Being Muslim in America: A look at four South Florida families
Yasemin Saib was filling bags with rice for a Feed My Starving Children event when she rolled out a mat and began to pray. A man interrupted her, asking her what she was doing.
“I’m praying,” Saib said.
“To Jesus?” he demanded.
A few weeks earlier, the Cooper City school of her 7-year-old son was vandalized, with the words “F--- Muslims” splayed across a wall in bright red letters. “We live in frightening times in the United States,” Saib said. “I can say that as an American Muslim.”
Schools defaced. Stares on airplanes. Shouts of “Go Home’’ — this is life in 2016 for many American Muslims. An anti-Muslim mood fueled by 9/11 has reached a throbbing crescendo after Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, called for a “total and complete shutdown’’ of U.S. borders to Muslims in the wake of December’s San Bernardino terrorist attack.
“It’s the politics of fear,’’ said Daniel Alvarez, director of the Center for Muslim World Studies at Florida International University. “The abysmal ignorance is what makes it so dangerous.’’
At sunset Sunday, Muslims will begin to celebrate Ramadan, the month-long Islamic holiday marked by prayer and fasting from sunrise to sunset. The Miami Herald has spent the last six months with four Muslim-American families who live in South Florida. They’ve lived in the United States from two to 30 years. They live in Kendall, Cooper City and Pembroke Pines. They’re an attorney, a hospital pharmacist, a travel industry executive and a marketing consultant. Two of the wives are stay-at-home moms, another is an art teacher, the fourth owns her own business.
And while South Florida has had its share of anti-Islamic incidents — students at an Islamic school in West Kendall were greeted with wire cutters, a hammer and a chisel and a mosque in Miami Gardens received an email stating: “I want to kill every Muslims (sic) around the world” — the families and leaders in the South Florida Islamic community say these events, while harsh, represent an anomaly.
“I’m blessed to be raised in South Florida,” said Nezar Hamze, South Florida operations director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, an advocacy group.
Still, the families have concerns for their children, especially immediately after a terrorist attack, when anti-Muslim incidents spike. In the month following the Paris attacks in November, the number of anti-Muslim hate crimes in the United States tripled, from an average of 12.6 attacks per month to 37, said Brian Levin, a California State University criminologist who runs the university's Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism. The Cooper City Islamic school vandalism took place two weeks after the San Bernardino attack.
“We have a significant problem with anti-Muslim bigotry," Levin said. “And that creates the kindling that we can see a spike at any time given another catalytic event.”
Yasir Billoo, an attorney in Hollywood who moved from Pakistan to California with his family in 1986 when he was 7, worries his daughter Shiffa, 6, who was born at Memorial Hospital Miramar, may never be treated as a first-class American citizen.
I’d like her to feel fully American and fully Muslim and not feel like there’s any conflict
Yasir Billoo, an attorney in Hollywood, on his concerns about his 6-year-old daughter, who was born in Miramar.
“I’d like her to feel fully American and fully Muslim and not feel like there’s any conflict,” he said.
It’s how he felt growing up in San Bernardino. Pillowcases stuffed with candy on Halloween. (Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are his favorite.) Movie-theater hopping with his buddies (He knows every line to My Cousin Vinny). The only difference: Fridays and holy days, he would attend services at the mosque.
“Those were the American things I did, and those were Muslim things I did,” said Billoo, 37. “There was never any conflict or question.’’
Saib, the woman praying at the Feed My Children event, had a similar American teenage childhood. She moved to Myrtle Beach, S.C., when she was 16 and about to enter her senior year in high school. She and her mother left Saudia Arabia as the Gulf War intensified in 1990. Her father, a dentist, couldn’t leave the country due to restrictions on medical personnel. (Her family owned a summer home in Myrtle Beach.)
Saib attended Myrtle Beach High, where she was confronted with drugs, alcohol and boys. (She had gone to an all-girls school in Saudi Arabia.) “It was a huge culture shock for me,” she said.
She embraced college life at the University of South Carolina. She swapped headscarves for jeans and T-shirts. She partied.
“I kind of took a dive and got caught up in the glamour of freedom,” said Saib, who has ridden motorcycles, skydived and bungee jumped in the Rocky Mountains.
By the end of her college days — she graduated magna cum laude with a degree in political science and international relations in 1995— she returned to Islam. She has a master’s in Islamic Studies from a London university, and a master’s of technology in international development from North Carolina State in Raleigh.
“I think I’m a much better Muslim now that I live in an open society like the United States, where I have the freedom to believe whatever I want to believe,’’ she said.
After a career in marketing led her to California and New York, Saib became a documentary producer in Dubai and, later, an executive with the nonprofit Dubai Cares. She moved to Washington, D.C., in 2014, to be with her husband. Last summer, she relocated to Cooper City to live closer to her parents, who had divorced, remarried and now live in South Florida.
Today, Saib runs a marketing firm focused on philanthropy. She speaks four languages. On her second marriage, she has two children, a 1-year-old daughter, Maryam, and her 7-year-old son Ahmed, who attends Nur-Ul-Islam Academy in Cooper City, the school where the the words “f--- Muslims” greeted the young students on a Monday morning.
“Mommy, why would they write that? Why don’t they like us?” he asked.
She told her son: “No, honey. The vast majority of Americans are peaceful, loving, kind, good, accepting people but there are some people out there who are not like that. But they’re a very small group,” Saib said. “Don’t let this worry you. … As long as you don’t harm anybody and you obey the law, then you have nothing to be afraid of.”
Saib, 42, has spent much of her life since 9-11 trying to get that message across.
She was working in New York at the time of the World Trade Center attacks. The day after, she and a group of young Muslim professionals formed the nonprofit, Muslims Against Terrorism, to educate people about Islam. She has been featured in a Frontline documentary, Muslims, which aired a year after the 9/11 attacks.
She said Muslims should not be judged based on a group of people who hijack the Islamic faith for their political or economic gain.
“I would not even call them Muslim,” she said. “A criminal is a criminal. A killer is a killer. A terrorist is a terrorist. That’s all we need to say.”
She said understanding will come when people get to know their Muslim neighbors.
Americans will “be able to say to themselves, ‘You know, these [terrorists] aren’t my Muslims. My Muslims are my children’s friends. My Muslims are my beautiful neighbors and co-workers. My Muslims are … my brothers and sisters in the community.”