When Donald Trump offered a “temporary” plan to block Muslims from entering the United States in response to jihadist terrorism, some supporters cheered while other Americans decried the call as “xenophobic,” saying Muslims are an important part of the national fabric.
Who are the Muslims in U.S. communities?
In most places, they represent a small fraction of residents. Muslims make up less than 1 percent of the U.S. adult population. The largest Muslim communities can be found around New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and Houston.
Nearly 40 percent of U.S. Muslims are white, while nearly three-in-10 are black and the same share are Asian. They tend to be younger and better educated than the general public, with 39 percent holding a college degree, compared to 27 percent of all Americans, according to the Pew Research Center.
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Sixty-one percent of Muslims in the U.S. are immigrants, according to Pew. Among all immigrants granted permanent residency status, or green cards, the share of Muslims increased from about 5 percent in 1992 to roughly 10 percent in 2012, representing about 100,000 immigrants in that year, according to Pew.
And what about fears some have expressed? New America, a Washington, D.C.-based, non-profit think-tank, offers some figures: Its research found that since Sept. 11, 2001, individuals motivated by jihadist ideology have been responsible for 45 killings on U.S. soil; in comparison, white supremacists, anti-government fanatics and the like have been blamed for 48 such deaths, it said.
To put that in perspective, in 2013, there were 11,208 firearm homicides and 33,804 motor vehicle traffic deaths, according to federal figures. It’s unclear how many Muslims were perpetrators of crime; the FBI does not collect religious affiliations of persons arrested.
Most Muslims in the United States say followers of Islam are peaceful and are vital contributors to the texture, makeup and soul of the country. Still, because they are a small minority, relatively unknown to most Americans, many say they need to make their presence and contributions better known.
Here’s a sampling of Muslims in communities from Florida to Alaska.
A ‘duty’ to foster understanding
Farris Barakat has always been faithful. But his brother’s murder has made him an “ambassador of Islam.”
“I never thought that would be me,” says the 25-year-old in Raleigh, North Carolina. “My focus has always been on business and entrepreneurship.”
His younger brother, Deah, had already set him an example.
Still in dental school at the University of North Carolina, Deah, with his new wife, Yusor, had started a crowd-funding effort to provide medical treatment to refugees in Turkey from the Barakats’ Syrian homeland. They were planning to go this summer, but they never got the chance.
On Feb. 10, the young couple and Yusor’s 19-year-old sister, Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, were gunned down in their Chapel Hill apartment. Craig Hicks, a disgruntled neighbor and outspoken atheist, has been charged with murder in the case.
This act of brutality set the older brother on a new path. He left his job as a business manager with a local courier service and began renovating a rental property his brother owned in downtown Raleigh. It has been reborn as the Light House — a tribute to Deah, whose name is Arabic for “light.”
“Our community — our Muslim community — doesn’t really do too much … outreach work” — and that will be part of the Light House’s aim, says Farris Barakat, whose parents are from Syria but who was born in Raleigh.
He has already begun working with youth in the predominantly black neighborhood surrounding the house; he envisions a space that will be part community center, part social incubator.
“I just feel like there’s so much work to do in the world, and whatever I can do, I’ll do,” he says. “In a sense, this is all God’s plan, for him to choose these three amazing people.”
Call him coach
Abe Mashhour likes recruiting top prospects for his top-ranked Michigan community college basketball team. He’s also known for taking lower-caliber players from impoverished or broken families, some of whom have been homeless or had criminal records.
The 43-year-old coach at Schoolcraft College in the Detroit suburb of Livonia said other coaches and counselors regularly call him to refer struggling students. They know he will take them in — sometimes literally, into his home to stay in the offseason — to help them get on track athletically and academically.
“I like coaching a lot but I love working with people,” said Mashhour, a husband and father of six who has coached for 20 years and also serves as athletic director in the Dearborn Public Schools. “For me to help somebody in their life is a lot more significant … than to win basketball games. I get a lot more joy out of that.”
Mashhour came to the U.S. from Lebanon at age 4, the youngest child of nine in his family, to escape that nation’s civil war. They moved to Dearborn, which has a large, established Arab-American community. A Muslim who says, “my faith is the center of who I am and what I was taught by my parents,” he considers himself “very blessed and fortunate to grow up in this country.”
“If it wasn’t for welfare and financial aid, I would have had a very difficult time being where I am today,” he said.
Another coach once asked him why he spent so much time with the students from difficult personal situations. Mashhour said his teams always have a “good mix,” including more affluent students, who have a surer shot at success “regardless of me being in their life.”
“Some of the other guys, where were they going to get their next meal from without doing something illegal?” asked Mashhour, whose current squad was ranked No. 1 in the National Junior College Athletic Association Division II preseason poll. “Those kids need me. … They need that direction a lot more.”
‘A devout Philadelphian’
Lawyer Sally Baraka can still remember her father taking her along as a little girl when he went to his Cherry Hill, N.J., voting precinct to cast his ballot in every election.
He told her what it was like to live in Egypt before her parents moved to America in the 1960s.
“It was so important to him that we saw him exercising a civic duty,” said Baraka, an American citizen who was born in Iran but came back to the U.S. with her parents before her first birthday. “We were always taught that things here were better.”
Those lessons in civic responsibility helped plant the seed for Baraka’s decision to pursue the law. After completing her undergraduate and law school degrees at Temple University in Philadelphia, she remained in the city and is a patent attorney working with startups at a software company.
As a Muslim and Arab-American, Baraka, 39, calls herself “a devout Philadelphian” who is an ambassador for her city, country and faith.
“I attribute so much of who I am to growing up here,” she said. “Growing up, a lot of people would say, ‘You’re the only Arab I’ve ever met.’ I always let people know who I was so that when they thought about my people, they didn’t do it in the abstract.”
This week, Baraka was preparing to host colleagues for a holiday party at her South Philadelphia home.
“You don’t choose your parents and you don’t choose your home,” she said. “You learn to love it. This is where I belong. This is what I know.”
A pioneering family
Mousa Obeidi arrived in New York from Palestine with $21 in nickels and dimes.
It was December 1956, and with a little help, the immigrant found his way first to Arizona and eventually to Alaska, where he says he became the first Muslim resident in the young state.
Obeidi, who is now 90, lived in his car and sold Italian tapestries in the rough-and-tumble bars of Anchorage to get by. He later qualified for a no-interest $300,000 Small Business Administration loan to open a frame store. Eight years later, in 1985, another $90,000 SBA loan allowed him to open an art gallery.
“This is the way of Islam. When someone is nice to you, you should be nicer,” he said Tuesday sitting in the office of the gallery.
To repay the kindness, the Obeidis and others in the Muslim community help recent immigrants to Anchorage, whether they need a job, schooling or just adjusting to the ways of their new home. Often, they work with Catholic Social Services in getting people settled.
His son, Sam, often gives talks to immigrants, helping integrate them into the American system and way of life.
Anchorage is a diverse city, where about 100 different languages are spoken in the public school system. Many of the new immigrants come from Sudan, and the Anchorage Muslim community claims other members from Albania, Asia, the Middle East, etc., and some Alaska Natives. All told, there are up to 3,000 Muslims in Anchorage, or about 1 percent of the population.
“We’re all part of the fabric of this community,” said 58-year-old Sam Obeidi, who immigrated in 1977. “It doesn’t matter if you’re black or white, male or female, Muslim, Christian, Jew or none of the above.”
The Obeidi men have hosted prayer meetings in their homes, and later a larger space at a strip mall. Recently, they moved into what Sam says is Alaska’s first mosque. The $2 million Islamic Community Center Anchorage Alaska has mostly been built by donations, and work continues even as Muslims use the mosque.
Another way the Obeidi family gives back is with donations to other causes, and sometimes the recipients are churches in the city. These donations are seen as paying back the interest of those no-interest SBA loans Mousa got decades ago.
“We’re not born rich, and we don’t inherit that much money,” Sam Obeidi said. “We struggle but we made it, and this is a success story.”
‘Created to be connected’
Abdul Karim Ali wasn’t born a Muslim.
He went by the name he was given at birth, Matthew Savage. That man didn’t vote and wasn’t involved in his community. But in 1975, his brother attended a Nation of Islam meeting in St. Petersburg, Florida, and persuaded him to give it a try.
The group’s social message, centered on strengthening the African-American community, social reform and justice, resonated with him. Soon, the spiritual concepts of Islam sparked his imagination and he began studying traditional Islam. That led to him taking a new name and a visit to Mecca in Saudi Arabia.
“It was breathtaking,” he said. “I’d read about it, heard about it, but wasn’t prepared.” Tens of thousands of people from different countries, of different races, all praying in the same direction.
But equally powerful was the message Ali took from Islam: to help his community. In the early 1980s, he started a neighborhood watch group, then a civic association. That led to serving on committees for the building of the Tropicana Field baseball park and two runs for St. Petersburg City Council.
These days, Ali is involved with the city’s Interfaith Council, where members of many religions come together to discuss issues and community needs. He hosts a radio show and works one day a week at a veterans hospital, selling natural body care products alongside his wife, Raushanah.
Islam is about family and community, volunteering and serving, he says. Now an imam who follows traditional Islam, he encourages Muslims who are new to America to get involved in their cities and towns.
“We have to embrace who we are as a human family,” he said. “The more we allow ourselves to really sit down with one another, the more we’ll discover that we were created to be connected.”
Dishwasher to doctor
Dr. Heval Mohamed Kelli was 17 when his family, Kurdish refugees from Syria, came to the United States in 2001. They arrived in metro Atlanta on Sept. 25 — exactly two weeks after the terrorist attacks in New York.
Mohamed Kelli still marvels at the outpouring of support his family received, particularly from volunteers from All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Atlanta who dropped by the newcomers’ apartment every week to tutor them in English.
“There was just an overwhelming support from the community, and I felt this was our home from the first day,” Mohamed Kelli recalled. “Being a Muslim, this was very humbling.”
Now the 32-year-old physician, recently awarded a four-year fellowship in cardiology at Atlanta’s Emory University, is working to give back to his adopted home.
Most Sundays he works with other Emory doctors at the Clarkston Health Clinic, which provides free medical services to low-income patients just a block from the small apartment Mohamed Kelli shared with his parents and younger brother 14 years ago. He washed dishes at a restaurant then to help support his family.
His research at Emory focuses on health and mobile technology. Mohamed Kelli wants to develop a smartphone app that lets users enter basic health information — such as blood pressure and weight — and prompts them to make improvements by exercising more or changing their diets.
“I feel very blessed,” Mohamed Kelli said. “I used to wash dishes for a living and now I’m getting paid to be a doctor. I feel like I’ve made it in life.”