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Historic Muslim Community Finds Home in US Heartland - 2004-01-17

On an ordinary Iowa street of small wooden houses, there’s one building that looks unique. American Muslims call it the “Mother Mosque.” It opened in 1934, the first mosque built in the United States.

A small Muslim community was already well-established in Cedar Rapids by then. Muslims had been settling there since the early 1900s, beginning with Syrian and Lebanese peddlers. Bill Aossey’s father arrived in 1907 as a peddler and later opened a small store.

“All these people came, basically, with no formal language,” Bill Aossey said in an interview. “They couldn’t read or write English or Arabic. Yet they had good foresight and were very dedicated Muslims.”

Nearly a century later, the family business has become Midamar, an international food company led by Bill with his 29-year-old son Jalel. The Aosseys are one of Cedar Rapids’ oldest Muslim families, but in the last twenty years, the community has grown with new immigration. About three-quarters of Midamar’s workforce, for example, are foreign-born Muslims, from countries ranging from Morocco to Kosovo to Iraq.

Bill Aossey has also sponsored several refugees, including warehouse manager Abdul Aziz, who fled war in Somalia. “He came here through the Lutheran Service Resettlement Program,” Bill said. “They called and said they had a displaced person who needed work, couldn’t speak English. He’s worked himself up from six years ago, from being basically a laborer, to where we’ve appointed him as the warehouse-freezer manager. He has a very keen mind.” Abdul Aziz returns his employer’s regard. “I started work at Midamar in June 1996, and I like it,” he said, during a break from his warehouse duties. “I get [to work with] very good people, and my boss is the best person in the world.”

The heart of Cedar Rapids’ growing Muslim presence is the Islamic Center, built in 1972. About 350 families belong, from countries all around the world. The Imam, Ahmed El-Khaldy, says that after 9/11, despite some incidents of vandalism, the larger Cedar Rapids community rallied around the Islamic Center. “We had a lot of support, a lot of people, neighbors and different churches showed support to the Islamic Center, and to people - Muslims here in the community,” he said. “[Only] a little individual immoral behavior happened, that doesn’t really reflect what the community stands for.”

A more recent development has again put the Cedar Rapids Islamic Center in the local spotlight. The board is planning to build a youth camp near Coralville Lake, on federal land that was the site of an old Girl Scouts campground. The camp was Jalel Aossey’s idea, who says it will be open to all children, not only Muslims, and will have traditional camping activities.

“Everything from the arts and crafts to horseback riding if possible, to the archery, to how to tie knots, to putting up a campsite, to how do you build fires and cook,” he explained during a tour of the wooded site. “Ideally, what we’d like to do is have the cabins be representative of different cultures of different cultures from around the world. That’s still in the plans.”

The initial plans, which included a large meeting center, were scaled back considerably, after neighbors objected on environmental grounds. But there was another element in local opposition – some people suggested that a Muslim youth camp could be infiltrated by terrorists. The Muslim community dismisses that fear as groundless. Mansoor Ali, a civil engineer who raised three sons in Cedar Rapids, heads the camp planning group.

“This is freedom of speech, they have every right to speak whatever they like,” he said in an interview after Friday prayers at the Islamic Center. “And we have every right to let them know that we are good people, we are nice people. And I always believe the love thy neighbor concept. So, hopefully, some of the misunderstanding will be resolved or will evaporate soon, once we begin.”

For now, the controversy is resolved. The camp’s lease of federal land was approved, and building may begin as soon as this summer – for the next generation of Muslims growing up in Iowa.