Special Report: Muslims Find Welcoming Home in Mid-Missouri
COLUMBIA - Being different can sometimes be hard. Ask Rafa Nizam and he’ll tell you, "I feel having different skin color does sometimes make you feel alienated from everyone else." Nizam, a freshman at the University of Missouri, grew up in Columbia as part of the city's ever-growing Muslim population. For him, growing up both Muslim and American has, at times, been somewhat difficult. "It's an everyday struggle. It’s an everyday task to reconcile the two," Nizam said.
But ask him about his experience growing up in Columbia, and you’ll hear only good things.
“It’s been nice. It’s been pretty calm. It’s a very laid back lifestyle--nothing too hectic.”
Chances are, if you ask Muslims in this community about their experiences living here, you’ll probably hear an overwhelming number of positive responses. That’s because, despite all the anti-Islamic sentiment brewing around the country, they say Columbia has remained an island of peace.
Dr. Rezwan Islam, a member of the Islamic Center of Central Missouri, believes it has something to do with the character of people in the city.
“Most of Columbia is very educated. There are a lot of universities here, a lot of professionals here, and they understand in terms of judging you by who you are,” Islam said.
Rafa Nizam’s father is the former president of the ICCM. Dr. Rashed Nizam, thinks the center's history within the community is a big reason why things have remained calm all these years.
“The building was completed in 1983, but effort went even before” Rashed Nizam said.
“There were only five families from different parts of the world. They came here as some undergrad, some master's, and some Ph.D. students. And two of the Ph.D. students took the initiative of leadership, because as Muslims, we are obligated to pray in a mosque,” Nizam said.
The students' first prayer meetings started in what is now known as Tiger Hotel. But when the number of members grew too large for the venue, the group attempted to relocate to the university.
“So initially they tried to rent a place in the university, but could not use this university because state and religion I think, doesn’t go together," Nizam said.
So with a little help in the form of donations, the group bought land in a then underdeveloped downtown area, and went to work.
“They were able to buy this land, and eventually they filled the land,” Rashed Nizam explained. “This was actually very filthy and nobody used to come here to this part of this town.”
Finally in 1983, the Islamic Center of Central Missouri was complete, making it the first and only mosque in Columbia. According to Rashed Nizam, it was one of the earliest in the country.
But a lot has happened from the time when the mosque first opened its doors. In 2004, the center got some unwanted attention when the FBI targeted some members of the mosque as part of a terrorism-funding scheme based at the Islamic American Relief Agency office in Columbia.
“The FBI suspected that IARA in Columbia was giving funds to terrorist organizations”, said Rafa Nizam. “Maybe something ended up in the wrong place, or maybe they were falsely accused, I don’t know what the case is, but they were shut down because of this.”
Despite this, the mosque has continued to take an active role in the community and members said, promote good judgment.
“We are very active in several community programs,” Rashed Nizam said. “That’s where we got started.”
The center interacts with the community in a number of different ways, from open houses that explain more about Islam and the culture, to community-based activities like the crop walk or volunteering at the soup kitchen.
And with Columbia’s Muslim population continuing to grow, Rafa Nizam believes it is important for everyone to work together to understand one another’s differences.
“Even though people may not know they are working with, or studying with a Muslim, there’s a high chance that there is someone there,” says Nizam.