Voices from the heartland: Fear and hope in a city where Syrians settled

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa — The small white building is inconspicuous except for its shuttered windows adorned with painted mint-green domes. A silver crescent catches the sun above the door as men with beards and women with their bodies covered from head to toe enter.

It’s a mosque, nestled in the most unlikeliest of places, in the heartland of America, not far from emblematic cornfields that make this city the largest producer of ethanol in the world.

Built in 1932 with hard-earned money scraped together during the Great Depression, Mother Mosque has given sanctuary to Syrian immigrants who came from places like Damascus and the Bekaa Valley. They arrived not yesterday, but a century ago.

In this part of eastern Iowa, Islam’s faithful survived decades of segregation in America, post-9/11 backlash and even the great flood of 2008 when the Cedar River crested at more than 31 feet and drowned this city. Imam Taha Tawil recalls how the community came together to rebuild the mosque, the oldest in America, when floodwaters destroyed the ground floor.

But now, after a string of horrific attacks by the Syria- and Iraq-based Islamic State, the goodwill that took decades to build is at risk of crumbling.

Here, in the heartland, some are questioning whether Syrians fleeing the war in their homeland should be accepted in the city that freely took in their ancestors. They say the governor of their state, Terry Branstad, is right to join the chorus of other state leaders who have said no to the White House in resettling Syrian refugees.

“I am not a Muslim hater but I am so opposed to this,” says David Ahart, 55, an electrician in Cedar Rapids. “There is no way to know who these people are.”

Emma Aquino-Nemecek, 58, is herself an immigrant, from the Philippines. “When I came to America, they knew everything about me,” she says. “But there is no way of documenting these people or checking their stories. I wasn’t so concerned until Paris. This could happen to us here.”

And Joel Mason, 25, says he enlisted with the Iowa Army National Guard and went to Afghanistan so he wouldn’t have to fight a war on American soil.

“It’s not worth taking a chance,” he says. “It only took 19 of them on 9/11.”

But comments like that don’t sit well with the city’s established Arab community, Muslims and Christians alike.

“Iowa should be the No. 1 state to open its doors, knowing the history of immigration here,” says Hassan Selim, 28, the imam at the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids, one of three mosques in the city.

Selim, a native of Egypt, was proud to become naturalized as a U.S. citizen on Thursday. To his new compatriots, he says: “There is no basis for the fear. You are not closing the door to terrorists with this policy, but to children.”

Shutting the door to Syrians in need could also play into the hands of ISIS. The people who turn to that kind of ideology are desperate, he says. “If you don’t give them an opportunity, they will get even more desperate,” Selim says.

The division of opinions runs as deep as the Cedar River– and they matter.

In this part of Iowa, a state central to all things political, the Syrian refugee crisis could be a factor in the upcoming presidential primary caucus.

Syrians a part of society’s fabric

From his office, Mayor Ron Corbett likens his city to another that has government buildings similarly situated on an island in the middle of a river. “There’s only two places that are like this,” he proclaims. “Cedar Rapids and Paris.”

News of the terrorist attacks in Paris saddened Corbett deeply; his former wife is from France and his five children are French nationals. As the mayor of Cedar Rapids, he urges caution when it comes to Syrian refugees settling here. He can’t get the image of the bodies in the blood-smeared Bataclan concert hall out of his mind.

He also thinks of meeting Andy Berke of Chattanooga, Tennessee, at a mayors conference earlier in the year. A few months later, in June, Berke was dealing with shootings at military centers in his city that killed four Marines.

“It’s not a migrant issue,” Corbett says. “It’s a security issue.”

Corbett came to this part of Iowa for college and never left. He wanted to stay and make a difference when the state was reeling from the farm crisis in the 1980s. He served in the state Legislature until he felt a need to help this area after the 2008 flood. People here call it “Iowa’s Katrina.”

He’s acutely aware of the longstanding Arab community in his city. Syrian- and Lebanese-Americans are doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs and lawyers, some of them well known.

They joined the armed services and went to war — Abdullah Igram returned from the Pacific in World War II and helped pave the way to have an “M” for Muslim as a choice for Army dog tags. Two of the chaplains on the city’s interfaith council are Arabs. A cancer hospital and YMCA are named after businesswoman Helen Nassif. The city is home to a global halal meat supplier, and hummus has been a staple here since long before the national health food trend took hold. And recently, an Arab man was elected mayor of neighboring Marion.

“They are part of the fabric of society here. They have given back in so many ways. ” Corbett says. “Iowa has been an open state. But now the states are facing a challenge. As mayor, I’m the end of the line.”

‘We are on the defensive’

The last time Hassan Igram met the Iowa governor, he thanked him for being so supportive of the Islamic community. Branstad even signed a proclamation on Muslim Recognition Day last April as part of an effort to combat Islamophobia.

“Now, I’m very disappointed,” says Igram, 59, who runs a commercial printing firm in Cedar Rapids. Among his clients is the department store giant Von Maur.

“That’s pretty big,” Igram says, proud of the success he made out of a small family business. His grandfather, after whom he is named, came to America from the Bekaa Valley in 1915, fleeing the turmoil and poverty in the last days of the Ottoman Empire.

Igram, like so many of Cedar Rapids’ Syrian and Lebanese residents, was born and raised here, memorized the Quran as a boy at Mother Mosque and returned to the Bekaa Valley to get married to a Lebanese woman. One of his sons is studying to become an Islamic scholar at the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia.

“Yes, I would call myself an observant Muslim,” Igram says over a Mediterranean salad with salmon. As such, he is saddened by the hateful anti-Muslim speech he hears.

In Cedar Rapids, some of it was triggered by a recent scandal involving Midamar Corp., a company founded in 1974 by Bill Aossey, the influential patriarch of sorts of the Syrian-Lebanese community here. Aossey is sitting in jail after being convicted of falsely labeling meat products as halal, the prescribed Islamic way of slaughtering livestock.

The trial for Aossey and his sons was further muddled by an investigation into a separate incident that involved four people of Lebanese descent. They were charged with attempting to smuggle guns to Lebanon under the guise of a clothing drive. The shipping container, investigators found, was owned by Midamar.

“That didn’t help our cause,” Igram says.

Then there was Paris.

Igram says he understands that people are sincerely fearful. He sees how Muslim youth in America can fall in line with dangerous ideology, be influenced by radical imams. But he doesn’t forgive politicians for being reactionary.

He watched the sad news from Paris a week ago and wondered: “Why? Why would these people go into a concert hall, a soccer stadium and blow themselves up. The focus has to be on their ideology, not religion.”

But all this is fairly new to Igram, who grew up in Cedar Rapids in the height of the civil rights era. He always felt lucky that he escaped the sting of discrimination.

The Arabs who settled here did their best, he says, to assimilate and become a part of white America. Photos at Mother Mosque show Syrian and Lebanese women with short dresses and their heads uncovered.

“I never understood how the black community felt until now,” Igram says. “We are, to some degree, on the defensive.”

Even as he speaks, his smartphone lights up with a message from a white friend who spent the evening discussing with her son what Islam is and what ISIS isn’t.

“He is a bit confused about it but it was great to hear him ask and try to understand,” the friend wrote. “It would be a wonderful thing if you could drop him a line to express what your beliefs are and why the obtuse fear is irrational. He feels it’s too deep for him and wants to understand without insulting you … this is a single brick in the foundation and it makes me happy.”

‘Go back to where you came from’

The sun had not come up yet the morning after the Paris attacks when Miriam Amer got her first phone call. “Get out of our country. Go back to where you came from.”

Amer, 47, did not know what to make of that. Go back where? To Massachusetts, where she was born and raised? Her ancestors hailed from the fertile Bekaa Valley when it was still a part of Syria. (Today it is in Lebanon and serves as a haven for half a million Syrian refugees.) In America, Amer’s great-grandfather rode with Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders in the Spanish American War.

“You wouldn’t be able to tell I’m a Muslim if I didn’t wear hijab,” she says.

The trajectory of her life changed radically after a severe accident left her disabled. She recovered enough to function in life, to walk around with a cane, but not enough to fulfill her dreams of practicing environmental law. She married an Egyptian academic and moved to Iowa for her husband’s job.

Here, she found an accepting community. “Iowa has been welcoming (to immigrants) from decades ago,” she says.

But things are different now. “Of course, this has affected goodwill,” she says.

That’s why she relishes her job as the head of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Iowa.

She lists a series of incidents of anti-Muslim vandalism and violence, including one last June in which a Sudanese Muslim man’s house was broken into. “We will kill you,” said the words spray-painted on an inside wall.

After that a few residents came together to show support for the Muslim community with a “love-in” organized by artist Lori Jayne Carlson, 51.

“How could this happen in our community?” Carlson asks. “We were heartbroken.”

Amer feels things are harder for the Muslim community in some ways because they are always under pressure to change the way they look, the way they dress. It’s even harder now for the Syrian Muslims. It’s so easy, she says, to be dismissive of their religion, their culture, because of terrorism.

A good place for refugees

It’s a culture sorely missed by Maria Canas.

Her mother and brothers are still in Damascus and she has watched from afar as protracted war has taken its toll. She can only communicate with them on their mobile phones, and not as often as she would like.

Sometimes, when she scolds her children she tells them not to complain so much. “Syrian kids have nothing.”

She thinks of the last time she was home, for her brother’s wedding in summer 2010 — before the civil war. She doesn’t feel that way of life will return in her lifetime. Sometimes, she calls her mother to talk and they cannot. They cry.

Canas, 40, settled in Cedar Rapids after she married a Greek man. The two share a religion: Orthodox Christianity. She liked that there was a community here and a church she could attend. Her faith is important to her but so is her country.

She despises comments by politicians like Jeb Bush, who suggested U.S. assistance to Syrian refugees should be limited to Christians. That kind of policy, she says, would create more hatred.

“Not all Muslims are bad,” Canas says. “Not all Christians are good.”

She thinks Cedar Rapids would be a great place for newcomers from Syria.

“This is a small town. People are generally friendly and caring. That’s what refugees need — a warm shelter.”

‘ISIS is destroying my heritage’

Inside Mother Mosque, Imam Taha Tawil pulls out a Quran that is 150 years old. It is one of a few artifacts he managed to save in the 2008 flood. Many things that were brought by early immigrants from Syria were lost to water damage.

He speaks lovingly about how both Muslims and non-Muslims, Arabs and non-Arabs came together to rebuild the mosque. In destruction, there was compassion. Can there not be the same now, he wonders. Can the most horrific of events like the Paris attacks not also be unifying?

Tawil gives visitors to the mosque a tour, shows them the photographs of the men and women who were pioneers for the Cedar Rapids Syrian community. Outside this mosque, he wishes the words “Syria” and “Islam” did not incite so much anxiety and hatred.

“We cannot blame Catholics for the Mafia,” he says. It’s important for Americans to understand the historical context of terrorism hatched in that part of the world.

Tahil was on a visit from his native Jerusalem to the United States in 1983 and never returned after he was offered a job as an imam in Cedar Rapids. The America he landed in was a melting pot — one that he likes to describe now as a salad bowl.

Immigrants — refugees or otherwise — are much more likely to hold on to their cultures, their identities now. They don’t melt into one stew but mix together like tomatoes, cucumbers, lettuce and croutons in a salad bowl.

“I am not asking anyone to start partying and drink alcohol or to give up their faith,” he says. “But look at the Arab community here. Their success in Iowa is a unique one. They assimilated. They built trust. We have seen other communities in America where people do not integrate.”

He tells his congregation they must mix in. Otherwise, he tells them, “You will be a failure. You need to be a part of America.”

Tahil takes his shoes off and meanders into the carpeted prayer room on the second floor. On the walls are Islamic art and quotations from the Quran. He begins to describe them and then pauses to say this:

“ISIS is destroying my heritage, everything good about Islam. They are not about my religion. They are not about my way of life.”

He wants to tell America’s leaders that the Syrian refugee crisis is not about ISIS, but about humanity. Doesn’t every religion, he asks, teach its adherents about love and compassion?

Above him on the wall is a painted wooden plaque embellished with Arabic calligraphy.

It says “Allahu Akbar.” God is Great.

TM & © 2015 Cable News Network, Inc., a Time Warner Company. All rights reserved.

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