My name is Wasan Abu Baker. I am a Muslim woman and community leader, advocate for the Syrian refugees, FIRM staff member, Sunday school teacher and currently a fellow of AFSC Pan Valley’s Tamejavi Cultural Organizer Fellowship Program (TCOFP).
This has been a great year for me and my other Muslim women friends in
Fresno as well as the other diverse women in our community whom I have mostly met through my fellowship at AFSC’s Pan Valley Institute. Women in Fresno created stories of success and great accomplishments were manifested throughout the year from local community events to internationally recognized community events and Fresno was very proud to hear about a diverse group of women’s migration journeys at the recent International Women’s Day Forum and Rally hosted by AFSC Pan Valley Institute of Fresno.
Women play a great role in Islam. Islam is one of the main three religions who respect women. Islam talks about women’s rights throughout the history and Muslim women were essential members in building the Muslim society and still are today. Participating in AFSC Pan Valley Institute’s International Women’s Day this past March was very special and meaningful to me and my other fellow Muslim sisters who also took part in the event such as Deema Kashak, a young Syrian refugee who I met when Deema and her family moved to Fresno last May of 2016. Deema’s family was the second Syrian family who arrived in Fresno. Community members showed love and support to the Kashak family and Deema was able to find Muslim friends easily. I met Deema and her family and could tell from the first time we met that they had great stories to share with me; leaving Syria wasn’t easy, it’s hard to forget, they lost a lot but, they have lots of memories to share. I met Deema and her mother at different times. The first connection with Deema and her mom is the language we share. It’s not hard for me to start a conversation with them. My Arabic language and sharing the same religion with them smoothed the relationship and made it easy to discuss different topics.
My own perspective regarding Deema from the different times we met is that she is learning how to be a lady and she has a sweet personality, she is polite, educated, great speaker, respectful to her parents, shy, yet friendly with people. She is the oldest sister, her mom’s second hand, the respectful daughter to her dad and I always see her smiling. That’s what makes her special.
“Deema,” I told her once, “I want you to be proud of your parents,” she said, “I am, and I will work hard to make them proud of me, but I want to preserve my own identity, as a Muslim young girl in the US.” “It’s not easy,” I replied, “but you can, Deema. You can remain Muslim and you can preserve your Arabic language, Headscarf, Islamic manners and Syrian culture, but Deema, it’s important for us to integrate to the American society, it’s not an easy process, it’s a stepping stone. Muslim women can still keep all of these points and can also be effective, productive ambassadors to their community.”
“Deema you are an ambassador to a lot of the Syrian young girls in our community, you earned the skills to take on this honorable role and you can also add to those skills from interacting with people who can guide you, mentor you. I don’t want you to lose hope. You will still remain Syrian. These are your roots but, you need to build the self-belonging to this new life here. We all miss our countries but, we need to start our new life which will not end. It should continue and grow.” Deema understood and said she will move forward in all of this but she stated that she wants to begin the first step through her main focus which is to continue her education. She is a fast learner. Within a few months she speaks very good English and she has already a good friend at school, Kathleen, who I introduced her to when Kathleen contacted me asking me to introduce her to a Syrian family. Our families now enjoy a friendship through the sharing of our cultures during dinners, get-togethers and sharing of stories.
When planning for our upcoming International Women’s Day event, Myrna Martinez, the director of American Friends Service Committee’s Pan Valley Institute shared with me her interest in inviting a Syrian speaker to our Women’s International Day event on March 8th. Without hesitation, Deema was my choice. She was ready to speak in public at Fresno City Hall and share her own story as a young Syrian refugee and young Muslim student in Fresno and this is what she shared.
“My name is Deema Kashak. I was born in 1/5/2003 the city of Homs in Syria.
We lived in Homs until 2012 and then we fled to Jordan after the Syrian Civil war started in 2011.
I have one brother and one sister.
I was raised in a very nice family environment.
My family arrived to the US last May as Syrian refugees.
We have been living in Fresno for the last 11 months.
I am a student at Kastner Middle school. The school system here is very different from the school system in Syria! I am exposed to more diverse groups here and it’s been a great learning experience for me.
I am trying to build my own identity here as a Muslim Syrian girl by preserving my own culture, language, religion, and my Syrian identity.
I enjoy learning! I love my school and my friends!
I have a dream to become a successful Syrian Muslim woman in the US!
When we arrived in Fresno, many people helped; my aunt and her friends from the community, Muslims and non-Muslims helped us. Everyone helped us in so many different ways. They helped us go to school, make friends, and connected us to the Community centers.
My parents both are working hard to provide us with what we need, I am very proud of them because moving to the US and learning a new language and integrating to American society is not easy. My parents are working hard to adapt to the new life here; we lost everything in Syria and came here to start from zero to rebuild our new lives. One of my goals is to finish my education and help my family! I want my parents to be proud of me because they are working very hard to support me and my other siblings to be productive members in our community.
This is just the beginning of my story.
Thank you for inviting me, I am honored to be here today to tell my story as a young Muslim woman in Fresno.”
As AFSC Pan Valley Institute’s International Women’s Day event neared, I checked in with Deema the day before and assured her that she was ready for her speech and that she would do great. I also shared with her how much I was proud of her.
I also went to her school and I asked them to allow her to attend the event. I gave them the flyer and they were amazed. The school felt proud of her. On our way to Fresno City Hall, I reassured Deema how important this will be to her, to her future. I told her that she was special that day because she was the youngest speaker with an important story to share. Deema did great when she spoke. She represented herself as a young Syrian refugee girl from the Muslim community. She told me that she felt that she could do it again and will work to earn more skills to be a better speaker. At the end of the day, I took Deema home and my family and I stayed for dinner with her family. Her parents were proud of her. Her father, Thafir Kashak, asked if he would see his beautiful daughter on the news. Deema went to school the next day and the school teacher asked her how she was picked to give a speech at Fresno City Hall and Deema said, “It’s through my Aunt, Wasan Abu Baker. She is a friend of my mom’s and of our family. She nominated me to speak at the AFSC’s Women’s International Day event.” Deema’s school and friends are all proud of her and I am very proud of Deema.
Jameela Khan was the other Muslim woman invited to speak at AFSC Pan Valley Institute’s International Women’s Day Forum and Rally. I met Jameela Khan at Fresno’s Islamic youth center: My DEEN. We met as community members and then two years ago, both Jameela and I joined the board of my DEEN. We built a strong relationship together spending hours planning for events with other members, organizing events, building relationships with people in the community and we both played an important role as community organizers and as Sunday school teachers at My Deen. Jameela has a rich background growing up in Kenya and moving to the US with her husband and children as immigrants. I share with Jameela the same story. We are both immigrants. We moved to the US to start our life here with our families. Being Muslim mothers and wives in the US is not an easy process. Our goal is to preserve our Muslim identity, language, culture, while raising our kids to be productive, educated Muslim members in the US.
Through the years in my commitment to volunteer work in the community, I found common things with Jameela. Her strong personality, passion, honesty, and her desire to work with everyone even you disagree with other’s views. This was key in recommending Jameela as an Apprentice Fellow for AFSC Pan Valley Institute’s fellowship last year. Jameela showed interest in the fellowship program and she joined the program as apprentice fellow this year. I was honored to work with her outside the Muslim community. As always, Jameela is the person who is ready to be wherever she needs to be. She was chosen to be one of the speakers as well at the International Women’s Day at Fresno City Hall hosted by AFSC Pan Valley Institute on March 8th this year. The director of the organization Myrna Martinez encouraged her to express her own story as a Muslim immigrant in the US and of the challenges she has faced through her journey.
On the day of the International Women’s Day event, Jameela was passionate, nervous, proud and very happy. She told me she felt that this was important for our community to represent our story as Muslim women in the Central Valley and that her hope was to encourage more Muslim women from the community to speak and participate more. She is especially aware of how important it is for us as Muslims during this period of time to do more civic engagement and be united with other communities.
Jameela knows that is a stepping stone and that this is not the last opportunity for her; it is only the beginning. She is hoping to do more speeches. She told me that her family is proud of her. Jameela and I always encourage and support each other. I told her that I needed her in this journey as Muslim women immigrants in this country. Last year I was the only Muslim woman with the Hijab, now I have her, Deema Kashak, and Sukhaina Hussain. We are all here for one reason: solidarity and unity with all humanity.