Muslim activists reach out

In Dearborn, Mich., young Muslims have banded together to support teens in their community and teach others about their faith.

By , Associated Press

They filled the cafe night after night. To the casual observer, they may have appeared to be 20-somethings with enviable amounts of idle time.

Yet the 30 young Muslim men and women who met for 30 days had serving society, not socializing, on their minds. The group, calling itself 30/30, emerged from the meetings with an agenda: to help teens in their community deal with social ills such as drug and alcohol addiction and mental illness – and to teach those on the outside about their faith.

A few goals emerged from the caffeinated conversations: Establish mentorship and counseling programs for high school students, offer leadership retreats for young adults, and develop brochures that explain Muslim practices such as women wearing head scarves.

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The quest seems well-suited for the young activists, who live in a community with one of the largest Arab and Muslim populations in the country. Many are the children or grandchildren of immigrants. Their sense of mission took root at the Islamic Center of America and affiliated Young Muslim Association.

"I really think that the previous generations, when they came here, they were thinking this is temporary and we're going back home, so they didn't want to invest too much in this. Their main goal was survival: 'We need a job, we don't speak the language, we're in a foreign country,' " says Mariam Zaiat, who is working toward a master's degree in occupational therapy.

"With us, people [who] are born and raised here, and go to school, this is our community. We never think, 'Oh, we're going to go back somewhere.' So ... another reason why we invest so much is because our hearts are here."

That investment begins with tackling internal problems, such as substance abuse, mental illness, and domestic violence. The 30/30 sessions became a workshop for the nascent Muslim Youth Social Support Network, which will pair young leaders with high school students and offer an online forum and a hotline.

They aren't bigger issues for Muslims than for other ethnic, racial, or religious groups, members say, but treating them can be trickier in a culture that uses shame to deter socially unacceptable behavior.

"There's a big stigma around receiving help in this community, so it's going to be an anonymous forum online," says Latifeh Sabbagh, who leads the support network and serves as a social worker in the Dearborn public schools.

The group also hopes to produce brochures and distribute them nationally to mosques, which would offer them to visitors seeking information about Islam. Jennifer Berry says the idea is to explain why women wear hijabs, or why followers pray five times a day.

Islam "is under a lot more scrutiny because it's under the scrutiny of the media right now," says Ms. Berry, who expects to finish her nursing degree next year. "When you have the media pushing out negative ideas about Islam, people are going to have the same negative ideas."

On a recent morning, four group members gathered at Caffina Coffee, the site of their meeting marathon back in May. The shop is owned by the family of member Dewnya Bakri, who starts law school in September.

Ms. Bakri says enlightening others can also come through conversations.

"We're blessed with education. We understand the cultural barriers, and we understand how to relate to non-Muslims, how to discuss things with them in a way they would understand," she says.

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