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For American Muslims, family border separations are personal

Ahmed Bedier, center, announces the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay's offer to take in all detained migrant children at a news conference June 22, 2018. Photo courtesy of Bedier

(RNS) — When Imam Arjan Abu Sa’ad turned on the news to see reports of toddlers being pulled from their families and detained in cages after crossing the U.S. border, he was shocked. 

“I never thought I would see that in America,” he said.

So when members of his Tampa, Fla., congregation came to him, also feeling helpless in the face of separated families’ anguish, the imam realized they had an opportunity to live out their faith.

“The message of Islam is mercy to humanity,” said Abu Sa’ad. “Our faith commands us … to be part of the solution and not the problem.”

On June 22, two days after President Trump signed an executive order ending his family separation policy, the Islamic Society of Tampa Bay Area (ISTABA) held a news conference at which the group offered to host every migrant child separated from his or her parents. The offer includes covering all transportation costs.

“Our ultimate goal is to protect the children,” said Ahmed Bedier, who heads the mosque’s public outreach. The idea was originally his; as the founder of the organization United Voices for America, he’s long worked on increasing Muslim civic engagement. Surrounding him as he spoke were a group of Muslim mothers who had volunteered to take detained children into their homes and a few local interfaith leaders. “These children continue to be housed and locked up into these detention centers, which we find to be unacceptable.”

Bedier told Religion News Service that the mosque is still awaiting a response from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, after his contacts in the Department of Homeland Security rerouted the offer there.

There are practical reasons for bringing detained children to Florida. The state is home to one of the country’s highest populations of Latino and Hispanic residents, as well as a growing population of Latino Muslims. That makes the language barrier a little easier to bridge, Bedier said.

The chances seem nonetheless slim that the White House will take ISTABA up on its proposal. “The government is supposed to respond to our proposal, but it’s on them to do that,” Bedier said. “We live in a society governed by laws, so we’ve done everything we can.” The offer, however, represents just one of the ways Muslims in the United States are responding to Trump immigration policies to highlight what they see as unjust targeting of all minority communities — and to act out their faith on a national issue.

“Islam is not a spectator sport,” said Bedier, who joined Linda Sarsour and other Muslim civil rights activists in Washington, D.C., for one of a slew of nationwide marches against migrant family detention and separation. “Islam is a faith of action. And we don’t want to be complicit in what we see as a crime.”

When the mosque asked for volunteers to host children, the first thing that came to ISTABA member Zunera Mir’s mind was a simple question: What would the Prophet Muhammad do?

The answer, she and many other Muslims say, is even simpler. They point to their faith’s emphasis on family structure as well as the prophet’s saying, now splattered by Muslim activists across social media: “Whoever separates a mother from her child, Allah will separate him from his loved ones on the Day of Judgment.”

Since the family separations began, prominent Texas Imam Omar Suleiman made a trip to the Ursula Border Patrol Processing Center in McAllen, Texas, where he said he saw children being loaded onto buses. At rallies across the country protesting the family separation policy, Suleiman and other Muslim leaders also spoke about the similarities between its impact and the travel ban’s impact on Muslim communities.

The Trump administration, he said at a June 30 protest in Los Angeles, targets Latino immigrant communities and Muslim communities with the “same tools and tactics of dehumanization.”

The travel ban, other activists pointed out, had a similar effect of separating families. Civil rights advocates RNS spoke to frequently discussed the two policies in the same breath. “We view the family separation policy and the Muslim ban as connected and part of a broader agenda by the administration,” Muslim Advocates’ Fatima Khan said. In a statement after the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of Trump’s travel ban, the Yemeni American Merchants Association’s president, Abdul-Salam Mubarez, said: “No one should be ripped away from their family. This isn’t what America stands for. Immigrant communities are under attack.”

The ban, said Marielena Hincapié, executive director of the National Immigration Law Center, is “part of the administration’s overall strategy of attacking and separating immigrant and refugee families.”

Amr Al Azm, a professor of Middle East history and anthropology in Ohio, comes from one such family. The travel ban, he said, has prevented his family from reuniting with his wife’s siblings and elderly parents in Syria, who have visited Al Azm’s family regularly since 2007. 

“Every time the pendulum swings, it becomes more extreme,” Al Azm said. “They’re looking for any excuse to remove people. That’s what’s really worrying.” Even naturalized citizens and green-card holders have been targeted. Al Azm said it seems like the administration is trying to restrict immigration “practically against anyone who’s not white, not European.”

Other faith groups have led initiatives to help those affected by the zero-tolerance border policy. Hundreds of Jews have protested at U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s national headquarters, citing the Talmud and the Holocaust in their dissent. A network of Catholic agencies is working to reunite families and is providing short-term care, such as food and shelter, Catholic News Service reported this week.  Catholic bishops, in addition, have suggested the government replace family detention with “family case management” that includes cooperation from Catholic Charities and other groups.

Nyla Hazratjee and Zunera Mir explain why they volunteered to host detained children. Image courtesy of Ahmed Bedier

For Muslims, the issue feels personal.

“How do we know that tomorrow, this won’t be our children or grandchildren looking for asylum?” asked Mir, a mother of three.

Nyla Hazratjee, a Tampa-area gastroenterologist who signed up to host migrant children in her own home, explained that as a Muslim and an American, this is her job.

“Put your money where your mouth is,” she said. “Practice what you preach.”

If the Trump administration does agree to send children to ISTABA, the program will be entirely self-funded. ISTABA has collected pledges from its community to pay for transportation, and more than 100 local Muslim households have signed up to host the children and pay their costs out of pocket. Dozens more families throughout the state, both Muslim and non-Muslim, have also promised to help with costs and housing.

Their solution, Bedier said with a smile, “is a great deal (for) someone who likes to make deals.”

About the author

Aysha Khan

Aysha Khan is a Boston-based journalist reporting on American Muslims and millennial faith for RNS. Her newsletter, Creeping Sharia, curates news coverage of Muslim communities in the U.S. Previously, she was the social media editor at RNS.

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  • “Whoever separates a mother from her child, Allah will separate him from his loved ones on the Day of Judgment.”

    Trump’s not gonna like that quote.

  • ““The message of Islam is mercy to humanity,” said Abu Sa’ad. “Our faith commands us … to be part of the solution and not the problem.” Tell that to Sunni and Shiite Muslims.

  • They just want to brainwash these kids in the horror and terror of Islam. No way should they be allowed to raise immigrant children!!

  • Christian deity worshippers have even worse morals than Muslim deity worshippers. Why do you know that Christians believe deceased, innocent children who through no fault of their own have never been exposed to Christianity, are tortured forever. They’re burned and raped and beaten in hell daily. There is no worse morality than what Jesus espouses.

  • Indeed they do. Might want to check the Great Kibosh of Religion published here many times.

  • Let me guess: when Christian churches spoke out and acted to help separated families, they were showing the love of Christ… but when Muslim churches do it, it’s part of a nefarious plot against America! Right, wingnuts?

  • In case you missed it:

    Putting the Great Kibosh on all religion in less than ten seconds: Priceless !!!

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Abraham i.e. the foundations of Judaism, Christianity and Islam are non-existent.

    • As far as one knows or can tell, there was no Moses i.e the pillars of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have no strength of purpose.

    • There was no Gabriel i.e. Islam fails as a religion. Christianity partially fails.

    • There was no Easter i.e. Christianity completely fails as a religion.

    • There was no Moroni i.e. Mormonism is nothing more than a business cult.

    • Sacred/revered cows, monkey gods, castes, reincarnations and therefore Hinduism fails as a religion.

    • Fat Buddhas here, skinny Buddhas there, reincarnated/reborn Buddhas everywhere makes for a no on Buddhism.

    • A constant cycle of reincarnation until enlightenment is reached and belief that various beings (angels?, tinkerbells? etc) exist that we, as mortals, cannot comprehend makes for a no on Sikhism.

    Added details available upon written request.

    A quick search will put the kibosh on any other groups calling themselves a religion.

    e.g. Taoism

    “The origins of Taoism are unclear. Traditionally, Lao-tzu who lived in the sixth century is regarded as its founder. Its early philosophic foundations and its later beliefs and rituals are two completely different ways of life. Today (1982) Taoism claims 31,286,000 followers.

    Legend says that Lao-tzu was immaculately conceived by a shooting star; carried in his mother’s womb for eighty-two years; and born a full grown wise old man. “

  • my guess is that many sunni and shiite muslims are saying that to each other, just as many protestant and catholics had to say that to each other during our religious wars .

  • not all christian deity worshippers believe that . am i being too trusting in your smarts to suggest that i think you really knew that ?

  • who’s going to tell Rational Conclusions that its comments have no author, they are just gigo on the disqus computers ? that when those computers are unplugged the bits of Rational Conclusions will blink out of existence ?

  • civilizations “grow up” yet can then backslide and collapse . there is no determined future . we create it or lose it . our border policy suggests we are losing it .

  • Since there is such an emphasis on empirical evidence and fact basis for decision making how about we look at hard evidence across history and today. Practically every military conflict going on today has Islam at the heart of it. If this is the message of Islam,it is either ineffective or this is a very liberalized and non-literal or selective reading of the Koran dismissed by great swaths of Islam which seem to have no problem with the use of deadly force to enforce it religious views whether it be on its own people, on sects of Islam that are seen as heretical, and certainly against Israel and any western country that holds either Christian or enlightenment values. The liberal tolerant Muslim is more typically to be found in the US or Europe (except among the refugee and migrant populations) but outside the west the typical Muslim mindset is far from liberal and much more likely inclines toward tribalism, fundamentalism, and radicalization.

    As for immigration policy the color, race, or nationality is not relevant (except for those who are coming from areas where radicalization is a greater threat, here selective security is vital.). What is relevant is that the United States is a limited system and like any system that exists in nature can only sustain so much consumption of its resources. The plain fact is the US is not the cash cow or the baby momma for the world’s poor and troubled. There is a limit to what we can do even out of compassion. Hence the need for legal immigration, immigration that balances the needs of our nation with our ability to show compassion and provide assistance. Illegal immigration and open borders is an eventual death sentence to the system that is our nation. Every living system has a boundary. Our body has a boundary. Our families have boundaries. Our homes have boundaries. Our work places have boundaries. Our relationships have boundaries. We know that this is necessary because every living system has not only potentialities but also limitations.

    Where I am currently stationed I am watching the strain on local education systems as they try to deal with a massive influx of immigrant children, many with special needs, almost none speak English, and so special resource personnel have to be hired to even provide the basics placing a major strain on the local tax base. It is just plain reality. There are limits to what we can do, hence the need for legal immigration.

    The argument that “we are nation of immigrants” does not hold water. In that day people did not come dependent on social programs. They came and made their own lives out of the ground building homes, farms, homesteads, and in some cases (few) businesses. The country was wide open (the ethics of taking the land from a native population is another discussion). (The issue of building the nation with slave labor even another). The point is that today we are a different nation with formed systemic processes. Open borders puts every single born citizen at risk. Maybe not today. Maybe after I’m dead, but certainly places a strain on the system possibily leading to collapse for our children adn grandchildren. We already have a huge national debt. How much more money do we want to borrow from China to provide social servcies for all the world’s poor that manages to walk from their home and make it across our border.

  • The Great Kibosh is posted in the clouds of Microsoft, Amazon and Google as it has been published on a wide variety of blogs and discussion group web sites and therefore is eternally available to the realists of the globe and beyond.

  • Once read , the Great Kibosh will be forever passed down to those who come after.

  • Exactly!! Which means some are right and others are wrong. Some choose incorrectly which rules are true. Imagine a court of law, a football game, a science lab, where some participants reject essential truths, rules, and laws based on whim. Yet deity worshippers are tasked with spreading their religion!

  • exactly what ? on almost any subject there are some who are more correct and some who are less so . things that are absolutely clear are things that are arbitrarily agreed upon and do not have the imprecision of real evolved life .

    p.s. i’ve never heard of a system of rape and beatings in any eternal punishment . is that your imagination or did you get that from some preacher whose rhetoric outstripped their thought ?

  • Yes, it is my imagination. A life in hell is universally considered torturous. What, yours employs a watered down, 5th grade Sunday school, imagination in which this torture of inhabitants of hell is limited to uncomfortably hot air and nearby flames? Surely hell is worse than just that, yes? If so, YOU tell us how so…
    Illustrating your first point, in a football game, people disagree on finer points such as whether a receiver was interfered with, but the rules ARE agreed upon largely. With biblical deity worship, we hardly have that. it would be like some players asserting a first down is 10 yards, others asserting it’s 7 yards, some asserting it’s 5 yards for my team and 45 yards for yours, some asserting it varies, etc.

  • your imagination then counts for nothing . you should actually engage with folks and find out what they believe .

    incidentally, the church that i was born, raised, educated in, the largest single denomination in the world has never believe that . the catholic church believes in a “limbo” in which good unbaptized people go and live comfortably for eternity .

    not a single innocent child tortured . but keep you imagination . it makes it easy for folks to discount your comments .

  • Ok, let’s converse so that we can find out what you believe. Folks, I’m going to try to use moresteps own beliefs to paint her into a corner. Let’s see if he dodges my questions, ignores them, or insults me instead. Let’s start with one simple yes or no question. Moresteps, do you believe that there some deity worshippers out there who believe unbaptized children go to hell?

  • Whoops! Why hide behind stating “one knows” when stating “I know” or “anyone can prove” changes your statement from false to true?

  • i have answered you as to what i believe . as to what others believe i am not an authority . it would be unfair for me to speak for them .

    and you know that .

  • See, he dodged the question. He previously answered an entirely different question, not this one. Then he hides behind the notion that he is “not an authority.” I’m not an authority on whether Jimi Hendrix was in fact the greatest guitarist, but I believe that some people believe he is. Maybe I’m wrong but I do hold that belief. I am not being unfair to anyone by having that belief. You SHOULD know that. I’ll rephrase. Are you aware of any Christian deity worshippers who have expressed the belief that deceased unbaptized children go to hell?

  • ??? you have no question to ask me . i told you what i know . i don’t know what you think you know .

    if you know something that you want to discuss, state it .

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