September 21, 2010

ALL ONE:

In One City, an Islamic Center Unifies: California Town's Muslims, Plunging Into Civic Life, Provide Home for Movement to Oust Officials Amid Salary Scandal (TAMMY AUDI, 9/20/10, WSJ)

For most Bell residents, the community meetings that started at the Islamic center in early August are the first real contact they've had with a Muslim community that has been in the city for at least four decades.

"Since I was a little girl, I remember going to school with the Muslim children and they really kept to themselves," said Cynthia Rodriguez, a 29-year-old mother and lifelong resident of Bell.

She was nervous the first day she walked into the El-Hussein Center, unsettled by the unfamiliar images and Arabic writing. But "disgust and fury" at city officials outweighed her fear.

Then someone offered her a chair. Now, she attends every meeting and is getting to know some of her Muslim neighbors for the first time.

Bell's Muslims, numbering between 1,000 and 2,000, are Lebanese immigrants who fled civil war in their country in the 1970s and began arriving from the same village, called Yaroun.

They took jobs in the garment industry, bought homes, and built the mosque and community center. Some Lebanese immigrants opened clothing shops in the area and picked up Spanish to communicate with their largely Latino customer base.

Bell's Muslims said they felt an affinity with their Latino neighbors, if not a closeness. Both groups are immigrants who worked at low-wage jobs or opened small businesses, and both groups sent money to family in their home countries. Even soccer connected them "They work hard, we work hard. Everybody is just working and taking care of their kids" said Mr. Saleh. Bell's Muslims didn't get involved with local politics because "we just concentrated on our families and work," Mr. Saleh said.

But some began to feel it was time for a change in Bell. Last year, another local Muslim named Ali Saleh ran for city council. Then anonymous fliers appeared with images of the candidate's head on the body of a radical Muslim cleric, with New York's burning Twin Towers and a message: "Vote NO Muslims." Mr. Saleh lost.

At a recent city council meeting, the 35-year-old Mr. Saleh, who was born and raised in Bell, stood in front of the city council and a packed house of rowdy Bell residents.

"You told me you were running to protect your people from people like me," Mr. Saleh said, addressing Luis Artiga, a former opponent in the city council race who won the seat. "Let me tell you, these are all my people!" Mr. Saleh shouted to sustained cheering and applause. "Whether they're Arab, whether they're Mexican, whether they Salvadoran, Guatamalan, we are all one." He then repeated his words in Spanish.

After attending the most recent meeting at the El-Hussein Center, Mr. Artiga, a local pastor of a Southern Baptist church, said he regretted what he said during the campaign and that he had nothing to do with the fliers portraying Mr. Saleh as a terrorist. He and Mr. Saleh shook hands.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at September 21, 2010 5:36 AM
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