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Local Muslims more determined to serve community

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I saw a sign

The Anniston Islamic Center supports several projects that benefit the community.

Last weekend, a USA Today/Suffolk University poll revealed that Americans believe, in increasing numbers as time passes, that the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001 have permanently affected their lives. 

Local Muslims feel the effect, too.

Maha Amer, of Anniston, volunteers her time at the Iqra Math and Science Academy in east Anniston, where two of her four children attend. The other two have graduated.

Amer and her husband, Hamadan, arrived in Anniston in 2000 from their home in Jerusalem. She was pregnant with their firstborn child and wanted to stay at home, even though she was a dentist. Renewing her certification in America was time consuming, and, eventually, she had her hands full with her growing family.

Amer remembers the day of the attacks. She was afraid for herself, her family, and others, including her friends. Because she looked different from other women (she wears a head scarf called a hijab), she was afraid of being verbally or physically attacked if she went outside her home. 

“The first time I went in public was to a doctor’s appointment,” Amer said. “All the doctors and nurses were nice, which encouraged me to continue going out in public.”

During the 20 years since 2001, only one person has approached her and told her to return to her home, but others have been kind, including one senior citizen who paid for a restaurant order she had placed and told her that she wanted her to feel “good and happy” in America.

Even today, though, Maha occasionally sees fear in the eyes of others when they notice her. It makes her sad when mothers call their children away from her.

Today, there are about 200 Muslims at the mosque in Calhoun County, according to Sahbei, out of the county's 115,000 population.

Dr. Aasim Sehbaiis a Muslim American in Anniston whose medical practice is hematology, internal medicine, and oncology. He moved here six years ago, after working in New York and West Virginia for several years.

Sehbai, who was making rounds with other doctors when the attack on Sept. 11 occurred, said they were awestruck.

“It took us many days to absorb what had happened,” he said. “You just cannot imagine anything like that.”

Sehbai remembers feeling insecure at that time and upset at those who had perpetrated the attack. However, looking back over the past 25 years as a physician, only a couple of statements spoken to him have seemed discriminatory. Currently, he sees about 30 patients a day, and none has ever made him feel uneasy. However, his recent comment on social media encouraging people to get the COVID-19 vaccine resulted in a few unkind comments about his faith.

“This issue has been politicized,” Sehbai said. “Some people do not think of it as a medical problem.”

'Many positive ways'

Dr. Abdul Kazi, an ophthalmologist in Anniston, was working in New Orleans, La., during the 9/11 attack.

“Regardless of 9/11,” Kazi said, “which also threw us Muslims a curveball, Muslims have contributed in many positive ways to America’s history. The contributions have been even more in Calhoun County. We have striven to be good citizens through community service, which is encouraged in the Quran.”

The local Muslims are closely connected to the Anniston Islamic Center, which is their mosque and is located on McCall Drive in Anniston. Also on the grounds are the Salam Free Medical Clinic, the Iqra Math and Science Academy and the Salam Food Pantry.

Members give away free boxes of food from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. each Saturday from their pantry. They work with St. Michael’s Medical Clinic when needed, and, at times in their medical practices, they donate their services to the indigent.

“Our members deliver for the Meals on Wheels program,” Kazi said. “We here in Anniston are proactive in trying to be open to our neighbors and to be a good religious entity. 

“Before COVID, we did annual breakfasts with ministers from different churches during Ramadan, which is when our members fast, along with Christian and Jewish priests and rabbis. We sat together and had community dinners before COVID.”

'A great addition'

April LaFollette, the director of Meals on Wheels in Anniston, has been impressed by the level of service the Muslim community gives to the program. She is responsible for making sure there are about eight to 12 volunteers each weekday. The Muslim community covers two of those each week.

“They are a great addition to our community,” LaFollette said.

Nannette Mudiam, the director at St. Michael’s Clinic, confirmed the medical staff has made referrals to the physicians at the Muslim clinic. She appreciates all the physicians who help care for the patients.

Dr. Sara Sadiq, who lives in Oxford, is a physician specializing in internal medicine. She was living in New York on Sept. 11. Her husband, Nadir, a businessman, worked in Manhattan and was unable to call her for four hours after the attack.

“That day was rough,” she said. “My faith helped me get through it.”

Sadiq was not aware of the attack until a sister called from London and told her about it. She turned on the television and saw what had happened. Shortly afterward, when the Pentagon was attacked, she grew more distressed. Not only did the attacks in Manhattan take place near her husband, but the Pentagon attack in Washington, D.C., took place near where her mother was visiting another sister.

Sadiq does not wear a hijab and, therefore, is not recognized for her faith. She encountered no unkind remarks and was happy about her husband’s acceptance after the attack.

“My husband’s friends told him if anyone tried to mess with him, they would protect him. There was no hatred from all of his colleagues and American friends,” Sadiq said.

Sadiq and her family have lived in Calhoun County for the past 12 years. Her family lives in a neighborhood where there are no other Muslim families, and they have many Christian friends.

All three physicians, and Amer, appreciate that Calhoun countians are polite and kind to them. They want all to understand that the Muslim religion espouses a way of life that respects the rights of all humans, including women, minorities and those of other religions.

“We believe in living with other people,” Sahbei said. “We sacrifice to do things free of cost. We try to promote good things in our religion and practice it here in our community.”