Miami-Dade County

Muslim family who grew up in India ‘as normal as any Tom, Dick, Jane and Joe’

Being Muslim in America: A look at four South Florida families

The Miami Herald spent several months with four Muslim-American families who live in South Florida. In time for the month-long Islamic holiday Ramadan, they share their stories and experiences.
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The Miami Herald spent several months with four Muslim-American families who live in South Florida. In time for the month-long Islamic holiday Ramadan, they share their stories and experiences.

Her friends love pasta. She makes curry.

“But that’s about it,” Munira Motorwala said of the differences between her family and others.

Munira, 53, who prefers T-shirts and jeans while reading her morning paper, lives in a Kendall home with her husband, daughter and son. Mementos from New York line the kitchen and a tropical painting adorns the living room, where a fist-sized replica of the Taj Mahal, an homage to her Indian roots, sits above the TV.

The fridge is covered in family photos: son Aarif, a 19-year-old dean’s list rising junior at the University of Miami, in a white graduation cap and robe from his preschool days; 14-year-old daughter Sana sitting atop a bale of hay for Halloween from her elementary school days.

Munira has a bachelor’s degree in business and economics from India and a bachelor’s in business administration from Florida International University. She had worked as an editorial assistant in India, but chose to stay home with her children when her son was born.

“I fell in love with my kids,” she said.

Her husband, Safder, is a pharmacy operations supervisor at Baptist Health South Florida’s Homestead Hospital, where he has worked since graduating from college. He moved from India to Miami in 1990 to fulfill his pharmacy school prerequisite at Miami Dade College. A year and a half later, he attended Massachusetts College of Pharmacy & Health Sciences in Boston, where he earned his bachelor’s of science in pharmacy.

Munira and Safder Motorwala of Kendall describe instances of discrimination in their lives.

Safder, 58, who, like his wife was raised in Mumbai, India’s largest city, said he is grateful for America’s opportunities and freedoms. In India, he said, he and his family faced discrimination stemming from practicing a minority religion. Hinduism is India’s primary religion with 79.8 percent of the country practicing the faith, compared with 14.2 percent who practice Islam, according to the CIA World Factbook.

Despite South Florida’s diversity, Munira said her family has faced discrimination. She recalled one day when a neighbor yelled at her husband and young son in their front yard: “Go back to India. You guys are pigs. You don’t belong over here.”

Upon hearing about the incident, another neighbor of theirs, a U.S. veteran, told the family they had nothing to fear.

Safder and Munira believe the majority of Americans are good people, particularly in South Florida, with its diverse population. Safder firmly believes in the U.S. Constitution and its First Amendment, whose rights include the freedom to practice religion.

“It is not a sin to be Muslim and American,” he said.

The Motorwalas celebrate most holidays: Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Fourth of July and Thanksgiving — just with an Indian flare. Along with turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie, their Thanksgiving table includes colorful curries, a big bowl of rice and Indian sweets, like Gulab Jamoon, golden balls of dough deep fried then dipped in syrup spiced with cardamom or rose essence.

“I consider my family as a part of the American fabric,” Safder said.

Safder and Munira were introduced by their aunts in India. The two dated long distance for a year — he was working in Miami, she was working in India — before they married in 1995 in Mumbai. They moved to Kendall in 1996.

We are as normal as everybody else. … Just as normal as any Tom, Dick, Jane and Joe.

Munira Motorwala, discussing her family’s life in Kendall

Safder and Munira begin their days at 5 a.m., when Munira makes her family’s lunches. At 6 a.m., she and Safder pray, the first of their five daily Islamic prayers. Munira acknowledges that she sometimes forgoes the early prayer on weekends.

Most weekdays, Safder leaves for work too early to eat breakfast with Sana, who is a straight-A student, swims competitively and loves Star Wars and classic rock. She said she had a hard time in elementary school accepting her heritage, but has since come to embrace it.

“I like being a Muslim. I’ll just leave it at that,’’ she said.

On Sundays, Safder and his son, who earned an academic scholarship to UM, watch football. Their favorite team had been Peyton Manning’s Broncos; they’re now shopping for a new team.

“We are as normal as everybody else. We may dress a little differently or maybe we look a little different, but we are just as them,” Munira said. “Just as normal as any Tom, Dick, Jane and Joe.”