Editor’s note: Former Rocky River High School senior Saida Gjinatori spent two weeks with West Life completing a senior project in journalism.
By Saida Gjinatori
Three hundred and ninety thousand foreign-born citizens and 130,000 Muslims live in the state of Ohio, many of the latter group situated in West Cleveland due to the Islamic sites such as the Grand Mosque in Parma and the West Cleveland Mosque in Westlake.
Bushra Harba, a graduate of Lakewood High School and inhabitant of Lakewood, said that after moving to the United States from her homeland of Syria for better educational opportunities, she immediately felt the alienation that came with being a foreigner.
“As a foreigner, I was bullied in elementary school but as I grew up I was able to make a lot of friends. The judgment that comes with being Middle Eastern is that I’m Muslim and that my parents are strict, when that is not true.” Despite being a regular churchgoer, the belief that Muslims are terrorists spreads to the entire region, especially after the Boston bombing took place.
“When the Boston event occurred, everyone assumed it was someone from the Middle East, even the media, which was really annoying,” Harba said. “People think that we are terrorists and make comments and such. However, they do it in a jokingly fashion. I do not think that people are racist, they just generalize and assign certain characteristics to certain groups of people and I do not blame them, it’s human nature to categorize people.”
Stephen Cory, resident of Parma and professor at Cleveland State University who studies the history and religion of the Islamic Middle East and North Africa, thinks that is precisely the reason for any judgment – a lack of knowledge.
Cory has traveled to several areas of the Middle East and North Africa, including Turkey, Morocco and Jordan.
“People don’t know enough about the region,” he said. “You have the media and the movie industry doing a disservice, the media shows only violence taking place in the Middle East, and how many times do you see an Arab portrayed as the good guy? They have just crazy fanatics who want to blow things up and then people never want to travel to the Middle East for fear that a suicide bomber will blow them up or something. But a lot of my friends and people I know who have actually traveled to the Middle East are much more open and they like the region.”
Due to the lack of this personal interaction, all kinds of speculations are formed. “There is no question that the judgment toward Muslims affects Cleveland. On the West Side, we have a great Arab population,” Cory said. “The biggest mosques attract immigrants, like the one in Parma, and the one man drove his car into it. ”
A Cleveland man rammed his car into the Islamic Center of Cleveland located in Parma six days after the terrorist attacks in New York City in 2001. By performing this hate crime and attacking the most popular mosque in Cleveland, he served as a prime example of the judgment directed toward Muslims in the area.
When this judgment may become more apparent is when one wears an outer garment that reveals his or her religion affiliation, like the hijab, a veil worn by Muslim women for religious reasons. Emerald Demor, a citizen of Rocky River, said, “If the girls wear hijabs, then they are most definitely judged. I know people say, “Why doesn’t she go to her own country if she wears that?” Although Rocky River is not a hot spot for many Muslims, with increasing immigration from city to city, more and more women who wear the veil for religious reasons are targets for this silent racism. The exact number of Muslims living in Ohio cities cannot be known, since the federal census does not require the reporting of religious affiliation.
With many Islamic and immigrant attractions however, the Westshore continues to welcome new citizens, with the Grand Mosque that attracts 5,000 Ohio residents, a large number coming from West Cleveland.