I was born in Pakistan, immigrated to the U.S. at age 1, grew up in Toledo, Ohio, and spent the past decade of my life in Washington, D.C. When I moved to the nation's capital in 2001, I met Muslims from various states in the U.S. and around the globe.
There was a particular group of friends that became my DC family. We called ourselved the 'Meridian crew', because we lived as neighbors in the Meridian apartment complex in Arlington, Virginia. Our primary characters: a Pakistani girl from Toledo, Ohio, a Palestinian boy from Belglade, Florida, an Afghan girl from Nashville, Tennessee, and a Palestinian girl from Gaza. As close friends, we shared anecdotes about our upbringing as Muslims in our respective hometown communities. Examples of our discussion topics included: Did you attend Sunday school? Did you wear a scarf when you entered your local mosque or only when you prayed? Did people call you camel jockey or towel-head? Our stories varied immensely. Some were politically charged and compelled tears, others pertained to cultural struggles with our loving parents and inspired nostalgia, happiness, and laughter.
We often spoke of our personal experiences growing up with prejudice and hatred for the unknown and different. We knew that any discrimination faced during our childhoods had made us stronger, more resilient. I observed in my male Muslim friends a greater exposure to slurs than my female Muslim friends. Aside from a brief stint as a dot-head (a guy in the sixth grade would say 'dot-head' or 'spic' while pointing to his forehead when he saw me) my exposure to slurs was limited, thankfully. They may have begun in elementary school, but they ended there too. Perhaps it had something to do with my father paying a kind visit to the school principal the day after he found out?
For high school, I attended an all-girls Catholic preparatory school, Notre Dame Academy (NDA), where many of the Muslim girls from my local mosque were also enrolled. My Meridian crew was surprised to hear that I had owned The Bible and study Catholicism every semester while simultaneously attending the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo (ICGT), where I learned about Islam and read The Quran. At NDA, Muslim student council officers would read Catholic prayers as a sign of tolerance, acceptance and coexistence. Both Muslims and Hindus would approach the priest and accept a blessing while the Catholics received communion. I didn't find any of this odd. Apparently, it took me a short while to understand that my hometown community was more unique than I had initially realized. Frankly, I haven't witnessed anything like it on any coast.
The Islamic Center of Greater Toledo is the first mosque in the U.S. to elect a female president, a Lebanese woman. It is a place where my conservative Catholic friends wore Pakistani shalwar kameez outfits and joined me and my family for prayer on Eid day. It is not uncommon to see many of the Muslim children in our community bring their non-Muslim friends to Eid parties at our mosque. Presently, many young Muslim women in the ICGT community still attend local Catholic schools, such as my alma mater. Toledo Muslims frequently attend the local Hindu temple's yearly Indian festival to socialize, eat, and shop. The ICGT's youth group members in attendance remove their shoes out of respect and enter the temple to hear more about the Hindu faith. There are even Toledo Muslims who attend Jewish high schools.
It is clear that Toledo is a special town. Muslims are very welcome here, and so are people of all faiths. I feel blessed to have hailed from such a warm and welcoming city. Naturally, I was very saddened when the ICGT was recently attacked. An incendiary device was planted in the prayer hall by an unidentified man, dressed in camouflage, caught on security cameras. The device caused a fire in our majestic prayer hall.
I do not believe our community should be confused by this attack. Instead, we should realize how good Toledo has been to us thus far. It is even more imperative now to educate others about our respective religions, now that we've witnessed disaster in a city that is traditionally tolerant.
I pray for more tolerance, acceptance and coexistence worldwide. Education is always a great starting point, so the next time a friend tells you it's a 'religious holiday' and you don't know much about it, please don't hesitate to ask. Perhaps you might even consider joining your friend, whether it's a visit to the church, temple, mosque, synagogue or gurdwara.