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Milwaukee's Islamic Center Celebrates 25 Years

This month, Muslims in Milwaukee are celebrating the 25th anniversary of their Islamic Center. Over the years, the center, which is more than a religious institution, has expanded in size and the services it offers to the local community.

Milwaukee's Muslim community has grown considerably over the last three decades. "I remember when I was only about 10 or 12 years old when we would have our Eid prayers, there would be about 80 or 100 people," says Janan Najeeb. "Now, 25 years later, sometimes we have as many as 5,000 people."

Twenty-five years ago, Othman Atta was a law student at a local university. He says finding a place to do their weekly Jumaa prayers was a challenge for the dozens of Muslim students attending college in Milwaukee.

"We actually prayed our Friday prayers in the basement of a church which was a cross the street from the major university that's in town," he says.

It was around that time, he recalls, that a group of Muslims decided to set up a place that would meet the religious needs of the local Muslims. "It was an old Milwaukee public school building," he says.

Atta, now a lawyer, serves as President of the Islamic Society of Milwaukee. He says the current building is very different from the one they bought more than two decades ago.

"From that period of time, in 1982, we expanded it many times over," he says. "The old building was [1500 square meters]. Then we added the prayer hall, the masjid area, for the men and the women. That added [2200 square meters]. Then we added classrooms and a gymnasium and so forth. That added another maybe [4600 to 5500 square meters]. That's what we have right now."

The expansion of the Islamic Society's building over the years reflects the growth of Milwaukee's Muslim community.

"Certainly our predecessors, those who founded the association, never could imagine that we are so large, so diverse, such an active community," Isa Sadlon, the Society's Executive Director, says.

Sadlon, who converted to Islam over 20 years ago, says the founders were immigrants and few in number.

"They came mostly from the Middle East, (a) few from Southeast Asia," he says. "Today, Milwaukee has a Muslim population of 15,000 people. About one-third of them are indigenous Americans who have converted to Islam over the past 20, 25 years, maybe another third from Southeast Asia. The rest from the Middle East."

Salaam School, run by the center, serves children from kindergarten through 8th grade. Douaa Ali, 18, who is now attending a public high school, was a student there.

"That school instilled in me the knowledge, the morals and the values that I needed to be confident going to a public high school here, being a minority, but being a Muslim," she says.

Many of the activities at the center are made possible by society members who volunteer their time, like software engineer Mohamed Sandid, 32.

"For the past year, I'm involved in teaching Arabic to new Muslims who are not Arabic speakers on Sundays on a voluntary basis," he says. Sandid also volunteers to help for events that take place at the center.

Among those events are dinner banquets held during the fasting month of Ramadan, and social gatherings where local officials and national figures are invited to talk with community members. The society also organizes public service events at the center, like blood drives.

The Islamic Center just completed another successful drive, one of many events and programs held to celebrate its 25th anniversary.

Other events included a dinner in honor of the founders of the center, a picnic for the Muslim community members, and an open house for the community at large, so they could tour the center.

"About 1500 guests visited," says Islamic Society Executive Director Isa Sadlon. "They saw displays about Islam and had good food, had a chance to meet people. Of course often people are very curious as to what goes on in these buildings, who are these people, what's it really like? So we encourage people to come and talk to us. We have an open door."

Over the last 25 years, Sadlon says, Muslims in Milwaukee have built strong relationships with many churches, synagogues and government agencies in the city. In the future, he hopes they will become even more involved in the community, and he promises the center will expand further to meet the needs of the growing population.