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Reaching for the Stars: A Former Refugee Honored At A Major Baseball Game

Hena Zuberi

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Outside Minute Maid Park, the Houston Astros stadium, milling amongst the blue and orange fans, Ghulam Kehar waits for Dayana Halawo and her family with tickets and a T-shirt to wear as she throws the ceremonial first pitch. He is the CEO and co-founder of Amaanah Refugee Services, which works with resettled refugees in Texas – the top state in the nation to host resettled refugees. On July 31, 2017, Dayana, a Muslim resettled refugee who arrived in Houston from Syria last August, was invited by Amaanah to throw the opening pitch to open the game. This is a distinct American tradition, where a guest of honor throws a baseball to mark the end of pregame festivities and the start of the game.

Amaanah chose Dayana for her resilience and spirit of giving back. Amaanah works with former refugees months after governmental resettlement assistance ends. Since 2008, Amaanah has touched the lives of over 10,000 refugees. This is the second year the Astros — the leading team in the American League West— have worked with Amaanah to give refugees a “truly American” experience and a special honor.

“I was three years old when war broke out,” recalls Dayana. More than 30 years ago, her mother, a young woman with 4 children, escaped war in Circassia (current day Russia) and made a new home in Homs, Syria, 100 miles north of Damascus. Many Circassians – Sunni muhajirs (migrants) from Caucasus — had assimilated in Syrian society, while maintaining their heritage and identity. Her people had suffered for centuries. The Russian government killed or expelled nearly the entire nation from in 1864, after they resisted the Russian Empire’s advance for more than a century. To this day, the Circassians remember this as their “genocide.”

In 2005, Dayana met Mohamed Bilal. He owned the beauty store located in front of her house. Ethnic differences divided the families over the marriage, but the two were determined to become husband and wife. ”I left everything for Mohamed Bilal,” Dayana shares her love story.

Her –happy– home became a warzone again in 2011. All supply routes to their city were blocked and aerial shelling and bombing filled their days and nights. When Assad’s forces bombed her neighborhood, Mohamed Bilal and Dayana barely escaped, clutching their 1-year-old son they ran out of her building. Nine months pregnant, Dayana was about to give birth to her daughter and understands how her mother felt leaving her life behind.

Today, Bilal and Dayana have settled into a bustling life in cosmopolitan Houston, befriending people of all colors and paths in life.

In Homs, she attended the Al-Salam school and became an English teacher at her alma mater. Now, the former refugee from Syria is giving back as an instructor at Amaanah’s Awesome Academy. Amaanah identifies resettled refugee populations in the school district, says Ghulam, and sends bilingual instructors [to] help the public school teachers during and after school hours. “We have become an additional support system for [former refugee] kids in the system,” he shares humbly. “Dayana is a teacher there – which is pretty cool,” he adds.

Dayana arrives at Minute Maid Park, a baseball glove in hand and prayers on her lips. Her entourage is escorted to the VIP section of the stadium. “I am so nervous,” she says. “We play football in Syria,” she adds with a giggle. She has been practicing pitching for a few weeks but her face on the giant screen of the Jumbotron is setting off new waves of jitters.

A buzz of reporters interviews her while her children look from behind the netting, seated in the dugout. Mohamed Bilal comes out with an Astros hat and a hug. The air is electric. “Go, girl, go!” yells a security guard. Her children, Laith and Joudi, wave from their seats. After a set of last minute instructions, the 5 foot 2 inch Dayana walks up to the mound on the perfectly manicured field. The crowd bursts into applause.

In the upper deck 300 supporters were waiting for Dayana. “Wallah, you did well,” says her ‘coach’, a family friend, Yehia Omar, who showed her how to throw the ball.

“She is amazing!” says single mom Ghadah Bayati, a former refugee from Iraq and Amaanah’s Transformed Program specialist, who is also in the stands celebrating Dayana. “We coach resettled single-mothers on financial management, employment, language, transportation and housing,” rattles off the former program participant.

Refugees are admitted to the United States for humanitarian reasons but they also contribute to the American economy. An internal study done by the Departmant of Health and Human Services, which was completed in late July (around the time Dayana was invited to pitch the ball) but never publicly released, found that refugees “contributed an estimated $269.1 billion in revenues to all levels of government” between 2005 and 2014 through the payment of federal, state and local taxes. “Overall, this report estimated that the net fiscal impact of refugees was positive over the 10-year period, at $63 billion.” The New York Times reports that “the draft report, which was obtained by The New York Times, contradicts a central argument made by advocates of deep cuts in refugee totals,” including Stephen Miller, Trump’s chief policy officer. The Trump administratio,  rejecting this study, has set a limit of 45,000 for refugees allowed to resettle in the United States.

Last Februaury, 80 business leaders including CEOs urged the president to consider the serious harm to U.S. economic interests — including potentially billions of dollars in economic loss — that could result from overly-restrictive immigration policies based on unfounded security concerns.

As business leaders, we have seen first-hand the positive economic benefits of immigrants and refugees in our communities and firms. Many of us have such heritage ourselves; indeed, 40 percent of all Fortune 500 companies were founded by refugees, immigrants, or their children. Immigrants and refugees revitalize shrinking cities and workforces, and create new business and American jobs.

With their energy and vision, Mohammad Bilal and Dayana could easily be one of them. They have not let any of the hardships they have faced deter them from building and giving back to their new home. Up in the stands, Dayana’s friend Aminah Ishaq, an avid Astros fan, hugs her and cheers the homerun against Tampa Bay. They met when Aminah helped Mohamed Bilal find work as a handy man to add to his income from his job at a restaurant. “They refuse handouts,” shares Aminah.

Now, Dayana teaches Aminah’s daughter the Quran. “She is such a generous soul,” confides Aminah, who was invited to a ‘huge feast’ at Dayana’s apartment during Ramadan. “She treats me like a sister,” says Aminah.

I witness some of that hospitality as she invites me to her home. “Come and stay with me,” squeals Dayana, with a warm smile and an offer wrapped in traditional Muslim values. I will cook Syrian food for you,” she says to me, touched that I had flown from Washington D.C. to cover her story. I promise to meet up with her next time I am in her city.

“I am so proud of you, Mama. You went out there and did that in hijab,” chirps Laith, his eyes brimming with pride for his brave mother who is reaching for the stars in their new home.

Hena Zuberi is the Editor in Chief of Muslimmatters.org. She is also a Staff Reporter at the Muslim Link newspaper which serves the DC Metro. She serves on the board of the Aafia Foundation and Words Heal, Inc. Hena has worked as a television news reporter and producer for CNBC Asia and World Television News. A mom of four and a Green Muslim, she lives and preaches a whole food, organic life which she believes is closest to Sunnah. Active in her SoCal community, Hena served as the Youth Director for the Unity Center. Using her experience with Youth, she conducts Growing Up With God workshops. hena.z@muslimmatters.org Follow her on Twitter @henazuberi.

1 Comment

1 Comment

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    Amatullah

    October 12, 2017 at 1:53 AM

    SubhanAllah, amazing ppl out there!
    jazakhAllah khayr for covering this ukhti, been ages I read something positive.

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Eid Lameness Syndrome: Diagnosis, Treatment, Cure

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How many of you have gone to work on Eid because you felt there was no point in taking off? No Eid fun. Have you ever found Eid boring, no different from any other day?

If so, you may suffer from ELS (Eid Lameness Syndrome). Growing up, I did too.

My family would wake up, go to salah, go out to breakfast, come home, take a 4+ hour nap and then go out to dinner. I didn’t have friends to celebrate with and even if I did, I wouldn’t see them because we stuck to our own immediate family just as they did.

On the occasion that we went to a park or convention center, we would sort of have fun. Being with other people was certainly better than breakfast-nap-dinner in isolation, but calling that a memorable, satisfying, or genuinely fun Eid would be a stretch.

I don’t blame my parents for the ELS though. They came from a country where Eid celebration was the norm; everyone was celebrating with everyone and you didn’t have to exert any effort. When they moved to the US, where Muslims were a minority, it was uncharted territory. They did the best they could with the limited resources they had.

When I grew up, I did about the same too. When I hear friends or acquaintances tell me that they’re working, doing laundry or whatever other mundane things on Eid, I understand.  Eid has been lame for so long that some people have given up trying to see it any other way. Why take personal time off to sit at home and do nothing?

I stuck to whatever my parents did for Eid because “Eid was a time for family.” In doing so, I was honoring their cultural ideas of honoring family, but not Eid. It wasn’t until I moved away that I decided to rebel and spend Eid with convert friends (versus family) who didn’t have Muslim families to celebrate with on Eid, rather than drive for hours to get home for another lame salah-breakfast-nap-dinner.

That was a game-changing Eid for me. It was the first non-lame Eid I ever had, not because we did anything extraordinary or amazing, but because we made the day special by doing things that we wouldn’t normally do on a weekday together. It was then that I made a determination to never have a lame Eid ever again InshaAllah.

I’m not the only one fighting ELS. Mosques and organizations are creating events for people to attend and enjoy together, and families are opting to spend Eid with other families. There is still much more than can be done, as converts, students, single people, couples without children and couples with very small children, are hard-hit by the isolation and sadness that ELS brings. Here are a few suggestions for helping treat ELS in your community:

Host an open house

Opening up your home to a large group of people is a monumental task that takes a lot of planning and strength. But it comes with a lot of baraka and reward. Imagine the smiling faces of people who would have had nowhere to go on Eid, but suddenly find themselves in your home being hosted. If you have a big home, hosting an open house is an opportunity to express your gratitude to Allah for blessing you with it.

Expand your circle

Eid is about commUNITY. Many people spend Eid alone when potential hosts stick to their own race/class/social status. Invite and welcome others to spend Eid with you in whatever capacity you can.

Delegate

You can enlist the help of close friends and family to help so it’s not all on you. Delegate food, setup, and clean-up across your family and social network so that no one person will be burdened by the effort InshaAllah.

Squeeze in

Don’t worry if you don’t have a big house, you’ll find out how much barakah your home has by how many people are able to fit in it. I’ve been to iftars in teeny tiny apartments where there’s little space but lots of love. If you manage to squeeze in even two or three extra guests, you’ve saved two or three people from ELS for that year.

Outsource Eid Fun

If you have the financial means or know enough friends who can pool together, rent a house. Some housing share sites have homes that can be rented specifically for events, giving you the space to consolidate many, smaller efforts into one larger, more streamlined party.

Flock together

It can be a challenge to find Eid buddies to spend the day with. Try looking for people in similar circumstances as you. I’m a single woman and have hosted a ladies game night for the last few Eids where both married and single women attend.  If you are a couple with young kids, find a few families with children of similar age groups. If you’re a student, start collecting classmates. Don’t wait for other people to invite you, make a list in advance and get working to fend off ELS together.

Give gifts

The Prophet ﷺ said: تَهَادُوا تَحَابُّوا‏ “Give gifts to increase love for each other”. One of my siblings started a tradition of getting a gift for each person in the family. If that’s too much, pick one friend or family member and give them a gift. If you can’t afford gifts, give something that doesn’t require much money like a card or just your time. You never know how much a card with kind, caring words can brighten a person’s Eid.

Get out of your comfort zone

If you have ELS, chances are there is someone else out there who has it too. The only way to find out if someone is sad and alone on Eid is by admitting that we are first, and asking if they are too.

Try, try, try again…

Maybe you’ve taken off work only to find that going would have been less of a waste of time. Maybe you tried giving gifts and it didn’t go well. Maybe you threw an open house and are still cleaning up/dealing with the aftermath until now. It’s understandable to want to quit and say never again, to relent and accept that you have ELS and always will but please, keep trying. The Ummah needs to believe that Eid can and should be fun and special for everyone.

While it is hard to be vulnerable and we may be afraid of rejection or judgment, the risk is worth it. As a survivor and recoverer of ELS, I know how hard it can be and also how rewarding it is to be free of it. May Allah bless us all with the best Eids and to make the most of the blessed days before and after, Ameen.

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Broken Light: The Opacity of Muslim Led Institutions

Rehan Mirza, Guest Contributor

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muslim led institutions

Habib Abd al-Qadir al-Saqqaf (may Allah have mercy on him and benefit us by him) explains how we are affected by the spiritual state of those around us.

Every person has rays which emanate from their soul. You receive these rays when you come close to them or sit in their presence. Each person’s rays differ in strength according to the state of their soul. This explains how you become affected by sitting in the presence of great people. They are people who follow the way of the Prophets in their religious and worldly affairs. When they speak, they counsel people. Their actions guide people. When they are silent they are like signposts which guide people along the path, or like lighthouses whose rays guide ships. Many of them speak very little, but when you see them or visit them you are affected by them. You leave their gatherings having been enveloped in their tranquillity. Their silence has more effect than the eloquent speech of others. This is because the rays of their souls enter you.

The Organizational Light

As a Muslim organizational psychologist, I know that organizations and institutions are a collective of these souls too. Like a glass container, they are filled colored by whatever is within them. So often Muslim organizations have presumed clarity in their organizational light and looked on with wonder as children, families, and the community wandered. The lighthouse keepers standing in front of the beacon wondering, “Where have the ships gone?”have

Our Muslim led institutions will reflect our state, actions, and decisions. I do believe that most of our institutional origins are rooted in goodness, but those moments remain small and fade. Our challenge as a community is to have this light of origin be fixed so that it can pulsate and extend itself beyond itself.

Reference is not being made regarding any specific type of institution and this is not a pointed critique, but rather a theory on perhaps why the effect our variety of institutional work wanes and dissipates. Any type of organization or institution — whether for profit or nonprofit, whether capital focused or socially conscious — that is occupied by the heart of a Muslim(s), must reflect light.

Our organizational light is known by an ego-less assessment of intentions, actions, and results. We must move our ‘self’ or ‘selves’ out of the way and then measure our lumens. If the light increases when we move out of the way, then it is possible that we — our ego, personality, objectives, intentions, degree of sacrifice, level of commitment, and possibly even our sincerity — may be the obstructions to our organizational lights.

The Personal Imperative

What will become of our institutions and their role for posterity if we neglect to evaluate where we stand in relation to the noble courses they mean to take? We may currently be seeing the beginning what this may look and feel like.

When was the last time you walked into a Muslim led institution and felt a living space that drew you in because of the custodians, leadership, individuals, and community that made up its parts? It was probably the last time you and I looked deeply inward at our lives — our intellect, our relationships, our purpose, our spiritual state, our work, our decisions, and our intentions. If we cleanse our hearts so infrequently the dust which settles can become thick making them opaque. And perhaps this individual and collective state is what limits the reach and impact of our communal work thus, resulting in the opacity of Muslim led institutions. Note: Lighthouse keepers clean the lens of the beacon every day.

We must consistently assess the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual loci of our individual and organizational states. They are not fixed givens. Rather, they are capricious states that necessitate vigilance and wara’. Being aware of this will help in our organizational design and work.

The Collective Affect

When we are prepared to evaluate the efficacy of Muslim led institutions with the inclusion of some form of spiritual assessment, we will give ourselves a better opportunity to determine where, how, and why we may be missing the mark. The inefficiencies and inattentiveness we have on an individual level can permeate our relationships, our work, and our organizations. As organizational leaders, we must critically assess the amount of light our work emanates to illuminate the lives of the people we serve.

These inward evaluations should be in the form of active and ongoing discussions we have internally with our teams and colleagues, and ourselves. If done with prudence and sincerity it will not only strengthen our organizations but our teams and us God-willing. This collective effort can lead to a collective effect for those we serve that inspires and guides. We — and our institutions — can then return to the Prophetic example of being beacons of light that help ourselves and others arrive to a place of sanctuary.

And Allah always knows best.

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The Day I Die | Imam Omar Suleiman

Imam Omar Suleiman

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Janazah, funeral, legacy, Omar Suleiman, Edhi

Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (may Allah be pleased with him) in the midst of the torture he endured at the hands of his oppressors used to say: baynana wa baynahum aljanaa’iz, which means, “the difference between us and them will show in our funerals.” The man who instigated the ideological deviation that led to his torture was an appointed judge named Ahmad Ibn Abi Du’ad. At the moment of Imam Ahmad Ibn Hanbal making those remarks, it appeared Imam Ahmad would die disgraced in a dungeon but Ahmad Ibn Abi Du’ad would have a state funeral with thousands of mourners. Instead, Imam Ahmad persevered through his struggle, was embraced by the people, and honored by Allah with the biggest Janazah ever known to the Arabs with millions of people pouring in from all over. Ahmad Ibn Abu Du’ad was cast aside and buried without anyone attending his janazah out of revulsion.

Now sometimes righteous people do die in isolation, and wicked people are given grand exits. There are people like Uthman Ibn Affan (may Allah be pleased with him) who was murdered by the people of fitnah, then buried at night far away from the people out of fear of the large numbers that would’ve poured out to his janazah and potentially mobilized against his oppressors. But it may be that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He)  inspired Imam Ahmad with the vision to see his victory in this life before the next. To elaborate a bit on his statement though, allow me to reflect:

A wise man once said to me,

“Always put your funeral in front of you, and work backwards in constructing your life accordingly.” 

With the deaths of righteous people, that advice always advances to the front of my thoughts. When a person passes away, typically only good things will be said of them. But it’s important to pay attention to 2 aspects about those good things being said:

1. Is there congruence in the particular good quality being attested to about the deceased.

2. Are those good qualities being attested to actually truly of the deceased. 

The first one deals with consistency of character, the second one with sincerity of intention which is only known by the Creator and His servant. In regards to the first one, take our sister Hodan Nalayeh (may Allah have mercy on her) who was murdered tragically last week in a terrorist attack in Somalia. Everyone that spoke of her said practically the same thing about how she interacted with them and/or benefitted them. There is complete harmony with all of the testimonies about her. And in that case we all become the witnesses of our sister on the day of judgment, testifying to her good character.

For many that pass away, neither the deceased nor the community fully appreciates the way they benefitted others until that day. It was narrated that when Zainul Abideen Ali Ibn Al Husayn (may Allah be pleased with them), the great grandson of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) passed away, he had marks on his shoulders from the bags he used to carry to the doorsteps of the poor at night when no one else was watching. The narrations state that the people of Madinah used to live off his charity not knowing the source of it until his death.

How many people will miss you when you die because of the joy you brought to their lives? How many of those that you comforted when they were abandoned by others? That you spent on when they were deprived by others? That you advocated for when they were oppressed by others? 

Will your family miss you because of an empty bed in the home or a deep void in their hearts? Will it be the loss of your spending only that grieves them, or the loss of your smile? Will it be the loss of the stability you provided them only, or the loss of your service and sacrifices for them?

But Zainul Abideen didn’t care for the recipients of his charity to know that he was the source of it, because He was fully in tune with it’s true Divine source. He didn’t want to be thanked in this world, but in the next. He didn’t want the eulogy, he wanted Eternity. 

He understood that if you become distracted by the allure of this world, you may merely become of it. Focus on bettering the future which you cannot escape, rather than the present that you cannot dictate. Focus on the interview with the One who needs no resume, rather than the judgments of those who are just as disposable as you. 

اللَّهُمَّ اجْعَلْ خَيْرَ زَمَانِيْ آخِرَهُ، وَخَيْرَ عَمَلِيْ خَوَاتِمَهُ، وَخَيْرَ أَيَّامِيْ يِوْمَ أَلقَاكَ

“O Allah, let the best of my lifetime be its ending, and my best deed be that which I seal [my life with], and the best of my days the day I meet You.”

Which brings us to the second aspect of your funeral, the sincerity of the good you’re being praised for. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “increase your remembrance of the destroyer of pleasures.” Death only destroys the temporary pleasures of this world, not the pleasure of the Most Merciful in the next. Keeping that in perspective will help you work towards that without being distracted. If it is the praise of the people you seek, that is as temporary as the world that occupies both your worldly vehicle ie. your body, and your companions in this world who shall perish soon after you.

The Prophet (peace be upon him) mentioned the one who passes away with the people lavishing praise on him that he is unworthy of. In a narration in Al Tirmidhi, the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, “No one dies and they stand over him crying and saying: ‘Oh what a great man he was! Oh how honored he was!’ except that two angels are appointed for him to poke him and say: Is that really you?”

But if it is Allah’s praise that you sought all along, the deeds that you put forth shall await you in your grave in the form of heavenly ornaments. Those that were known to the community, those that were known to only a select few, and those that were known by no one but Allah and you.

May Allah give us all a good ending, and an even better eternity.

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