When I contacted Mohammed Labadi, Islamic Center of DeKalb president, to ask whether I could interview a local Muslim family, so I could learn how they live here and are accepted in the community, I knew little about their religion or how they would respond.
Then I was invited into the home of the Alkarzon family in the 500 block of Normal Road and spent a pleasant afternoon talking with the patriarch, Awni, and his wife, Manal, along with three of their five children, Nour, Hend and Bashar.
Being interested in finding out how they have adapted to life here, which must be drastically different from their homeland – the Gaza Strip in Palestine, I hardly knew where to begin.
Awni and Manal both have their Ph.Ds, his first one earned in India in American literature, then a second Ph.D. in higher education at Northern Illinois University. She finished her Ph.D. in instructional technology last May.
He works in the Division of International Affairs at NIU, marketing the university to foreign students who are seeking an education in American colleges. I was surprised to learn there are more than 1,500 foreign students now at NIU. Before coming here, he was director of the Palestinian American Cultural Center in Palestine. Now, he and Manal have become U.S. citizens.
Talking with their children, I found that two of them graduated from DeKalb High School and are now in college – Nour, a junior at NIU, and Hend, a freshman at Kishwaukee College.
Their one son, Bashar, is a junior at DeKalb High School, and his sister, Maha, who was attending a Bulls game in Chicago that day, is a freshman.
Their other son, Mohammed, attends Jefferson Elementary School, where they told me most of the foreign families send their younger children. That school, plus DeKalb High School, have English-as-a-second-language programs, which are a great help to kids entering school after moving here from abroad.
There is so much I wanted to ask them, so I started with how they are treated and accepted in the DeKalb community. They all cited positive experiences they have encountered, friendly outreach from the Network of Nations – where they were first greeted upon arrival – and no problem renting a house, shopping and getting acclimated to life in a small college community.
Awni explained it is so different from the violence and crowded conditions on the Gaza Strip, which has a population of 2 million living on land the size of Washington, D.C. They really have appreciated the open spaces here – the trees, the spacious green lawns and parks, which don’t exist where they lived in Palestine.
There is so much more I want to share about them and their religious practices. Questions about the women’s head scarf, called a hijab, and how they are able to pray five times a day while in school. So this will be covered next week in a second installment.
Correction from last week’s column: The email address for Sarah Moses is firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Barry Schrader can be reached via email at email@example.com or at P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL 60115. His website is www.dekalbcountylife.com.