s 15-year-old false accusation, attack Saleh for having links to terrorism herself and paper the neighborhood with a lie.

“I am busy with life, home and work,” she said. “I’m not out there to hurt or offend anyone. I do what I can to help others. I couldn’t believe someone could do something like that.”

She was scared for her safety and angry that someone could put her or her children — ages 21, 15 and 12 — in harm’s way. For weeks afterward, she found it difficult to sleep at night and would often look outside her window if she heard a noise to make sure the perpetrator hadn’t returned.

“I don’t know who was out there thinking I’m evil or anti-American — what process they go through before they commit a hate crime. I was shocked someone could go through all the trouble to do this to me.”

Saleh, who is Muslim, moved to Mason in 2014 with her three children. The town of 30,000 is made up of approximately 17 percent racial minorities. And some 25,000 to 30,000 Muslims live in the greater Cincinnati area. Saleh, who was born in Jerusalem to a Palestinian father and a Turkish mother and immigrated to the United States when she was 6 years old, had come to love the “diversity and welcoming feel” of her community.

Saleh’s neighbors demonstrated an immediate “outpouring of support.” Saleh was sent letters that condemned the flier and offered phone numbers in case she ever needed help. Nearby neighbors redirected the lenses of their security cameras away from their own homes toward hers so they could catch the perpetrator if he or she decided to return. “It was heartwarming and reassuring,” Saleh said. 

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A Mason, Ohio rally in support of Rawd Saleh. Photo by Lori Pike.

The flier was posted to a neighborhood Facebook group, where Sarah Martin, a Mason resident, first saw it. “I was outraged,” said Martin. “I wasn’t sure what to do at that point, but I knew I needed to take action.”

Martin redacted Saleh’s personal information and re-posted the flier to her own Facebook page. Cyndi Ritter, a Cincinnati native and former co-worker of Martin’s, saw it and left a comment. The two friends discussed the need to take action.

Ritter reached out to Saleh on Facebook and asked if she wanted to meet with Ritter and Martin for coffee to discuss the flier. Saleh agreed. Martin explained, “I wanted Rawd to know that even though she had never met me before, she has a safe and supportive person on her side if and when she needed me.”

At the meeting a few days later, Ritter and Martin made it clear that though they wanted to help Saleh, they didn’t want to overstep their bounds. If Saleh wanted to walk away and forget what happened, that was fine. “I didn’t want to do anything Rawd was not comfortable with,” said Ritter.

At first, Saleh was hesitant to go further. “But then I started thinking that so many people must be going through something like this. We’re an all-American Muslim family, but someone else didn’t think so.” Saleh decided that the best way to respond to the flier was with a rally.

Ritter took the next step of securing the Mason Community Center for a rally on January 29th and created an event on Facebook entitled, “Calling All Activists: A Rally to Promote Inclusion, Peace and Solidarity of our Muslim Brothers and Sisters.”

Ritter, Martin and Saleh were astounded by the turnout, especially since they’d planned the event only three days earlier, one week after the flier was distributed to Saleh’s neighborhood. “We hoped to get 50 people at the rally,” said Ritter. Instead, an estimated 300 people turned out.

Residents of the Cincinnati metro area assembled alongside Mason-Montgomery Road, a busy thoroughfare, with signs calling for solidarity and tolerance. “We wanted to show that we were not going to tolerate that kind of behavior in our community,” Ritter said.

Ritter had no prior experience organizing. “I’m not a professional,” she said. “This rally was the first thing I’ve ever planned.” But she had attended the Women’s March in Washington, D.C. the day after the Inauguration and felt inspired. “The March is what gave me the courage and ability to stand up and make an impact.”

To date, the identity of Saleh’s perpetrator is still unknown. And at times, Saleh feels nervous about what could happen to her in the future.

“If I’m walking in the neighborhood and say ‘hi’ to someone, I wonder if this could be the person that did this to me,” she said. “Do I let my guard down? What if I let my guard down and then something happens?”

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Hundreds gathered in support of Rawd Saleh. Photo by Lori Pike.

There’s a world of difference between the community’s reaction to her father’s false accusation in 2003, said Saleh, and the community’s reaction to the flier in January of this year. “In 2003, people cut ties with us. One of the boys in our Cincinnati neighborhood called my oldest son, who was then only 6 or 7 years old, a terrorist,” she said.

This time, the community rallied around her and her family. Saleh feels “really blessed” to live in a diverse city like Mason.

“There are so many things going on in the world that make you feel alone. There are mean, hateful people,” said Saleh. “But the ones who are kind outnumber them.”

kate-barsotti-pen-bw257Anjali Enjeti’s articles, essays and criticism have appeared in Longreads, Vice, NPR, Quartz, NBC, the Washington Post, the Atlanta Journal Constitution and elsewhere. She’s a board member of the National Book Critics Circle and can be found on Twitter: @anjalienjeti

Photos by Lori Pike.kate-barsotti-pen-bw257

Copyright © 500 Pens. May 2017.