Building Pittsburgh Community
By Farah Iman
a student writer of
Prof. Meyer of ENGWRT 1330
Spring-green leaves bursting from buckled boughs frame Bigelow Boulevard in the Schenley Farm Historic District. And the once scrawny sweetgums, red oaks, hawthorns and maples now cast shadows over large Revival-style homes. At the corner of Bigelow and Parkman Avenue, the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh (ICP) stands out amid lookalikes of Georgian homes, Italian villas and Tudor cottages. Its brown-brick structure is short and boxy. From the outside, it lacks the warmth of the many hip-and-gable roofed houses surrounding it, but it is the heart of the Muslim community of Pittsburgh. Since its founding in the early 1980s, the ICP has contributed to the growth of many Muslim individuals – Tahmina Ahmed is one of them.
Straight dark brown hair frames Tahmina’s round and lightly dimpled face – the kind of face that looks cheerful even when she’s not smiling. Her small stature and soft voice might lead you to assume that she’s a timid teenager, but she speaks unabashedly about her opinions, and her well-spoken thoughts prove otherwise. And while she happily accepts being labelled “cute” and “sweet” – “I’d be Frosted Flakes if I was a cereal” – she’s not a high school student as many strangers assume, but a 22-year-old married woman with a full-time job as a Legal Administrative Assistant at Steele Schneider. At her office in downtown Pittsburgh, she assists in cases that mostly involve the welfare of children with disabilities who have been mistreated by school authorities. This kind of work is just a touch of what Tahmina enjoys doing: “I have a passion for helping people understand and being more inclusive.”
Tahmina stands out and she’s used to it. As a practicing Muslim and the daughter of Uzbek immigrants, she has always been the minority. She is the only Muslim that Steele Schneider has ever employed, and she was one of only two Muslims in a class of 375 students in Shaler High School of North Hills, Pittsburgh. Because of her position, Tahmina made it a point to get involved in school, particularly when it came to social justice. She participated in the student council, frequently spreading awareness about diversity in a mostly non-Muslim, Caucasian student body. “People knew me for that,” she said.
After graduating high school, Tahmina continued to play an active role in Student Government as the president of her class at Chatham University. But her involvement went beyond school. During her senior year, she interned at The Global Switchboard, an organization that helps refugees and immigrants become integrated into the Pittsburgh community. It is a cause close to home because of her parents’ backgrounds.
Tahmina’s parents were born in Uzbekistan and raised in Afghanistan before fleeing to India during the Soviet-Afghan war in 1987. Two years later, they moved to the United States, settling in Flushing, New York, where Tahmina’s father continued his work as an oriental rug weaver. At home, he has a collection of at least 100 rugs from Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Uzbekistan, which he repairs and dyes for a living.
It was his job as a rug weaver which brought Tahmina’s family to Pittsburgh in 2005. He was offered a better business opportunity with a new partner. It was one he decided to pursue because it meant he’d be able to provide more for his young family. But it hasn’t been easy. In the beginning, Tahmina’s parents and older siblings struggled to assimilate because there wasn’t a large Uzbek or Afghani community in Pittsburgh. “It was easier to find people of our own [background in New York]. My father’s side of the family are all there.” The transition was made even more difficult when her father was betrayed by his business partners on multiple occasions, eventually costing him his job. He currently does freelance work, depending on an unsteady stream of clients.
Despite being minorities, Tahmina and her family connected with the local community through ICP like many other Muslims in Pittsburgh. “My family grew up going to ICP. I went to Sunday school there.” It was during her Sunday school lessons, that she was taught the Arabic alphabet, Quranic verses and stories about the Prophet Muhammad; it was also where she got to know the majority of her female Muslim friends.
Even though Tahmina doesn’t go to ICP as often as she used to as child and college student, she believes the ICP plays an important role in the Muslim community of Pittsburgh, especially since 2015 when Wasi Mohamed became ICP’s new Executive Director. According to Tahmina, the administration of ICP had mostly consisted of old men, out of touch with the youths, and Wasi’s decision to take over after graduating from Pitt was very much welcomed. “He’s young and I think that’s what ICP needs – young, new, fresh people.” He has since established a new youth leadership program with the aim of revitalizing ICP’s role in uniting the Muslim community and encouraging Muslim youths to volunteer. “ICP doesn’t really get a lot of funding so [Wasi] needs volunteers to help bring the Muslim community back together.” It seems to be effective as there are many Pitt students involved in ICP’s various programs, such as its Food Pantry – all six of its Volunteer Coordinators are current Pitt students.
Mariam Shalaby, a friend of Tahmina, is one of these students. Mariam and her family have been active members of ICP since they moved to Pittsburgh from Nebraska in 2000. Because they moved here when she was still a young child, Mariam has had the privilege of seeing how ICP has changed over the years. “The thing about ICP is that it is always evolving,” she said. “I think it depends who the administration is.”
During Mariam’s childhood, it was mostly parents who ran ICP, which meant that there were a lot of fun activities for her to do: summer camps, kayak, rock climbing and joining ICP’s Girl Scouts troop. ICP was an integral part of her childhood. “Some of my best memories are sitting outside of ICP eating ice-cream after Maghrib and playing cards.”
Even though Mariam loves ICP, she admits that they weren’t always that great. In fact, Mariam’s parents sent her to Sunday School at the Muslim Community Center of Greater Pittsburgh (MCCGP) in Monroeville, instead of ICP. “My mum did not want us to go to ICP Sunday school because it was very disorganized,” said Mariam. “You’d walk in and you’d see kids running around everywhere. The basement used to be carpeted and imagine having people down there with food – very gross.” It was disorganized, and yet, people still loved it. “It was like going to your grandma’s messy home. You will always go back because you love it so much and you love the people there.”
Like Tahmina, Mariam thinks that ICP has improved in recent years, and she had only good things to say about Wasi taking over ICP’s administration: “He implemented a lot of really good change. I think putting someone young in a leadership position at the masjid, specifically Wasi, really breathed some new life into [ICP]. We have a lot more initiatives, like political engagement and engagement with the outside community.”
Tall windows line the sides of ICP’s building, giving way for sunshine to warm the ruby-red carpeting of its prayer hall. By one of these windows, Wasi, the 25-year-old Executive Director of ICP, sits cross-legged in black sweatpants and a hoodie. He fingers his car keys as he talks to three young women sitting with him. “[ICP] started up around the early 1980s,” he said. “Most of the Muslim organizations in the country started from [Muslim Student Associations] – local college students who wanted to build organizations and stay. So, the original founders of this center were that.”
The Islamic Community of Pittsburgh started off as just a one-bedroom apartment on Atwood Street. As its community grew, they moved around Oakland several times. Before moving to the Schenley Farm Historic District, they had been in a building on Forbes Avenue, where Skyview now stands. Even though they’ve occupied the current building for over 20 years, their old sign could still be seen on Forbes Avenue up until a few years ago.
ICP started off being run by Muslim youths, and today, the administration is back in young hands. Wasi was only 22-years-old when he became ICP’s Executive Director, starting work just a day after graduation, and he’s leading ICP in a new direction. “Wasi has done a lot of things that have to do with sociopolitical action and public representation in the political climate that we have now, which is really excellent. And he’s brought in a lot of outside interns to work at ICP and made us into an active non-profit organization that serves other people,” said Mariam.
A new space that ICP is trying to move into is leadership development. In Wasi’s eyes, developing potential leaders is essential for the long-term health of Pittsburgh’s Muslim community. “Islamically, leadership is very important and without having trained leaders, it limits our institution. So, we want a system in place so that whenever people are interested in becoming leaders in the community, they can learn all the lessons they need and once they’re done with the program, we’ll come up with opportunities.”
One of the ways that Wasi will be doing this is through ICP’s Islamic Leadership Model, or Ilm for short (fun fact: it also means knowledge in Arabic.) “We’re trying to figure out a way to standardize our leadership teaching and make sure we have something for each level,” said Wasi. This means having programs for young adults like Mariam, who are old enough to take on serious community issues but young enough for active work, and providing training for ICP’s Board of Directors, who are mostly older, working adults with families.
Next year, he plans on opening a refugee-focused youth center in North Side, Pittsburgh. According to Wasi, there are about 400 Muslim refugees who have resettled in Northview Heights, most of which are Somali-Bantu Muslims who fled war-ridden Somalia. But “they don’t necessarily get along that well [with the rest of the local community]. We’re hoping to create a leadership program that [will] bridge the gap a bit.”
But Wasi isn’t just about implementing new ideas – he values ICP’s traditions as well and plans on keeping them going, especially during Ramadhan, the ninth month of the Islamic Calendar.
Ramadhan is the holiest month of the year for most Muslims because they believe that this was when the holy Quran was first brought down to the Prophet Muhammad. In celebration of this, Ramadhan is observed as a month of fasting, according to the five pillars of Islam.
93% of 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide fast throughout Ramadhan from morning twilight (Fajr) to evening twilight (Maghrib). The term ‘Ramadhan’ comes from the Arabic phrase ar-ramaḍ, which means scorching heat or dryness, in reference to the thirst Muslim adherents tend to feel as they fast. You might think this obligation is crazy if you were living in places such as north of the Arctic Circle and south of the Antarctic Circle, where the sun is sometimes visible for 24 hours. How could anyone survive fasting for days on end? But Muslims in these parts of the world fast according to Mecca’s time zones.
In recent years, Ramadhan has fallen during the summer in Pittsburgh, meaning Muslims here fast for about 16 hours each day. Many of them will break their fast together at ICP where food is provided for everyone every single night of Ramadhan. That’s between 300 and 600 people a night, for 30 days straight. It’s a hectic month for Wasi because it means non-stop work for him, but he tries his best to make it fun for everyone by incorporating ICP’s diversity – “there are over 45 nationalities represented at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh [during weekly Friday prayers] – into the Ramadhan dinners. “We’ll have India–Pakistani night, Indonesian Night or Somali Night. And everyone from the community comes and cooks their traditional dishes. I love it,” he said.
With over 45 nationalities to choose from, Wasi would love to have at least one country’s traditional food served each night, but it’s difficult. Some populations are not that big and just because people are here doesn’t mean they know how to cook.
In between laughs, Wasi recalls how he took over the kitchen with his friends during the previous Ramadhan. “Last year, me and a group of guys just decided we wanted to do a day and try to cook, and it was just a mish-mash because all of us were from different countries and everyone just wanted to make sure they had a dish [of their own]. It was a bunch of random stuff — it was hilarious.”
ICP’s Ramadhan traditions aren’t just meaningful to the local community who have grown up in Pittsburgh, but international students who are far from home as well. Yasmeen*, a Pitt student from United Arab Emirates (UAE), is one of hundreds of Muslims who breaks their fast at ICP every night. Instead of going home, she decided to stay in Pittsburgh over summer to do some research. “Last year was the first time I spent Ramadhan away from family. I was definitely scared.”
For many Muslims, Ramadhan is a special month, not just because of its religious significance, but because it means spending more time with family. All Muslims break their fast at the same time, so most families will eat together more often than usual. After dinner, tarawih prayers are usually done as a congregation, either at home or more commonly, at the mosque. It was this and the spirit of Ramadhan that comes from fasting and praying together that Yasmeen worried she’d miss last summer. “I don’t care that much for the food – I can make food at home – but the fact that I wouldn’t have any place to go for tarawih, that would suck. And you don’t feel like it’s Ramadhan until you see other people also fasting.” Luckily, Yasmeen found what she needed at ICP. “It was really nice because all the families would come and eat food. Everyone is really happy, then you pray together, then you eat more food together.”
It has also become part of ICP’s tradition to hold Eid al-Fitr celebrations on Flagstaff Hill, where about 2000 Muslims congregate to celebrate their 30 days of fasting. To Fathima, this was the best part of staying in Pittsburgh over the summer.
In the early summer morning, rows upon rows of Muslims could be seen on Flagstaff Hill. Their colorful bodies, clad in different traditional outfits from around the world, moved in synchrony as everyone followed the guidance of their Imam at the front of the congregation. Non-Muslims passing by, either leaving or going to the Phipps Conservatory would stop and stare. Hesitated. Then walked over and asked, “What’s going on?” Fathima recalls, everyone was more than happy to explain and invited these strangers to join in the fun. Given the negative way that Muslims are portrayed in American media, Fathima was pleasantly surprised that so many Muslims were able to celebrate so openly in a public space, without any backlash. “It was beautiful. I was feeling so good that it was possible for people to have fun in an open area. Families and kids [were] playing — we had bouncy castles, they had food trucks, ice-cream. They had animals there – goats, chickens – for the kids to play with. There was a turkey walking around. It was a good experience.”
For over 20 years, the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh has proven to be a much-loved place of congregation for the Muslim community of Pittsburgh. “If there wasn’t an ICP, it’d be bad. I’m very glad they exist.”
*Her name has been changed to provide anonymity.
Disclaimer: the narrative expressed in the article is solely those of the author(s).
However, if you find this story offensive or inaccurate in any way, please contact us for (re)moderation. Please make sure your phone# is accurate to receive our call.