Being Muslim in Middlebury: Community members tell what it’s like for them in Trump’s America

MIDDLEBURY — Beau Scurich is an American; he grew up in California, like his parents and grandparents.
But as a Muslim — he is co-chaplain with his wife, Naila Baloch, at Middlebury College — Scurich was deeply wounded when President Donald Trump banned entry to the United States from seven Muslim countries and banned Syrian refugees indefinitely.
“After the executive order of the ban, it was the first time in my life that I began to question my place here in the United States,” Scurich told an audience of more than 150 people Sunday in Middlebury. “My parents were born here. My parents’ parents were born here. But sort of coming to terms with (the fact) that maybe a third or a half of this country really wishes I wasn’t here (has) brought up a certain inner turmoil.”
Scurich and Baloch were joined by fellow Addison County residents Farhad Khan and Ata Anzali in a forum held at the Congregational Church of Middlebury and organized as a series of Community Conversations by the Rev. Andrew Nagy-Benson of the Congregational Church and Emily Joselson, a board member at Havurah, the local Jewish community.
The goal of the series is to help people in the community get to know each other. The focus of this forum was the community’s Muslim members.
“We’re here to learn and to listen and to share,” Joselson told the crowd, explaining that the series “grew out of our concern about how to move forward as a country all the way down to a community with such drastically different perspectives on who we are and what community means.
“So one of the things we decided we wanted to do first off was get to know all of us better.”
Nagy-Benson initiated the discussion by asking the panelists if their sense of well-being as American Muslims had been affected by recent events. The responses highlighted both an increasing tension experienced by the panelists as well as an outpouring of support from the local community.
“Since the election results,” Baloch started, “I think a lot of Muslim students were afraid of being known as Muslims visibly, or sometimes afraid not for themselves but for other people.”
Baloch said the shifting political climate has affected her sense of “security in my place,” and noted that it reminds her of the shifts in public opinion after 9/11.
“I think after the election, and especially after the ban, a similar sense came up for me,” said Baloch, who is a green card holder and is married to a native-born U.S. citizen. “Even though technically I’m allowed to live in the country and it shouldn’t be a problem, internally I feel that anything could happen and that maybe there isn’t space for me here.”
Anzali is a professor of religion at Middlebury College and lives in Weybridge with his family. He and his family were tripped up by the travel ban when they tried to return from a research trip to Iran, even though the Iranian native holds a U.S. green card that shows he and his family had been vetted by the U.S. State Department.
At the forum, Anzali described his deepening connection to Addison County over the years he and his family have lived here.
   EMILY JOSELSON ADDRESSES a crowd of more than 150 at the Congregational Church of Middlebury Sunday evening during a forum on Muslims in Addison County. 
“Because of moving to this really wonderful community, I had started to feel like … ‘this is your home, this is where people receive you warmly and greet you kindly and they want you’re here,’” he said.
The ban hit him, said Anzali, “in my heart, like there was a danger of frost, basically that there was really a danger of ‘well, maybe I don’t belong here.’”
Khan, is outgoing president of the Vermont Islamic Society and owner of Middlebury’s One Dollar Market on Court Street. He has lived in the United States for 26 years, 25 in Vermont. He said he had never experienced intolerance in Vermont until recently.
“About six months ago, my wife she’s driving down the street on Court Street and somebody pulls up next to her and rolls down the window and they say, ‘Go home you terrorist,’” he recounted. “In the past six to seven months, I know of six to seven incidents of bigotry that I can document right now, not just against Muslims, but against Havurah, against somebody who is of color, against everybody.”
Each panelist stressed the incredible outpouring of support they have received and how it’s reaffirmed their sense of belonging and helped them regain a sense of equilibrium as an American.
Khan described how hate mail that’s come to the Islamic Society was followed by “a couple of thousands of postcards in our mosque saying nothing but love.
“There’s an organization called Love Brigade in Vermont and they’re sending postcards to all the mosques in the country with just hearts on them. So that’s one of the positives,” Khan said.
He then drew laughs from the crowd when he added, “The other positive I’ve seen: I get a lot of hugs now in my store. I have people come and give me hugs. I feel I’m so blessed.”
Scurich also appreciates the positive feelings that have re-integrated him into the community.
“I was feeling a little bit separated and a touch isolated,” he said. “But within days there was just such a flood of support that I felt that the power of community support, people reaching out, had a profound affect on me. It was almost like people would not allow me to be separated from my community, which was very powerful.”
A theme among the questions and answers was how to keep America an open and welcoming society and how to counter the kinds of fear and misinformation that lead to anti-Muslim sentiment.
Khan made a plea.
“I don’t want people to assume who I am. I want people to see who I am,” he said. “This is so important for us.”
One answer was for people of different faiths to work to understand each other better.
Scurich, for example, addressed the often-misunderstood Islamic concept of “jihad” and explained that it comes from an Arabic root meaning to “exert” or “struggle.”
“What it means in the lives of Muslims is something of an inner struggle to be a better human being. That is the jihad for 99 percent of Muslims,” he said. “That is the jihad that they live with on a daily basis. Going to bed at one in the morning and then trying to get up and do your morning prayers: a jihad.”
Khan noted the importance in Islamic tradition of “taking care of your neighbors … If one of your neighbors goes hungry, you are responsible.”
Several panelists also offered the observation that the “clash of civilizations” narrative of “the West vs. Islam” promulgated since 9/11 is also itself misleading.
“In terms of people I knew in Pakistan and people I knew in America (at the time of 9/11) that was not true,” Baloch said. “People are people everywhere. It’s not that there is some kind of deep ideological clash that people can never come together. So I think for me it was important that people like me who knew both worlds talk to both sides and try to build bridges.
“And I think many people are doing this in many different ways. More and more, each one of us in whatever capacity can be a bridge. We can do that.”
Scurich said it was important for individuals not just to be publicly active, but also to have the courage to assess themselves.
“We need to take charge of our own hearts and what is inside of us and to purify what we are reflections of, where maybe we are afraid or have a tendency to move toward hatred in any subtle way,” he said.
Several audience members emphasized how important it is for those in a place of majority or privilege to speak out.
“Knowing and loving people who are from a different group than we are really helps bridge those gaps,” said the Rev. Susan McGarry of St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, drawing parallels between those in a religious minority and the experience of gays and lesbians.
The panelists all expressed their willingness to engage in similar dialogues with groups across Vermont and to reach out to other groups of colleagues and to neighbors, building bridges one by one.
Khan said that in recent months the Islamic Society had received a flood of requests for guest speakers, from around the state.
“There is a responsibility for both Muslims and the larger community to make connections,” said Anzali. “I have to make more connections, I have to reach out more to help people realize I’m human, I’m a Muslim, I’m not a threat to you. And then likewise the community has to reach out.
“This is going to change from the grass roots … We have to make one connection at a time.”
Reflecting on Sunday’s forum as he and Joselson begin planning the next communitywide discussion, Nagy-Benson said: “The project of getting to know each other is not new. The challenge of talking with people of different faiths and backgrounds is not new. But in times like this, a renewed commitment to increase our perspectives and to dismantle stereotypes can be an antidote to division, locally and nationally.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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