‘SIS­TERS’ TO LEAN ON

For new Mus­lims, Ra­madan is a time of chal­lenge and wel­come

Houston Chronicle - - STAR LIVING - By Mon­ica Rhor

Zully Hussin took her first ten­ta­tive steps to­ward Islam alone.

Hussin, a 38-year-old Latina who had been raised Catholic and turned to Pen­te­costal­ism as a teen, didn’t know any Mus­lims. Yet, as her ques­tions about Chris­tian­ity deep­ened, she felt her­self pulled to­ward the reli­gion.

So Hussin, who lives in Pasadena, took to Google, scour­ing the in­ter­net for in­for­ma­tion. She watched YouTube videos. Or­dered books she spot­ted on web­sites. Ab­sorbed as much as she could about Islam.

In her prayers, she asked God to lead her to the truth — a quest that led her to con­ver­sion and a com­mu­nity of women who helped her nav­i­gate her new­found Is­lamic faith. The “sis­ters” sup­port groups con­nect new con­verts to long­time Mus­lims through What­sApp mes­sages, group text an­nounce­ments and Face­book pages. They of­fer ad­vice on ev­ery­thing from where to buy cul­tur­ally ap­pro­pri­ate clothes to ques­tions about the Qu­ran.

For Hussin and other “baby” Mus­lims, the out­reach has been in­valu­able — es­pe­cially dur­ing the holy month of Ra­madan, which ob­ser­vant Mus­lims mark with in­tro­spec­tion, prayer and a fast from dawn to dusk.

It can be an es­pe­cially dif­fi­cult time for new con­verts, who of­ten feel iso­lated dur­ing the nightly rit­ual of if­tar, when fam­i­lies and friends gather to break fast,

and dur­ing Eid Al-Fitr, the cel­e­bra­tion mark­ing the end of Ra­madan, which is Fri­day.

“We want them to know that they are not alone, that we are with them,” said Sam­ina Khan, pres­i­dent of the sis­ters group for the Hous­ton chap­ter of the Is­lamic Cir­cle of North Amer­ica. “We want them to feel at home.”

About one in five of the roughly 3 mil­lion Mus­lims liv­ing in the U.S. were raised in a dif­fer­ent faith and con­verted to Islam, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter. About half of Mus­lims born in this coun­try, and two-thirds of Amer­i­can­born black Mus­lims, are con­verts.

For many, ac­cept­ing Islam can create a schism with fam­ily mem­bers who prac­tice a dif­fer­ent reli­gion, and hos­til­ity from their pre­vi­ous faith com­mu­nity. The “sis­ters” net­works are a way to step in and fill that void.

Farah Naz, who runs a sup­port group for new con­verts at Brand Lane Is­lamic Cen­ter in Stafford, re­calls be­ing called into the mosque one morn­ing after a new­comer, look­ing for some­one to talk to about Islam, wan­dered in. Naz says she “dropped ev­ery­thing” and took the wo­man out to break­fast, then gro­cery shop­ping. Just to help her feel more at ease.

“This wasn’t a time to train her in di­etary re­stric­tions. It was just a way to get to know her,” Naz said. “It’s a jour­ney. She needed to feel com­fort­able be­fore jump­ing in.”

Dur­ing Ra­madan, Naz en­cour­aged older Mus­lims to in­vite new prac­ti­tion­ers to their homes for if­tar so they would feel con­nected to the com­mu­nity. She also is help­ing or­ga­nize an Eid cel­e­bra­tion for new Mus­lims, one of sev­eral tak­ing place in the Hous­ton area on Fri­day. One group called “Reach Out,” which is headed by four women and rep­re­sent­ing 10 mosques, is host­ing a high tea for re­cent con­verts.

The out­reach is not only a re­flec­tion of the spirit of Ra­madan, but it also al­lows Naz to re­cip­ro­cate the kind­ness shown to her when she first came to this coun­try from Pak­istan.

“I was wel­comed and sup­ported,” she said. “I had fam­ily who helped me nav­i­gate this new coun­try. This is my way to pay back.”

Hussin, who started ex­plor­ing Islam after a di­vorce from her Pen­te­costal hus­band, re­mem­bers telling her mother and sis­ters that she was con­vert­ing and that she planned to wear a hi­jab. Her mother won­dered about the re­quire­ments of the faith, about whether her daugh­ter would now pray to a dif­fer­ent God. Al­lah is the same god, Hussin re­sponded.

On the day of her sha­hada, or procla­ma­tion of faith, at a Hous­ton mosque in Oc­to­ber 2016, Hussin met Michelle Haney, who con­verted to Islam six years ear­lier. Like Hussin, Haney also had stud­ied the ba­sic tenets of Islam through on­line videos and web­sites be­fore con­vert­ing. She un­der­stood how dif­fi­cult — and lonely — those early days can be.

So, Haney, in turn, in­tro­duced Hussin to “Sister Tosha,” Latosha Cooper, then a mem­ber of the Clear Lake Is­lamic Cen­ter board in charge of a class for new and recom­mit­ted Mus­lims. The class, which meets on Sun­days, also is con­nected through a What­sApp group, where new­com­ers can con­tact imams with ques­tions, seek coun­sel and find sup­port.

That fel­low­ship helped Hussin get through her first Ra­madan last year, when she was not yet pre­pared for the headaches and thirst that came from fast­ing and when she ate far too quickly after break­ing fast after sun­down. Dur­ing those strug­gles, she turned to the sis­ters in the mosque.

This year, she has gone to the mosque for if­tar, where she is wel­comed as a mem­ber of the fam­ily by other Mus­lims, who share their food and of­fer a warm em­brace.

“I had this sup­port when I be­came a Mus­lim,” said Cooper, who con­verted to Islam 14 years ago, “Now, it is our re­spon­si­bil­ity to be there for them, to be brothers and sis­ters in this space.”

Marie D. De Jesús pho­tos / Hous­ton Chron­i­cle

Zully Hussin, 38, prays be­fore break­ing her Ra­madan fast at the Clear Lake Is­lamic Cen­ter in Clear Lake. Raised Catholic, Hussin con­verted to Islam 20 months ago.

Hussin prays with her friend LaTosha Cooper, who con­verted to Islam 14 year ago.

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