Healing and helping refugees in Phoenix

My friend said come, I’ll buy you a ticket. How could I say no? The home-cooked Middle Eastern food was simply delicious. The company was delightful. The weather that evening was perfect for outdoor activity. On Saturday, March 31st, I was happy to attend a dinner, prepared by a Syrian immigrant, at a Muslim family’s home in Gilbert, AZ. Around 50 guests of various backgrounds gathered for a special cause. Tickets were only $10 and the proceeds benefitted the refugee family. Seated outside in the host family’s comfortable backyard with enough tables and chairs for everyone, we chowed down on dishes common back home in Syria. I don’t recall the meat dishes but I ate hummus, stuffed grape leaves, tabbouleh, crisp bread baked by a Moroccan guest, and other tasty vegetable foods. An 18-year-old girl from the Syrian family read a story about their perilous journey from Syria to the safety of Jordan. The parents and six children walked in the rain and cold for two days. Crooked police officers robbed them of their money and food along the way. Exhausted, hungry and scared, they finally arrived in the safety of Jordan. After staying with relatives, they were approved for resettlement to the USA. This family like other refugee families has been welcomed by the extensive network of caring, concerned and loving volunteers who provided them with resettlement assistance. One such volunteer addressed our group, talking about the joy she felt meeting and greeting this family, and other refugee, new to our community. Food by the way is an excellent way to bring people together. The refugee cooks a tasty meal for which she receives donations to help her family. Guests enjoy food from another country while at the same time chatting with people they may or may not know. Old friends may be re-united and new friends are made. It’s a win/win situation all around. I love our community for embracing refugees, not excoriating them as our president has encouraged some to do. I look forward to the next refugee lunch or dinner. If you don’t know a refugee, I encourage you to do so. There are also plenty of ways to become involved in their lives and to help them settle into their new homes. May Allah bless everyone involved in the refugee resettlement community here in Phoenix, across the USA and around the world. You make me proud to be one of you.

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Love trumps hate

“Let no man pull you low enough to hate him,” said the late Martin Luther King Jr. Hatred, rage and retaliation could have been easy responses to the ugly video made by two women, Tahnee Gonzales and Liz Dauenhauer on March 4th as they broke into the Islamic Community Center (ICC) of Tempe. Once onto the property, the women and three children trespassed, stole material, Qurans, and mocked an advertisement offering free help with taxes claiming Muslims don’t even work. The women sneered at Muslims saying we smelled like goats, carry around rifles to kill people, and are evil devil worshippers. Seemingly proud of their vile display of hatred, the women streamlined the video on Facebook. The response probably wasn’t what they expected. Not only were the women arrested, but thousands of people not just from Phoenix but across the USA and around the world were outraged by their ignorant and hateful behavior. Of course, some fellow haters supported them but most people were appalled and shocked by their behavior. Here in Phoenix we reacted not with vengeance but with love – love and coffee actually. The Quran tells us to be forgiving In Surah 5:45 it says “if anyone remits the retaliation by way of charity it is an act of atonement for himself.”  On Saturday March 17th, the interfaith community sprang into action. We gathered in unity and fellowship at the Tempe mosque on a cool, crisp Saturday morning. We listened to speeches from community leaders, we chanted love trumps hate, and we prayed for peace and tolerance. Our strength is our diversity. Among the crowd were Muslims, Jews, Christians, Blacks, Whites, Latinos, Asians, and all good people of faith who attended to reject the message of hate that Gonzales and Dauenhauer spread the week before. Hate isn’t welcomed in our community. It has no place here. I felt proud to serve as an example for our youth. We adults celebrated our differences with respect and dignity. We demonstrated that true leaders talk to each other, not at each other. One of the first people I met on Saturday was an older Jewish man. He said I felt I needed to be here. We Jews he said know something about mistreatment. I said welcome, I am glad you came. I don’t know all the answers to our social problems. I wish I did. I do know that our interfaith community is strong, solid and dedicated to meeting head on thorny issues such as the disgusting video that was made about Muslims. I hope such an incident doesn’t happen again but if it does, we’ll be there to handle it in a mature, sensible manner just as we did this time, the time before and the time before that. Allah has truly blessed me by making me part of this community. May Allah bless us all and keep us strong in these difficult times.

The media and Islam

Fox TV and other right-wing media spew out a distorted version of Islam. I’m a convert so let me give you the inside scoop. Ready? OK, here we go. About 70% of the US media is owned by the conservatives (Fox and Sinclair media) garner a wide audience, so it’s not surprising that according to the Pew Research Center, a non-partisan think tank, reports say that nearly half of Americans disapprove of Muslims. But if you ask the average American if they know a Muslim personally they’ll say no. They only know what Fox TV tells them, which is that men are terrorists and women are oppressed. Do you believe that? I’m sorry if you do. Let me share a few salient facts. According to a recent Newsweek article, White men commit most mass shootings. Only a few have been carried out by Muslims or other minorities. Indeed, there are extremist Muslims, who have carried out grisly acts of murder and mayhem in Middle East or African nations such as Syria, Iraq, Somalia, and Pakistan. They are not Muslims because, according to the Quran, a Muslim shall not harm another Muslim or a non-Muslim except in self-defense. Beheading foreign reporters, raping Yazidi women, and bombing innocent civilians are not the acts of true Muslims. That’s how cowards, thugs and bullies behave but not true Muslims. The behavior of a few shames us all. Muslim men provide for their families. They protect their wives, sisters, daughters, and mothers. They participate in their communities. They are not terrorists as portrayed by the right-wing media but ordinary men who work as doctors, lawyers, engineers, architects or as common laborers who push wheelchairs at the airport. Muslim women are not oppressed just because they wear a hijab or a headscarf. Lots of women from other religions cover their heads such as Catholic nuns, Mennonites, and Orthodox Jews. Catholic women dress conservatively as do Mormon women. It is not a sign of oppression but rather a choice. The Phoenix Muslim community may be small (about 50,000) but it is very active. Take the American Muslim Women’s Association (AMWA) as an example. The all-volunteer non-profit group holds sewing and arts classes that teach refugee women how to sew and makes items for sale, with a goal of self-sufficiency. The Syrian Sweets Exchange is a group of Syrian refugees who bakes sweets popular back home. Aided by supportive volunteers, the home-made sweets are then sold at churches, mosques, synagogues, bookstores, etc. The profits aid the refugees as they settle into a new life. Helping Hands for Relief and Development, a world-wide relief agency with a local office, collects used clothing, school supplies and non-perishable food in their Chandler warehouse. Volunteers (with the help of our interfaith community) sort and pack the goods for shipment to relief camps in countries like Jordan and Lebanon. Dedicated Muslims opened a food bank available twice a month to all local low-income residents, not just for Muslims. Muslim students at Arizona State University are involved in a variety of community service projects. There are ongoing interfaith events at churches, mosques and synagogues where good people of faith gather to celebrate unity and strength. Mosques host Quran classes and sporting events to keep youth active and involved. There are family movie nights and picnics in parks in addition to informative lectures. During the Friday service, there is never talk of hatred or violence, only ways to serve your family, your mosque, your community and Allah. The Tempe mosques opens their doors to non-Muslims every So, if you only know Islam about Fox TV, you probably don’t know much about the true Islam at all. I invite you to attend a Friday service (always held mid-day). Visit a mosque any time, however, for one of five daily prayers. Join us for an interfaith event. Volunteer at for one of our organizations or attend one of our fundraisers. Most of all, get to know who we are. Don’t rely on Fox media as your source of information. There is a kindness among us that I’ve never experienced before. Sisters from my Quran class know that I struggle to get by on a disability income. They provide me with delicious home-made food every week. About two years ago, my car needed about $3,500 in repairs that I could not afford. They contributed every dollar without me even asking. Other friends helped me along the way and for them I am thankful but no one ever helped me to that extent. I am surrounded by a caring, loving community who I am thankful for every day. I’ve never been happier since I converted to Islam. Allah has truly blessed me. I try to repay my blessings with community service. This is the true Islam not what you see on Fox TV.

In praise of our nation’s teachers

Politicians gloat when bashing teachers for failing public schools. Surely, the lack of public funding couldn’t possibly have any impact, could it? How dare I even make that suggestion? The GOP would rather starve public education that even consider, for a mere second, a tax increase to insure proper education for our youth. No, that’s not possible whatsoever to increase, even slightly, taxes to educate our youth. The GOP believes in tax cuts and spending, further delivering us into massive debt, then expecting public schools to survive budget cuts without end. The GOP spends, of course, but not on education. They spend mightily on defense and prisons. If a school fails, it’s the teacher’s fault. If the teachers are unionized, oh boy, watch out. The GOP’s venomous assaults on unions stings just as hard as their mouth lashings on immigrants. Yet they rarely offer praise to teachers who save student’s lives like the high school teachers in Broward County on February 14th who so bravely stepped up and even died to protect their students from an unhinged former student with automatic weapons mowing down everyone in sight. Go back a few years to Sandy Hook CT when six teachers including the school principal died fending off another armed and dangerous intruder who also killed 20 first grade children. Can we please say thank you to these and other teachers for their extraordinary commitment to their students? They surely deserve it. Sometimes, they teach in schools that are grossly underfunded, paying for essential supplies out of their own pocket. The GOP backed tax reform bill of 2017 wanted to deprive teachers from deducting some of these expenses from their taxes but it survived somehow. Teachers are devoted to education so they still pay for many of the supplies, even when they are not tax deductible like yachts, condos, and furs. Schools in poor inner cities and rural areas are a mess. The plumbing may not work. Paint may peel from the ceiling. Heat may be sporadic in winter. Yet instead of fixing the decrepit buildings, the GOP siphons off tax funds and shovels them into privately owned charter schools. It’s all about choice they say. I say it’s all about propping up their wealthy donors who own the charter schools and donate to their campaigns. If you want to send your child to private school, that’s entirely your choice. As a taxpayer, I shouldn’t be footing the bill. Neither should you but you are. Teachers are among the lowest paid professions in the country. In some states, the starting salaries are woeful. Graduates avoid the field because the pay isn’t enough to keep up with crushing student loans. The USA doesn’t support higher education either. In poverty stricken areas, students may arrive hungry, in dirty clothes and unprepared. Their parents may be unemployed, on drugs, or working three jobs to stay afloat. Who knows? Until we can link poor people with more essential services, their children will suffer. Those services, by the way, are on the way out. Our government doesn’t think they are essential as me and thousands of others do. Naturally, the funding sources are shoveled into the military or a wall on the southern border to protect us from what? I don’t know, do you? All the dangerous criminals I know are American citizens with the legal right to purchase assault rifles. The word assault should say it all. As for teachers, I applaud them. I admire their dedication and commitment to our youth. They stand strong against a government that doesn’t back them. The government doesn’t back poor old, disabled people like me either. Parents sometimes hold teachers accountable when their children fail, even though it may not be the teacher’s fault. Sure, there are incompetent, inept and bigoted teachers in the classroom who should not be there. Some take advantage of students in inappropriate ways. Some are just not suited for the classroom. The majority, however, are caring, smart and supportive of our students who deserve our backing and loyalty. They deserve a decent wage. They deserve better than what our government gives them. So do our students.

 

Twenty four years ago

I didn’t write this on January 6, 1994 because I was sick with pneumonia but it was a memorable day. Twenty four ago started as an ordinary day but it ended with me in a ditch, bleeding and unconscious. Nothing has been the same ever since. A car struck me while walking my two dogs after work. My two dogs waited for me to get up and continue their walk. One of them licked the blood oozing from a gash to my face. The ICU admitted me in critical condition. One note said I was “semi-conscious with very limited mobility.” Two weeks later I transferred to a rehab center. By the end of January, I read at the 3rd grade level. My brain was as stale as three day old fruit salad, even though I once read classics, devoured books and read the New York Times every day. My interest in reading had all but vanished. I was afraid I’d be like this forever. Losing part of my mobility was an initial blow because I’d been an active jogger and biker. I ran in dozens of road races, including three marathons. I biked in the Rocky Mountains and hiked in state parks. Initially I had trouble accepting my disability but visits to a group home changed that. I met people who were much worse off than me. Considering I spent time around people who were incapable of feeding themselves it was time to get off the pity pot. I had adjustments to make, lots of them. My brain doesn’t function as well as before. For example, my thoughts and words don’t always mesh. I may not remember your name or how I know you. By evening, I’m not sure what I did that morning. The loss of employment dropped me into near poverty. I’ve scrounged through the trash for aluminum cans to redeem for cash. I water down dish soap to make it last longer and most of my clothing comes from thrift shops. But like the name of the late Maya Angelou’s poem, still I rise. Others live on the edge just like me. There’s no shame in being poor. I found new life through volunteer work. I loved each one of the roles I’ve served in. Maybe there will be more. If it wasn’t for the accident I never would’ve found the time to volunteer as a pet therapist for Gabriel’s Angels, answer the phones in former Gov. Janet Napolitano’s office, helped teach English as a second language to new immigrants, provided comfort to homeless pets, greeted passengers at the airport and so much more. Each of these assignments enriched me in many ways. In 2013 I met a new friend, Diba from Afghanistan, and she introduced me to Islam. Qamar from Somalia guided me too. Two years later, I finally said my Shahada, or declaration of faith. If Allah grants me another day to live, and I hope he does, I am at peace as a Muslim. I am blessed with much more than others although I have so little. All friends, Muslim and non-Muslim, make it so worthwhile. Maybe it took a horrific accident to figure this out. I’m really not sure. I am thankful for the past 24 years. I treasure the community surrounding me, the sisters in our Quran group and for so much more. And I am glad I met Diba and Qamar at the airport. I was always like the aimless wanderer, never knowing quite where to go, but always looking for a place to fit in. I finally found that place and I hope I never lose it. Tomorrow isn’t granted to me or anyone else so I make the best of each day, never knowing when it’s all going to end.

 

 

A Muslim’s Christmas memories

Almost three years ago, I said the Shahada (declaration of faith) and converted to Islam, so I don’t celebrate Christmas any longer. I do, however, have fond memories of the Christmas holiday as a volunteer with Gabriel’s Angels, where I was a pet therapist. I was also an animal shelter volunteer who helped many years for pet photos with Santa at various PetSmart stores. Here are some of those memories.

At Christmas time, PetSmart stores partnered with local shelters and/or rescue groups for a fundraiser called Pet Photos with Santa. PetSmart provided the camera and film then split the proceeds with the rescue groups. I assisted with various shelters/rescue groups for the pet photos. As a regular volunteer, I dealt with thoughtless owners, comforted abused animals, and worked with people whose mission it was to save unwanted animals. I grabbed the chance to surround myself with people whose pets were cherished parts of the family. That would be a welcomed relief.

Because sitting came easily to me (the result of a car accident), I sometimes wore the Santa suit, also courtesy of PetSmart. What a ball I had, even though the beard and the wig were itchy like a crinoline slip. Some big dogs were terrified of having their pictures taken with Santa. I struggled to hold them next to me. One giant dog was so scared me yanked me off the bench and started to pull me across the floor. Good thing I had a strong grip or that dog would’ve swept me out the door. A fuzzball of dog with curly tail lifted his leg on my shoes and left me with a stinky memento. A fluffy gray cat clawed my beard like it was a scratching post. One dog snarled at me and bared its teeth. I refused to pose unless the owner sat between me and the dog. A freckle faced boy wanted to pose with Santa, even though I was a ‘girl’.

At a far west side location, an older man on a horse trotted slowly through the parking lot up to the store entrance. The horse obviously could not enter the store so we brought everything outside. I posed next to the man and his horse for his pet photo with Santa. He left feeling quite satisfied then galloped towards West McDowell Avenue.

That same day, a young couple arrived with a turkey, yes, a turkey. They had purchased the bird for Thanksgiving dinner. The bird stayed in their backyard for a few days. When it came time to kill the bird, both husband and wife balked. He said to the wife, you kill it. She said no, I can’t either. They ended up keeping the turkey for a pet. So, at Christmas time, they arrived at PetSmart to pose with Tom, their new pet, for a photo. The bird cooperated for his first photo opportunity.

Late one afternoon at another store, a woman arrived with a small carrier. I assumed it held a cat, or maybe a rabbit. My mouth felt like chalk when I saw a large white rat. I grew up in New York City and to me, rats were unwanted guests. I would’ve screeched if I ever saw a rat of any color in my apartment. Fortunately, I only had occasional mice and roaches. Still, as Santa I had to act proper and pose with the white rat, even though I squirmed inside.

On bathroom breaks, I rode my scooter through the stores. Customers at one store called out, “Hey, Santa’s on a scooter. Go Santa.” Some even applauded. I was pleased to see people’s attitudes towards disabilities had softened.

Every year I went home feeling rewarded and uplifted about spending the day with people who adored their pets. It was worth all the time I spent stuffed inside a hot, scratchy suit just to see the human/animal bond at work. I needed days like that to renew my spirit. Otherwise, I wasn’t sure I could return to rescue work, especially when I volunteered with the county. How many times could my heart break?

Over the years, I rescued dogs myself from shelters and rescue groups. I had their pictures taken with Santa too. One year, I had six dogs. With the grace of God and a little help from an unknown customer in the parking lot, I got all six dogs into PetSmart. I still have all their photos.

I volunteered as a pet therapist with Gabriel’s Angels for almost eight years. My adopted dog Luke and I visited children at a homeless shelter. Spending important holidays like Christmas at a shelter instead of your own home was often emotional crushing to the families. Every year, several friends collected toys for these children. I was so thankful for their generosity. I wrapped each child’s gift in holiday paper and a bow. Their excitement was priceless as they ripped open the presents and treated them as if they were gold. As an added bonus, I borrowed Christmas music CD’s from the library. We sang along to tunes such as Jingle Bells, Silent Night and Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Luke added his own canine crooning by howling at various parts of the songs. That made the children crack up. Christmas at a homeless shelter was a sobering experience I’ll always remember. Shelter staff and volunteers pitched in to make their holiday as warm and comforting as possible.

At times, I felt so inadequate. So many troubled children passed through with emotional anguish that stretched beyond my position as a pet therapist. Even my training as a social worker didn’t always give me an advantage. I relied on Luke to soothe their wounded souls. But there were times even my dog couldn’t help. I did the best I could but there were times I felt it wasn’t enough.

The flow of unwanted animals into our shelters never seemed to end no matter how many free spay/neuter days we offered the public. Homelessness in the USA was always a problem that could have been addressed with more funding for low and middle-class housing but it never is. I doubt it will be in my lifetime either. In the meantime. I thank Allah for the chances I had to spend time with all these homeless children and for the happy times at PetSmart. May He continue to allow me to now grow and learn in the Islamic community that I now serve.

 

The GOP Tax Plan

It’s a tax plan for the middle class, the GOP says. But is it really? Dig a little further and that’s not what you will find. To pay for this boondoggle of a plan, the allegedly fiscally conservative Republicans are stripping away middle-class tax deductions for student loans, state and local taxes, capping mortgage deductions, as well as cutting Medicaid, Medicare and more. They end the estate tax that benefits the affluent, as if they cannot afford it. There are further erosions to the ACA (Affordable Care Act). Gone will be a provision that requires citizens to have health care or to pay a penalty. Some might say that’s good. Others will face doom and gloom. With millions of young, healthy people exiting the health care market, those who remain will pay even higher premiums, forcing them to possibly cancel their insurance. Public school teachers pay out of their own pocket for school supplies because the Republicans have stripped contributions to education. The current GOP will take away their ability to write off part of those expenses. And they won’t raise contributions to public education either. You can be assured they will, however, increase spending on war, prisons, and restrictions on abortion. The Republican party is on a roll to gut public education further by increasing vouchers to pay for charter schools, most of which are owned by wealthy Republicans. The plan to be voted on is a gift, as always, to the rich and to corporations who, you guessed it, are major donors to politicians. The Republican party is the recipient of many of these donations. The tax bill gives rights to the unborn, lets churches have the power to insert themselves into politics (now prohibited) and even more. Donald Trump is eager to score a win this year since so far, he’s accomplished nothing. No surprise here. The tax will add significantly to the multi-trillion-dollar deficit, a drag on our economy. I wonder why the Republicans are OK with deficits when they have the majority in Congress. If the Democrats proposed a similar spending bill that vastly increased the deficit they would surely vote it down. The Republicans are a party of hypocrites to say the least. They spend like drunken sailors then cut spending. It makes no sense whatsoever. Then of course there is defense spending and Donald Trump’s infamous wall at the southern border. He wants that wall built no matter the cost or the harm to the environment not to mention humans. He wants to spend more and more on the military. Where will all this money come from? Economists say his tax plan will not produce the results he promises. It is simply impossible. Unemployment is already at a historic low of 4%. Trump says it will produce more jobs. Where will the workers come from to fill those jobs since he doesn’t want immigrants? He’s already deporting immigrants by the thousands. Ending protection for Haitians, Nicaraguans and DACA recipients. The tax plan is a poorly thought out plan that even a high school economics class can figure out will not work. The American people deserve better. We are decent, hard workers who love our country. We care deeply about our families, our friends and neighbors. We work hard to clean up the environment with or without government help and lately it’s been without help from the Feds. We are concerned about the fate of unwanted animals and endangered species. We offer help to the needy. We pray well together. We want to live in peace. We don’t want more war. I love my country but am ashamed of my government and the people who helped elect Donald Trump. I wake up every morning praying and hoping he hasn’t started the end of the world. That’s a distinct possibility. As for the tax plan, it’s another of his fiascos that will not make America great. We already were without help from him.