Tri-Faith Initiative campus

THE TRI-FAITH INITIATIVE campus, which encompasses congregations of the three Abrahamic faiths, is located near 132nd and Pacific streets in Omaha.

It’s just a bridge, but it represents so much more.

The structure, christened Abraham’s Bridge, connects three congregations in Omaha by providing a pathway over a stream named Hell Creek, interestingly enough.

The unconventional campus near 132nd and Pacific streets in Omaha is known as the Tri-Faith Initiative and brings together Islam, Jewish and Christian congregations. Its final worship center, Countryside Community Church, was built this year to complete the collaboration.

Already, its events have brought many together: At least 400 of differing faiths and backgrounds attended a picnic in August, according to the Omaha World-Herald.

As narratives with harmful stereotypes about Muslims persist in America, Muslims living in Nebraska seek to make their voices heard and spotlight their communities through efforts like the Tri-Faith Initiative.

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Although Muslims have been living in Nebraska for decades, many who are not living in those communities have likely had limited or no interaction with them. Yet many are active and contributing members to their communities.

Balkissa Mahamane and her husband, Dr. Zouladeny, have been living in Omaha for 11 years. She works at the Kiewit Corp. as a business transformations analyst, where she’s steadily climbed the ladder.

“I don’t feel like I was discriminated for (religion),” she said about her workplace. “It feels very comfortable to be able to grow professionally while practicing (Islam).”

Balkissa Mahamane’s taken these opportunities and run with them: She has master’s degrees in business administration and education. She’s passionate about making both people’s lives and business processes better. And she consults on the side through Excellence Insights Consulting, while volunteering for the Islamic Center of Omaha, New Leaders Council, Omaha Jaycees and SCORE Mentors Omaha.

Being Muslim hasn’t held her back professionally — but she said lack of awareness about Islam can sometimes cause a strain on her family life, for instance, taking personal time for holidays.

“For professionals during the holidays, I have to take PTO, which is hard for your children being sick or snow days,” she said. “Raising kids at home, too, you have to overcompensate for that.”

Muslim communities in Omaha are growing, said Adnan Waheed, who has lived in the city since 1999.

“I like it, since we’ve moved to the U.S., we’ve been in Omaha the whole time,” he said. “I feel like it’s a good place for family. Omaha isn’t too small or too big. We’ve seen the community develop.”

Waheed, the president of the Islamic Center of Omaha, sees this growth from the increase of Islamic centers in the city. When he arrived, there was one, and now there are at least four. The Islamic Center of Omaha also has expanded to meet community needs.

Mosques can serve as important community centers, said Nowairah Syed, although not all Muslims attend regularly. Syed has lived in Omaha for 2½ years, and she’s also lived in areas where the nearest mosque was at least a 45-minute drive. She felt more isolated and less supported in those places.

“There is a need to establish mosques in faraway areas where you’re the only one. It does make a big difference for me personally,” she said. “I cannot speak on behalf of everybody. I’m not going to call myself a devout. But I would say I’m a little bit of a spiritual — I’m a community person.

“Worshipping in the Islamic Center, being aligned with people makes a big difference on your faith.”

Having nearby mosques was a factor in the decision by Syed and her husband to come to Omaha.

“For me and my husband, it’s a dealbreaker if there’s not a mosque there. … The community dinners and events, weekend program, youth programs, those kind of things nourish me,” she said.

“You start on your level to make a change”

Despite the fact that Muslim communities have been a part of Omaha for decades, the city hasn’t had political representation from a Muslim. Syed believes this will change as younger Muslims become more involved in politics, which can be seen on both the national level and at local levels in other states.

Omaha also has a leadership development program called the New Leaders Council, and the 2019 cohort includes two Muslim fellows. Balkissa Mahamane, one of the 2019 fellows, said local political involvement from Muslim communities is small but growing.

Through the program, Balkissa Mahamane is learning more about the Omaha progressive community, which she said is accepting of all people from the whole spectrum of life and personal choices.

“My philosophy in life is just you do what you can to change an issue and you start on your level to make a change,” she said. “… I started getting more involved in the community here. I can’t speak of the community as an expert; I think I’m learning.”

Issues that Muslims face in Omaha include the fact that the two official Islamic holidays aren’t recognized: Eid Al-Fitr and Eid Al-Adha. Eid Al-Fitr is celebrated at the end of Ramadan in May, and Eid Al-Adha is celebrated on the 10th day of Dhu al-Hijjah when Hajj (pilgrimage) takes place and lasts for four days. Since the holidays are based on the lunar calendar, the date changes from year to year.

Syed said the widespread lack of awareness about Muslim holidays can make family gatherings difficult when their children don’t have school off.

“People overlook small communities — the Muslim holidays,” she said. “All my friends, we can’t take our kids out because the Islamic calendar is on the lunar calendar and the holidays fall on a different date.”

Local lawmakers have started to listen to Muslim communities more recently, said Samia Eltouny, who has lived in Omaha since 1995.

“Two (political) candidates came to the American Muslim Institute and they introduced themselves and wanted to learn, so even though there aren’t Muslim representatives, people are more understanding,” she said. “They were very open to listening.”

While attitudes toward Muslims in Omaha are mostly positive, more awareness of Islam is still needed, she said.

Waheed echoed those sentiments and said in his experience in Nebraska, people haven’t opposed Islamic practices but they have limited contact with Muslims. For example, he was one of the first Muslims at his school and his classmates didn’t know about practices like praying during the day or fasting during Ramadan.

He said more awareness would help improve attitudes toward Muslims, who have long been stereotyped and misunderstood. This is evident in national issues in the past few years, such as Executive Order 13769, known as the Muslim travel ban. The order was in effect from January to March 2017 and suspended refugee admissions as well as travelers from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

“When Muslims are out there, organized where people are seeing them, there are opportunities for clarification; the hope is that Muslim voices are heard and we’re part of the community,” Waheed said. “If you have representation on a platform like that, you can hopefully get some things heard from your side rather than have others make decisions for you.”

Unifying against stereotypes

While the Muslims interviewed for this project said they generally have had limited encounters with bigoted or hateful remarks in Omaha, they have still experienced a few incidents. Syed said in September 2016 — when she and her husband first arrived in Nebraska — a man at a gas station approached her husband and started a profanity-laden tirade against her.

“I came out of the car and suddenly a thin guy comes by and he starts a tirade of profanity: ‘Your friend’s a bad person, she’s going to blow you up … she’s a traitor, how can you trust her, how can you let her be near you guys,’ ” she said. “I’m just standing there frozen.”

They got in their car and left, and the incident didn’t escalate from there. But it left her shaken.

“I lived in America 20-some years. This is my second or third time in my whole life to go through this,” she said. “... I don’t get shook really easy. This was very different.”

To address misinformed and harmful narratives about Muslims, mosque leaders in Omaha have been hosting events open to anyone to learn more about Islam. And perhaps the most ambitious project aimed at unifying different communities in the area is the Tri-Faith Initiative.

The initiative combines leaders from the Abrahamic faiths — the faiths descended from the Judaism of the ancient Israelites and the worship of the God of Abraham — in a unique collaboration. The organization’s members are Jewish, Christian and Islamic: Temple Israel, Countryside Community Church and The American Muslim Institute.

Its mission is to challenge people to be more knowledgeable and accepting of other faiths, and create a more inclusive culture. The idea germinated after Sept.11, 2001, said Dr. Imam Mohamad Jamal Daoudi of the American Muslim Institute. It started with building neighboring temples and sharing a parking lot and grew from there.

“The first congregation started after 9/11 when the Jewish community from Temple Israel came to show solidarity and support for the Muslim community. That’s when the relationship started and continued,” he said. “... The relationship developed later on to even bigger vision to have a third party, a Christian church. Try to build their temple on that same land and live together as neighbors.”

They found a Jewish golf course that wasn’t used at 132nd and Pacific streets, bought the 38-acre property and started development with Temple Israel finishing seven years ago, the American Muslim Institute a couple years ago and Countryside Community Church opening in May.

The adjoining temples have only increased positive relations among the congregations, Daoudi said. The Tri-Faith Initiative is run by a board with members from each community, and there are now numerous events to encourage interaction, including an adult education program.

“Being on the same land, on the same campus … added more value and different taste to the whole experience,” he said. “The activity never stopped (before). Now it is even more that the community feels so comfortable visiting each other.”

The American Muslim Institute also reaches out to the larger Omaha community by inviting groups to tour the premises and educating others on Islam. Anyone who is interested can contact the organization for a tour, Daoudi said.

These kinds of connections, Daoudi believes, will help people see Muslim communities for what they are, instead of through a lens of fear. He encourages those who haven’t ever had a conversation with a Muslim to reach out and learn more about their life.

“Muslims have been here for a long time, contributing ... to their city, to their state, to the whole country, in different professions: engineering, IT, medical,” he said. “We are through Tri-Faith becoming more visible, more interactive.

“Hopefully that will contribute to the betterness of the whole social life and the whole culture.”

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