A man stands and prays in the prayer room at the Islamic Center of San Antonio.
A man prays in the prayer room at the Islamic Center of San Antonio. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard report

I was waiting outside a big corporate building for what felt like my 100th interview this year. I wondered if I would be welcomed by a Muslim or perhaps another person of color, but instead was greeted by two white executives. Fifteen minutes later, I was already driving home with the eerie feeling I have come to know too well.

I did not get the job.

I applied for this marketing coordinator job after the “About” page describing the company’s dynamics caught my eye. You know, the paragraph where they talk about how they welcome all races, ethnicities, and religions to apply and how the environment is collaborative, supportive, and dynamic. I thought perhaps my bachelor’s degree in communications, three-year professional history, and extensive freelance work in media relations would be enough, but there just always seems to be something missing.

As diverse as many portray San Antonio to be, many Muslims who live here feel a sense of disconnect and isolation, and that needs to change. As the city grows, the bridge dividing Muslims and others seems to be growing, too, and it’s getting rustier and more ancient.

Sana Sarhara
Sana Harhara Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

A recent story not too different from mine involved a 15 year-old girl, who was denied entry into Cornerstone Christian School based on her Muslim beliefs. She and her father posted a video on Facebook expressing their disappointment with the school’s decision, which received a lot of attention, support – and hate.

Sarwat Hussain, president of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) in San Antonio, in a 2016 article said all 13 mosques in the city regularly receive hate mail and threats, adding that both increased during then-presidential candidate Donald Trump’s campaign. That November, a man was charged with criminal trespassing after he entered the mosque my family and I have been going to since I was little, muddying our prayer rugs, spewing profanity-laced hate speech, and refusing to leave.

Such incidents have become somewhat mundane to us, because to be a Muslim in San Antonio means to be overlooked, undermined, and second-guessed. In a city known to be economically segregated, being part of a minority religion and/or race heightens the struggle, and the issues we face locally are part of a bigger picture.

A Pew Research Center analysis based on a November 2017 case study conducted by the FBI reports that the numbers of assaults against Muslims grew significantly between 2015 and 2016, surpassing a post-9/11 peak in 2001. One such incident occurred close to home when 26-year-old Marq Vincent Perez set fire to a mosque in Victoria, Texas, leaving many Muslims distraught and fearful.

In the second quarter of 2018, CAIR reported it received 1,006 reports of potential bias incidents, with 431 of them containing an identifiable anti-Muslim agenda.

Everyday struggles for young, professional Muslims include finding jobs and places where we fit in as well as injustices we experience from our peers and the elderly. This might sound like most 20-somethings’ crises, but as Muslims, we feel much of it is out of our control.

Older Muslim generations are more reticent about the challenges they face and treat the United States as the symbol it is – the gateway to a better life. According to the U.S. Religious Census, older immigrant Muslims are more satisfied with the treatment of Muslims than younger Muslims who were born in the U.S. Our parents, who after all these years are still trying to adapt and belong, show no real interest in changing the system. But to those of us who were born here or have lived here the majority of our lives, this is home, and we are here to make a change.

The Muslim American Association (MAS) is one organization looking to break the stigma around Muslims. Established in 1993 by Muslim immigrants to the U.S. and Canada, the nonprofit has grown to more than 50 chapters nationwide, including one in San Antonio. Its mission is “to move people to strive for God consciousness, liberty and justice and to convey Islam with utmost clarity.”

I recently attended one of their all-women halaqas (gatherings), which take place several times a month. Around 20 women in scrubs, slacks, and other attire displayed diverse backgrounds and interests but all gathered for one purpose: to spread unity.

As I strolled around the venue, I heard women discuss various topics, from issues at work to Muslim prophets and passages from the Quran and how they relate to trials and tribulations we face today.

I sat down with Aisha Ayad, a nursing student at UT Health San Antonio who has a Master’s in Public Health. She became involved in MAS at a young age and has been a youth director for more than two years.

“MAS is really about improving yourself within,” she said. “All the leadership skills I gathered are from here. I love being a part of this, it’s made me a better person.”

As a youth leader, Ayad provides guidance for younger generations of Muslim girls on how to cope with potential adversity.

“I never had too many crazy prejudice issues in my life, thank God, but a lot of these girls had issues with bullying and self-esteem [and] insecurities when it comes to wearing the hijab, so it’s about being there for them,” she said. “We really are like a sisterhood.”

The organization’s young leaders see the inclusion of non-Muslims as key to diminishing hate and prejudice. MAS frequently partners with other organizations to assist in volunteer efforts such as those related to hurricanes Katrina and Harvey, host open-discussion events for all ethnicities and backgrounds, and march in solidarity with other minorities’ causes.

“We’re not bad people,” Ayan said. “We’re normal people that want to give back to our community just like everyone else. Our vision is a virtuous and just American society for all.”

One way to achieve that is by increasing Muslim representation in law enforcement, the judicial system, and public service.

In the recent midterm election, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota became the first Muslim women in Congress. In Texas, Salman Bhojani, a lawyer who immigrated from Pakistan, just won a seat on the Euless City Council. So Muslims are making strides despite the odds.

In San Antonio and across the U.S., there needs to be a greater effort to include Muslims in the workforce, education, and representation in organizations and government. We are going to school – many of us being the first in our family to reach this milestone; we are voting; and we are concerned citizens. But with a lack of representation and opportunity, we will never be able to pull even with our peers.

We are resilient and realize that the only way to get through the door is not by knocking but by letting ourselves in or building our own door. We are here to stay, because we are already home.