|Connecticut is a state located in the New England region of the northeastern
USA. The state borders New York to the west and south (Long Island by sea), Massachusetts to the north, and Rhode Island to the east.
Connecticut is the 29th most populous state with 3.4 million residents and ranked 48th in size by area, making it the 4th most densely populated state.
Look down the street. They are here.
And they are among us, making contributions to the community the way immigrants always have -- by paying their dues -- often starting at the bottom and working their way up. They are bakers, barbers, waiters, soft-drink distributors, merchants, mechanics, teachers, engineers, lawyers and doctors. Many of them own small businesses, from mom-and-pop grocery stores to gas stations to restaurants.
They are Muslims.
Muslims like Ruzhdi Vogli, a mason who spent five days avoiding soldiers ordered to shoot to kill, climbing mountains and living off the sweat he could wring from his shirt as he escaped from communistic Albania only to land in a Yugoslavian prison for 31 days.
"It was like a movie," recalls Vogli, who still bears the physique of the Greco-Roman wrestler he used to be. "You had to hide during the day and run during the night. If the shepherds saw you, they would tell the soldiers, who would kill you."
When he crossed into Yugoslavia and surrendered to authorities, they threw him in jail.
"It was very bad," Vogli said. "I would pray every night: 'God -- Please save my mind.' "
After 41 days in jail and then a refugee camp, Vogli came to Bridgeport with the help of the International Institute of Connecticut.
They are people like Tarcisico Campos, a Brazilian who last June graduated from Central High School and hopes to save enough money from his job at a fitness club to enter
Housatonic Community College next fall. In the meantime, Campos collects used clothing to send back to the poor in Brazil. In the future, he would like to work with orphans.
"Maybe I can teach them the importance of an education, help them make something of their lives," he said. "Maybe they will remember that and go on to help others."
They are students like Omar Abuzaghleh, 26, of Jordan, studying to receive his Ph.D in computer science, and Thabet Mismar, studying for his master's degree in electrical engineering, both at the University of Bridgeport.
"It's very nice here," said Abuzaghleh. "Never, ever have I had a situation where I felt disrespect."
They are businessmen like Mohamad Ali, who runs Mo's Barber Shop on Bridgeport's Reservoir Avenue, Adullah Latorre, whose Five Brothers Solutions does painting and remodeling, and Khurram Nomani, who, with his brother, operates a Shell gas station on Lordship Boulevard in Stratford.
They are professors like Khaled Elleithy, the associate dean for graduate programs at the University of Bridgeport, and scholars like Sheik Imran Shariff of the Al-Manar Center on Clinton Avenue in Bridgeport.
"What brings them to Connecticut are the things that often bring immigrants: a job, educational opportunities and sometimes an escape from persecution in their old country," said Aida Mansoor, director of the Connecticut Muslim Coalition.
Is there a network that helps Muslims settle and assimilate?
"Not as much as we'd like to see, but it's building," Mansoor said, adding that there are enclaves in Hartford and its surrounding communities, and Waterbury, New Haven and Bridgeport, where Muslim populations have grown, in part because of efforts by nonprofit organizations, such as Catholic Charities and the International Institute of Connecticut.
Coming to America
Jane Norgren, the acting executive director of the International Institute of Connecticut, said representatives from her agency meet refugees at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York and drive them to Bridgeport. That is where her organization keeps a furnished apartment stocked with ethnic foods. Once the family settles, the agency transports the family for medical checks as well as helps them find work, a home and schools.
listen to Imam Farid Alzoubi give his Friday sermon at Masjid An-Noor in Bridgeport recently.
Christian Abraham/Staff photographer
"Reasonable rents are tough to find," Norgren said. "A lot of the relocations have been in Ansonia, Derby and Waterbury."
Finding jobs for people who speak little or no English is also tough.
"Stop and Shop has been a wonderful partner," she said.
As for the number of Muslims the agency helps, Norgren can't put a figure on it.
"We don't keep statistics on a person's religion," she said. "I can tell you we have worked with people from Khurdistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Somalia -- many Muslim countries."
The Connecticut Muslim Coalition, the Pew Research Center and the Hartford Seminary estimate at least 100,000 Muslims live in Connecticut.
Elleithy, who is president of the Bridgeport Islamic Community Center, believes at least 4,000 Muslims live in Bridgeport and that number is growing 15 to 20 percent a year. That means in Bridgeport, with its population of 135,695, at least one in every 34 residents is Muslim.
Muslims aren't just people from the Middle East. They come from Africa, Indonesia and remnants of the former Soviet Union. They include people who changed religions like Campos and Abdullah Latorre, both of whom had been Catholic.
During a recent prayer service at the University of Bridgeport's mosque, Latorre pointed to the different nationalities and colors.
"It looks like a color wheel in here," he said, noting the number of blacks, whites and Asians. "Skin color doesn't matter here. It's what's in your heart."
Then he pointed to the diverse ethnicity of those gathered. "I'm Puerto Rican. He's Georgian. There's an Egyptian, a Pakistani, an Iraqi," he said.
Their growth has made the Muslim community active.
The Salma K. Farid Academy, a preschool and elementary school for Muslim children, opened Oct. 6 on Leeder Hill Drive in Hamden. It's next door to the Bible Gospel Center and across the street from the Highville Charter School. The academy, the first of its kind in southwestern Connecticut, is hoped to have the first Islamic library and reading center in North America.
New mosque coming
Excavation has begun for the what is expected to be the largest mosque in Connecticut. Expected to cost $4 million, this proposed 8,000-square-foot facility located off Interstate 84 in Waterbury, near Cheshire, will also house a Connecticut Muslim Scouting Association, patterned after the Boys and Girls Scouts, as well as a soup kitchen and funeral room. The Islamic Society of Connecticut is soliciting donations to purchase steel at a price of $2,000 per ton.
Another $800,000 in donations is being solicited to establish a Muslim cemetery in Sterling, which will serve all of Connecticut.
The Bridgeport Islamic Society is renovating the Masjid An-Noor at 1300 Fairfield Avenue to give it more of an appearance of a Middle Eastern mosque.
Another $20,000 is being sought for additions to the new mosque the University of Bridgeport opened in August in the basement of the old North Hall on Lafayette Street.
The Bridgeport Islamic Community Center bought a two-story home at 525 Clinton Ave. and turned it into the Al-Manar Center, where youngsters and adults learn the teachings of Islam and the Quran.
It was there they recently celebrated the end of the holy month of Ramadan, a time of fasting and forgiveness, with the Eid al-Fitr, a three-day celebration by Muslims providing thanks to God for giving them the will, strength and endurance to observe, fast and obey him during Ramadan.
On the first day of Eid al-Fitr, Muslims are required to wake up early, wash and put on new clothes before going to the mosque to pray. They will hear a sermon and are encouraged to visit with family and friends, including contacting those who live far away. Gifts are given to children, and food, or the equivalent in money, is given to the poor.
But times haven't always been festive, particularly in the days after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
Ali, the barber who frequently dresses in traditional Muslim clothing, was one of the targets of comments.
"It was difficult. It hurt," he said. "But people just didn't understand that Islam is not about killing others or extremism. Islam is about doing good."
Sensing that more needs to be done to foster better understanding of their religion, many Muslims reached out to their community. They take part in interfaith outreach through the House of Abraham, building homes side by side with Christian and Jewish groups through Habitat for Humanity. They donated baskets of personal care items to a domestic violence crisis center.
"A receptionist there said it was the first time anybody had ever done something like this," said Olga Shibtini, a Catholic convert to Islam who runs an Islamic weekend school in Bridgeport. "Our religion requires -- demands -- that we or those among us who can afford to give charity do so. And not just to other Muslims -- but to anybody in need. We were glad to do so."
Shibtini also participates in an interfaith dialogue with women from area synagogues and churches. She believes that as time goes on there will be more bridges between their faiths and that as more people in the community work together and forge friendships, instances of bias or hate crimes will decline.
Rabia Chaudry, an immigration attorney with a number of Muslim clients, tells her non-Muslim friends and colleagues that "stereotypes exist everywhere. We don't have a lock on cornering the market in them. We get our groceries and pay our bills just like everybody else. And we have elements in our [religious] community and these people are getting more attention lately. But I don't know a single person out of all my Muslim friends who supports terrorism."
"The enemy of the moment -- after the fall of Russia -- is the Mideastern Muslim," Chaudry said. "And it's trial by fire for the American Muslim, and some prejudice against us, well, it's partly our fault. We've all been dug into our families, our careers, being self- absorbed, working, saving, trying to get ahead so our kids could go to college, that we haven't been out in the community meeting other people, being part of interfaith outreach. And that has to change."
Muslims live their lives based on their religion. Islam requires them to follow five specific principals:
*The Shadah -- believe in no God but Allah and accept Muhammad as the final prophet.
* Salat -- pray at the required five times every day, at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, dusk and nightfall.
* Zakat -- spend a portion, about 2 1/2 percent percent of one's wealth, to benefit the poor and needy.
* Sawm -- abstain from food, fast and sex during daylight hours of Ramadan.
* Hajj -- at least once, every Muslim who can afford it is required to make the five-day pilgrimage to Mecca during the 12th month of the Islamic year.
The recently ended Ramadan, the ninth month on the Islamic calendar consisting of 30 days of fasting, praying and reflection, marks the revelation of the Quran to the Prophet Muhammad by the angel Gabriel.
They avoid eating or drinking from dawn to sunset -- about 14 hours. They pray seeking God's forgiveness, guidance and help.
"It is a month when we get close to Allah," said Shaikh Imran Shariff, an Islamic scholar and holy man. "We should not eat, drink or engage in sexual relations. This helps us gain the ability to control ourselves."
"It's like boot camp," said Ali, the barber. "You are in training for the rest of the year."
During Ramadan, many Muslims will go to nearby mosques to meet their religious obligations.
Unlike a church or synagogue, a mosque is not lined with wooden pews. Instead, people enter the sanctuary, men on one side, women and young children on the other, with a partition dividing them. Islam isn't a prudish religion. It's one based on modesty. The women wear birquas, floor-length garments that cover their street clothes, or hijabs, scarves or veils that cover much of their faces.
Their thinking is that during times of prayer in public forums, such as mosques, the sexes should not be distracted from their purpose. Upon entering the mosque, Muslims remove their shoes. After separating into groups of women and men, they wipe a part of their head and then wash their face, each hand up to the elbow and each foot up to the ankle a preferred three times.
They remain separated in different rooms at mosques like Masjid An-Annor on Fairfield Avenue or behind a divider at the UB mosque to pray.
During Ramadan, they break the fast at sundown with a group meal. They begin by eating dates and fruits laid on a white mat. Bottles of water and milk are available. That's followed by a brief prayer and a communal feast in which everyone is invited to eat. At An-Annor, foods are often brought by the members of the mosque.
Nearly 400 people filled the mosque and an outside tent on a recent Friday. At the UB mosque, the food is donated by Muslim restaurants. The feast is followed by a prayer that can last more than two hours.
All of the prayers are in Arabic and are recited aloud with an Imam, who has a rich, melodic voice, leading the service and the congregation -- bowing or kneeling on the floor, pointed east in the direction of Mecca and chanting a responsive verse. On the women's side of the partition, there are only quiet, murmured responses. And it seems everyone knows every verse of the service by heart.
Praying at a mosque is encouraged. Some, like Ali, the barber, will post a sign on his door announcing his business is closed for prayer. Others, like Mohamed Hamada, a 43-year-old business analyst for UBS Investment Bank in Stamford, said if he can't make it to the mosque he looks for a peaceful room at work.
The 27th night of Ramadan is referred to as the Night of Power. Many Muslims spend the entire night in a mosque praying, reading the Quran and listening to lectures.
Many Muslims use Ramadan to meet their charitable donation obligation because they believe good acts are doubled for consideration in the hereafter.
"Zakat is done on the honor system," said Imam Kareem Adeeb, a Fairfield engineer of Lebanese origin who is associated with the American Institute for Islamic and Arabic Studies in Stamford. "It comes to about two and one-half percent of your savings."
"But we believe God is watching everything we do," he said. "We have a saying: don't do in private what you wouldn't do in public. In private you'd be embarrassed because God is watching. In public you are embarrassed because people are watching."