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Amid National Tensions, Muslim Students Feel Welcome In DeKalb

Ibrahim Baig

Legal uncertainty remains surrounding the President’s travel ban from several Muslim-majority countries.

Northern Illinois University students and members of the DeKalb community are reaching out to those who may be affected.

“Without even us reaching out to anyone, I was getting like five, six emails per day, just of support," said Afreen Warsi, a biology major and member of the Muslim Student Association at Northern Illinois University. She says other students reached out to her following the first travel order issued by the White House.

“The Student Association is sending me an email, or Black Student Union is sending me an email, or a sorority is sending me an email, just saying like, ‘Hey, I’m really, really sorry for the current situation, and I’m like very, very sorry. And if you need anything—if you need anything at all—we are here as students,’” said Warsi.

Many Muslims on campus—and across the nation—felt anxious and uncertain following the order.

“I think there’s just a general overwhelming fear of traveling in general. Even if we are not traveling to and from one of the banned countries, we are told to stay away from travel in general," Warsi said.

She says shortly after the first order was issued, the Muslim Student Association held an awareness event. Students showed support for their Muslim peers by wearing green clothing and ribbons.

“Because a lot of people don’t know what it’s about and what’s going on, we wanted to educate people about this, like ‘This is going on. This is a really big issue for a lot of the population. Not just at NIU but in America as a whole.’”

There are currently 18 students at NIU from the six countries included in the second executive order. Some have children and spouses here with them.

Arezou Kashani is a student advisor in NIU’s International Student and Faculty Office. She says students from the affected countries have been bringing their questions to the office:

“They were really concerned about not having families being able to come. Since many of them enter on a single-entry visa, they tend to remain in the U.S. and not leave until after their program is over and they’ve gained their experience with their work authorization," she says, "and so for many, family coming over is very important because they’re not able to see them as often as they would like.”

Stephanie Brown is Associate Director of the Office.

“Shortly after the first executive order was signed, we invited all of the students and their dependents from the affected countries here to our office, to our conference room, for lunch—to kind of just let them meet each other in solidarity, in case they hadn’t done that already, and to just ask us as many questions as they wanted," she said.

Brown says that students from the six countries aren’t the only ones asking questions; even students from Europe and China are reaching out to her office.

“I think that this has had an impact on international students in general. It raises the—all of the questions of what else can happen," she said.

While Brown directs students to various legal resources, she believes personal interaction is key.

“We are also trying to make sure that we are the resource—talk to us," she says, "and part of that is, we want to know what their concerns are. We don’t want to just be handing out a bunch of information saying, ‘Read this.’ We want to make it a personal connection as well.”

Kashani says support is also being seen in areas outside of the international student office.

“Some students have been very well outspoken and have told us about how welcoming they do feel with the NIU community and just DeKalb in general," she said.

Abdulrafay Farooqui, an engineering student at NIU, says there has been an outpouring of support from the community.

“…I’ve been to the mosque, and on the board there, they posted a lot of letters that community members—non-Muslims—came and gave to the masjid [mosque] saying that ‘You’re welcome here, you belong here, you’re Americans—just as American as we are. You belong here just as much as we do,’" he said. "So, we had everyone—even churches showed us support—they sent us letters. And even at our bake sale people come and tell us that ‘You belong here. We’re always supporting for you; we’re rooting for you.’"

Farooqui says even the mayor and the police department have attended recent events with the Muslim Student Association.

Samha Abdur Rab studies accountancy at NIU. She says the student group is taking this opportunity to host an informative dialog about their faith. They’re calling it Discover Islam Week.

“…we’re bringing in various speakers to not necessarily talk about the travel ban, but just build—or educate the NIU community and the DeKalb community about Islam and Muslims," she said. "Just so people know  who we are, and we’re not who the people or what the media portrays us as.”

Warsi says events will be held in the Holmes Student Center throughout this week.

“And that’s essentially just because people don’t know how to ask questions, or people don’t know who to ask questions to and they’re not sure if they’re going to be offensive to somebody or not," she says, "and so, just to kind of create a safe environment for people to be like, ‘OK, it’s OK to ask questions here.’ There are no dumb questions."

Ibrahim Baig is a graduate of WNIJ's Public Radio 101.

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