The Muslim Association of the Lehigh Valley offers information booklets about Islam on Friday, March 21, 2017 at their center. The MALV was established 30 years ago as a nonprofit to promote peace for residents in the Lehigh Valley. (Em Okrepkie/B&W Staff)

Muslim Association of the Lehigh Valley encourages interfaith understanding

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A school bus from Easton school district pulled up to the front of the Muslim Association of the Lehigh Valley.

Forty high school juniors made their way from the bus through the wide glass doors of the association. They poured past glossy brochures about Islam into the spacious, bright foyer on a Friday afternoon.

None of them were Muslim.

Aqeel Syed, the outreach director, welcomed the students and explained the itinerary for their visit. A prayer service. Then, lunch — falafel, a dish native to Muslim countries, for the brave students. Subway sandwiches for the less adventurous. Finally, a question and answer session about the Muslim faith.

“I would rather you get your answers here than from Google, Fox News or CNN,” Syed said as the students hesitantly laughed.

The Muslim Association of the Lehigh Valley, or MALV, was established 30 years ago in Emmaus. The nonprofit association hoped to promote peace, to bridge the gap between Muslims and other members of the Lehigh Valley, and to organize community service projects.

In 2016, they served 2,500 meals at the St. Paul Lutheran Church soup kitchen. They held blood drives with the American Red Cross. They provided school supplies for more than 200 students in Allentown.

Now based in a 14,000 square-foot building in Whitehall, the association also works to clarify misconceptions about Islam.

Members of MALV, who are all volunteers, have kicked their efforts into overdrive in the past two years.

The FBI’s “Hate Crime Statistics, 2015” report listed a 67 percent rise in hate crimes against Muslims from 2014 to 2015. There were 257 anti-Muslim attacks in the year, according to the report. In the five days in November after Donald Trump was elected president, the Southern Poverty Law Center reported more than 30 anti-Muslim incidents.

Anti-Muslim sentiments came to the forefront of national conversation when Trump signed an executive order banning immigrants from seven Muslim countries on Jan. 27.

When Trump attempted to close the border to Muslims, MALV opened its doors to welcome the community, just as they did as a polling center on Election Day.

A day after the executive order, MALV held its annual open house. About 15 people attended the first open house four years ago, and about 300 people attended last year.

This year, more than 1,000 residents of the Lehigh Valley streamed through their doors.

“It just shows you even though (Trump) may have won the election, most Americans don’t support what he’s doing,” Syed said. “I think that’s why people got the opportunity to vent and say, ‘We don’t support this. We do support the Muslims. We support the Jews. We support the Christians. We support the people of faith or no faith, but they should be given their equal rights and their fair rights as the Constitution dictates. Those rights that every American has because we’re American citizens.’ We’re green card holders. We contribute to society.”

Syed said the support from the community was “heartwarming,” especially considering the majority of those in the Lehigh Valley are Christian or do not identify as religious, according to The Association of Religious Data Archives and the U.S. Religion Census.

Members of MALV have spent most of their time in recent weeks explaining the Muslim faith to community members. Syed said the association has been overwhelmed with calls to participate in interfaith presentations and events. The high school students are just one of the groups MALV has opened its doors to recently.

Syed and Sumaya Al Hajebi, a Muslim woman who prayed at the association when the students were visiting, were excited to discuss Islam with them.

Easton Area High School teacher Jonathan Zolomij said he organized the Friday trip to show his students how diverse their community is. Syed hoped to emphasize that Muslims are Americans and to broaden their idea of what it means to be American.

The students ate in the social hall, where a red, white and blue tinfoil banner with stars hung on the wall. Al Hajebi answered questions while the students devoured their sandwiches and falafel.

Her light pink hijab framed her face as she explained that she covers her head to be modest in the same way as the Virgin Mary, who is an important figure in the Catholic Church.

When one student said she enjoyed the singing, Al Hajebi gently explained that the singing was actually a prayer. When another student asked if Islam is made of other religions, Al Hajebi explained the similarities and differences among Islam, Christianity and Judaism.

During the question and answer session, a curious student asked what it is like to be an American Muslim in a country where some citizens are hostile toward them.

“For me, I understand the realities of what it’s like to live as a Muslim post-Trump, and there is definitely fear in terms of being safe,” Al Hajebi said. “There’s definitely a lot of fear. I just want to be able to go to prayer and not worry about, ‘Am I going to come home to my child?’ There is that part of it that I worry about, and I worry about our children being affected by it.”

Syed said the silver lining of the election has been the outpouring of support from the community, and he is optimistic more people will take the time to visit the Muslim Association of the Lehigh Valley to learn about the Muslim community before passing judgment.

The association’s goals have not changed since their establishment. Syed said they will continue to help people understand the Muslim community.

“Our doors are always open,” he said.

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