An attendee leaves flowers during a vigil for Nabra Hassanen in New York City on June 20, 2017. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Brendan McDermid

Nabra Hassanen's death offers lessons on how Muslim communities can respond

WASHINGTON (RNS) I know what it feels like to bury your child. Less than a year ago, I lost my 20-year-old son, Hamza, to an acute allergic reaction. As Hamza breathed his last in our arms, I was able to see his face, kiss it, before we buried him. 

Last week, we buried a daughter from our Northern Virginia Muslim community, Nabra Hassanen. When Nabra's parents lost their 17-year-old daughter to a brutal murder they didn't have those last moments with her. I can only imagine the greater pain they carry because of it.

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I’m sure her parents will find their own compasses in time as they are people of deep faith and conviction. I've come to understand that for me it was a reservoir of faith, practices of centering, and learnings from so many teachers that I'd built up over time before my son left that helped me through this past year.

I've thought about this reservoir of resources as our local Muslim American community struggles to understand and cope with the loss of Nabra, who was killed while on her way with friends to an overnight Ramadan prayer gathering.

I've been an anthropologist working on community-based resilience in the U.S. and globally for the past 25 years. When a community experiences a tragedy, one way to react is to be paralyzed by the overwhelming task of understanding what happened.

Members of All Dulles Area Muslim Society (ADAMS) wait for their children outside the mosque in Sterling, Va., on May 19, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Carlos Barria


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The other is to delve deep into a reservoir of built-up resources, traditions and relationships.

Our community, as represented by the ADAMS Center and various affiliated organizations that serve over 25,000 Muslims in the Washington, D.C., area, is resilient because we have been consistently and persistently working for the past 30 years to have a tool chest of resources available to us.

Our work has included:

Building meaningful relationships

The vigil for Nabra, organized by her high school friends and held at a community plaza, was attended by thousands.

Victim Nabra Hassenen. Photo from Twitter

These genuine exchanges of bewilderment at the tragedy and sharing in the pain were also bolstered by local houses of worship as well as national organizations. Nabra’s school was fully engaged with our mosque to support the many students who were affected by her murder because of standing relationships.

These relationships are not one directional and because of them we are able to both benefit and contribute on many fronts, including alleviation of poverty, civil liberties, environmental awareness and advocacy for the homeless. Local churches and synagogues regularly have opened their doors to our community for worship space.

Investing in mental health support

We have a network of counselors, therapists and others based in our community who are regularly engaged in policy and programming development. Their expertise and involvement are appreciated, elevated and supported through mosque leadership allocating funds in the organizational budget and including mental health as part of the mosque mission.

Our locally based professionals have implemented internationally recognized training for religious leaders in domestic violence, mental health wellness and faith, and worked with religious leaders to address radicalization and extremism.

We were on hand to talk to the young people affected by the tragedy, their families and the larger membership by combining mental health approaches seamlessly with spiritual connections.

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Taking youth seriously

From the early years of our mosque community it was clear that without putting young people first, any reason for the community's existence would be shaky. For the past decade funds have also been allocated for a youth director position so young people can be mentored as they deserve and be known on a one-to-one basis.

We have listened and supported them through this unbelievably horrific time as they were unnecessarily blamed by outsiders, and as they chose to lead the way for us to remember a dear friend. These young people were unequivocal in their desire to be as cooperative as possible to get to the truth to preserve Nabra’s memory.

Building diverse expertise

Over the decades, our mosque community has been responsive to an evolving set of needs by encouraging members to go beyond traditional careers.

Violence against women experts, humanitarian first responders, police, firefighters, cancer researchers, teachers, artists and musicians find a home in here alongside taxicab drivers, nannies, doctors and lawyers.  

In the investigation dealing with Nabra’s murder, our set of relationships has ensured that all local jurisdictions are vested in justice being served because they know we are looking over their shoulders but also fully aware and knowledgeable of how the process must work.

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While I reflect on these resources built up over the years, I understand that it’s never fully beneficial for a community to be solely inward, especially if the tragedy is recognized and experienced by an even larger global community.

A community does not exist in a vacuum, and the experience is a shared one because we are smaller communities making up larger ones all the time.

This is especially true of the Muslim American experience which is varied and necessarily interconnected in this country. As we figure out how these dynamics play out, I’d like to ask that we give local communities credit and space for what they are able to do.

We can't bring Nabra back. But we can be diligent in building resilience to be responsive within our communities so we grow stronger, more confident and self-assured.

We will continue to be unapologetic about our faith and our place here as Americans as we follow in the path of other faith communities who have done this resilience-building before us.

Yesterday, when I went to visit her last resting place, I went between Nabra’s and my Hamza’s graves in the same cemetery and told them both to look out for each other in the next life as little sister and big brother.

(Afeefa Syeed is a past board member of the ADAMS Center in Sterling, Va.)