Good evening and a very special thank you to Mrs. Akbar for all of her assistance in coordinating this Ifthar meal tonight. I’d also like to thank the young men and Moulawis from Ihsaniya (Ik-SAH-nee-ah) Arabic College for participating with us today. I’d especially like to recognize all the young women here. It is a pleasure to be with all of you during this holy month of Ramadan.
It may surprise you, but Americans have been participating in Ifthar meals for a long time. Well over 200 years ago, one of America’s first Presidents and the author of our Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, hosted the first Muslim Ambassador to the United States, a Tunisian, for an Ifthar dinner at the White House. President Obama continued that tradition this year when he celebrated an Ifthar meal at the White House at the beginning of Ramadan.
Muslims were not merely visitors to the U.S. in the nineteenth century; they were immigrants, too. These immigrants established the first Islamic Center in New York City in the 1890s and a mosque on the prairies of the Midwest not long after. Recently, an American imam who currently runs the Islamic Center at New York University even visited Sri Lanka to speak to community leaders and schools all over the island. They have all enriched American life while remaining devout followers of Islam. Today, I’d like to briefly share with you the stories of three of them.
Rashida Tlaib is the daughter of Palestinian immigrants. In 2008 she decided to run for political office. In a district where Arab Americans made up only 2% of the population, Rashida earned an astounding 90% of the votes. She became the first Muslim woman elected to the Michigan state House of Representatives.
Robina Niaz immigrated to America from Pakistan. While working in New York City as a social worker, she saw a need to help the victims of domestic violence in her community. So, she founded an organization to help women and children who had been beaten at home, providing counseling and other forms of assistance. Today, more than two dozen volunteers work with her.
Debbie Almontaser is the daughter of Yemeni immigrants. She recognized a need for her community to learn about Arabic culture and history, so she did two things. First, she founded the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, New York—the first English-Arabic public school in America. Second, she lobbied for the adoption of Arab Heritage Week in New York to encourage appreciation for the great cultural diversity that exists in America.
Muslims all over America are working to dispel stereotypes and become leaders in their communities. I hope these examples give you a small picture of Muslim contributions to U.S. culture and help inspire you to become active agents for change in your own communities here in Colombo. Thank you and I wish you all a blessed Ramadan.
Source: US Embassy, Colombo, Sri Lanka - September 1, 2010