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A group of environmental activists from Georgia’s Muslim community occupied one of many banquet tables at yesterday’s 9th annual Georgia Environmental Address. The event, which included remarks by Georgia Governor Nathan Deal as well as the commissioner of Gwinnett County, was hosted by Gwinnett Clean & Beautiful, a nationally recognized nonprofit that aims to find long-term environmental solutions through individual activism.
Our small group had been invited to the luncheon to represent two of the most active Adopt-a-Road groups in Gwinnett County, Madina Institute and Muslim Youth of GIC.
"We’ve engaged in three separate Adopt-a-Road cleanups,” Ibrahim Awad stated about his past volunteer experience. “Each one takes about a couple of hours, and we have volunteers at each event ranging from 5 to about 45 individuals.”
Sitting around our table were Ibrahim Awad, Nasim Omar, Shuaib Hanief, Asma ElHuni, Jibril Howard, Moubin Al-Malla, Syed Khader, Muhammad Nawaz, and myself.
We were a hodge-podge of Atlanta-wide Muslim affiliations - Madina Institute, Gwinnett Islamic Circle, Atlanta Masjid of Al-Islam, and the Islamic Speakers Bureau. To ramp up the diversity even further, our group consisted of a lawyer, a 10th grader, an entrepreneur, a youth leader, an imam, a community activist, an engineer, and a community service champion (we definitely covered all the bases).
Although the steamed carrots were cooked just right, and although Gov. Deal’s address on environmental sustainability was on point, our favorite part came midway through the lunch when a young Muslim lady walked onto the stage.
That’s right: in a mass of mostly Caucasian middle-aged adults from Gwinnett, a young Jordanian Muslim with a bright red hijab by the name of Rayann Aslan climbed the stage and accepted an enormous check twice her size “…for her innovative contribution to this community’s environmental landscape.”
Though we had never heard of her, all nine of us stood to applaud, beaming like proud parents.
“Gwinnett County is very diverse and I commend the County leadership. It is amazing to see Rayann get the scholarship,” said Gwinnett-based entrepreneur Shuaib Hanief
Afterwards, our group met with many individuals, including Rayann Aslan, Charlotte Nash, the president of the county commission, Georgia’s Adopt-a-Road project manager, and members of the Gwinnett Fire Department (who offered us free fire detectors for all of our Gwinnett mosques).
“We had no idea that the Muslim population was so large in this area,” Stella Kim of the Fire Department told us. “Firefighters really have no idea about your culture, but they really should know about your customs and beliefs. That’s how we bring everyone together in our diverse communities. We’ve already started training in Hispanic and Korean communities. But we’re interested in reaching out to Muslim populations.”
Why does it really matter that local Muslims attended the Governor’s Address?
Asma Elhuni offered her perspective. “I'm here because if I want to be an activist, I can’t ignore the importance of the role others and I play in [the community] - not only for preserving our earth, but caring for it as well.”
Nasim Omar, the initiator of the two Muslim-led Adopt-a-Road campaigns in Gwinnett, said afterwards, “It’s my dream to have every masjid, Islamic institute, and Muslim-run organization in Atlanta adopt their own road in their communities. We have to be strategic and make people around us know that we are proud to contribute as Muslims. We have to work to change our image.”
But what can cleaning up trash off the side of the street teach us about changing the American Muslim narrative?
Three things I picked up:
Contribute Creatively: We can’t sluggishly wait for the media or large political conglomerates to sweep in and help us flip the misconceptions of Muslims in America. Our image also depends on how willing we are to creatively commit our efforts on a grassroots level. Why shouldn’t Muslims be at the forefront of the environmental sustainability discussion in Georgia? Why shouldn’t Muslims spearhead extensive community service initiatives in their own counties? Get innovative and think creatively. Impact can be bred from more than just checkbooks and monetary donations.
Start Shaking Hands: How do you start making your voice heard? When you leave the comfort of your own Muslim community and start shaking your hands with the Governor, county commissioner, law enforcement officers, and locally elected officials. As a minority population, ‘making your voice heard’ isn’t possible unless you’re directly involved in the political processes. Our fire departments needs to know who we are and where our mosques are. Our police departments should be equipped with culturally sensitive diversity training. Our political leaders need to understand what bills and laws American Muslims are pushing for. Staying meek and refusing to extend our hands won’t help us anymore.
Make America Your Home: When you invest in a place you love, you’ll do anything to see it thrive and make it feel more at home for those coming after you. As a Muslim American (or, rather, an American Muslim), start feeling ownership for this country. We’re all products of many nations, but until we stop shying away from representing ourselves as Americans in the public, political, and civic arena, we will never make the US our home. Want to create an impact? Start in your own backyard. We have no right to criticize problems happening on American soil if we’re not willing to roll up our sleeves and help fix them.
I challenge the larger Muslim community of Atlanta to make an effort to start attending gatherings and discussions such as the Environmental Address. Hidden gems like Rayann Aslan who teach us that it’s no longer enough to simply be members of this community. We must be the movers and shakers, stewards, and sometimes even the ones who pick aluminum cans off the sides of our roads.
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