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  • Writer's pictureMarjorie Anne Foster

Muslim students build a space for Elon community

Three students pave the way for Muslims on campus by starting new organization

Despite reaching out to more than 30 students on Facebook, Noor Irshaidat lived alone her first two years at Elon University. Her profile clearly shows that she is Muslim and from Jordan, and to her, that felt like the reason she couldn’t find a connection.

Irshaidat is now the senior class president and serves on the President Student Leader Advisory Council. Additionally, Irshaidat is both a Leadership and a Innovation Fellow, vice president of the Business Honor Society, a group exercise instructor and the founder and president of Elon’s Muslim Society. Her issues no longer entail finding connections with people but rather finding time to balance all of her relationships.

Irshaidat came to Elon in the midst of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, that year saw a spike in hate crimes committed against Muslims in the U.S. That year saw an all-time high in hate crimes. Irshaidat not only saw that trend happening around her during her first weeks in the U.S., but also said that it was that environment that made her uncomfortable talking about her national and religious identity.

“People thought people from my region were terrorists,” Irshaidat said. “I was being asked by students all the time if I would be deported because of the travel ban. It was a scary time.”

At that time, Irshaidat said she didn’t know any other Muslims or Arabs at Elon. She spent her early days at Elon worrying that she, as well as other students like her, might not be able to stay in the U.S., even if they had done nothing wrong.

“That’s what a lot of students here were facing,” she said. “And we didn’t have others to talk about it with.”

Sophomore Heeba Chergui, vice president of EMS, shares Irshaidat’s sentiments of feeling out of place even more when coming onto Elon’s campus.

On her first day of college, Chergui found herself sitting in a crowd of people who looked nothing like her. After attending Phoenix Fusion, a two-day event focused on diversity at Elon, Chergui realized, as she sat in her class of 30, that Elon’s diversity initiative was not as widespread as she had imagined.

“I knew that Elon was a predominantly white institution,” Chergui said. “But I never knew how alienating it would be to be the only person of color and Muslim in my classes.”

For junior Alaa Suleiman, treasurer of EMS, the fact that there was no Muslim student group “blew her mind.”

“I understand that we are the minority here,” Suleiman said. “So, when I eventually met people my second semester that were like me, it was awesome.”

Suleiman’s first year at Elon felt more like home after connecting with Irshaidat and bonding over their Jordanian roots. For Suleiman, religion is an important element of her everyday life. It is not only prominent in her personal journey but also in her relationships with others.

“It’s important for me to help eliminate some of the misconceptions people have about Islam,” Suleiman said. This motivation has led her to invest in EMS and other initiatives to connect Muslim students and non-Muslims.

Similarly, Irshaidat carried the weight of wanting to educate others on cultures and religions different than their own. That weight motivated her to host a dinner for her friends where she cooked traditional food from her country.

“The first year I did a Jordanian dinner, I invited everyone I knew, which was only my hall,” Irshaidat said. “With the more people I meet, the bigger it got.”

Last spring, Irshaidat hosted more than 80 people for this meal. For her, this means that people now think about Jordan and her religion with positive emotions, thinking about good food, hospitality and generosity. These are all characteristics she sees within her country and loves to see others having positive experiences, despite stereotypes they may have had prior.

Over the last year and a half, these three women have come together to create a student-run space for those who identify as Muslim. According to Irshaidat, the aim of this club is to increase Islam’s presence on campus, raise awareness of traditions and answer any questions about the religion.

“Ultimately, I hope this club can highlight that we are all the same at the end of the day,” Irshaidat said.

Since the club officially started last spring, Irshaidat said there has been great support from those who are Muslim and those that do not identify with the religion. However, this trend may not be reflective of attitudes toward Muslims in the U.S. in general.

According to a 2017 Pew Research survey, Muslims are rated at the bottom of favored religious groups in the U.S. Because Muslims in America are often the targets of media biases and terrorist attacks, students often come into college not wanting to associate with their religion because of fear and uncertainty.

According to the fall 2019 Registrar’s Report there are 13 Muslim students on campus. Shane Atkinson, the associate chaplain for Muslim life at Elon, thinks there could be many more.

Atkinson understands fears and concerns play a part in the decisions students make to classify themselves as Muslim. As a result, Atkinson said he believes that students should never feel as if they had to be a part of a religious group on campus.

“I am aware that for some students, coming to college, from whatever their tradition may be, is an opportunity for them to step back and look at it more critically and to explore other traditions,” Atkinson said. “I let the students know that I am here to support them, but I don’t want anyone to think they are guilted into joining the Muslim student society.”

Atkinson sees the need for a strong community where students can feel supported in their faith and able to have more opportunities to come together. But he is cognizant that a lot of students are people of color and practice a religion that “gets a lot of bad press.” So if they don’t want to let people know that they are Muslim, he wants to respect that.

Irshaidat agrees that fear can deter students from identifying as Muslim, but hopes to offer opportunities and events to Muslim and non-Muslim students throughout the year.

The group plans to offer three events throughout the semester. The first event is a bi weekly Jummuah prayer in the Truitt Center followed by a grab-and-go food counter. Students are invited to participate or observe. The second event includes a speaker series, once a month, where different topics within Islam will be discussed. Lastly, the group will hold “coffee hours” at a spot on campus where students will be invited to ask questions about Islam in exchange for free coffee.

Jan Fuller, Elon’s chaplain, said she is delighted to see students taking interest and initiative in creating EMS and shaping it according to their needs.

“It means to me that they are able and willing to help create the programming, support, and even atmosphere that they need to thrive on campus,” Fuller said.

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