They came from as far away as New York and Texas, Virginia, Chicago and Kentucky Sunday to celebrate the opening of a new mosque in Fort Wayne, Masjid Noor ul-Islam.
More than 2,000 women, men and children mostly in traditional dress mixed with some young people who wore more American style clothing, gathered at the new mosque on Seddlemeyer Avenue. Under several tents set on the ground strewn with new straw, they socialized and waited for the call to prayer.
When it came over a loudspeaker, men stood in line outside the newly constructed mosque to wait their turn to enter at the left while women made their way in and out of the right side of the building, discarding their shoes before entering a small room laid with special carpet.
When the mosque is completely done, it will have a sand-colored, stucco like finish engraved at the roof line with the Arabic for God with the Islamic symbols of a crescent moon and star next to it, according to an architectural rendering set up at the opening. Ye Win Latt, a spokesman for the local Burmese community, said on Sunday that the total cost to this immigrant community in Fort Wayne and elsewhere in the U.S., largely repatriated from refugee camps in Thailand, is about $1.1 million. Masjid Noor ul-Islam translates to Mosque of the Light of Islam, Latt added.
"It means a lot," said Sharifa Salim who came to Fort Wayne from Tanzania in 1999. Although some of what is said in the men's section of the mosque - readily viewed past a curtain in the women's section - could be in Burmese, the prayers are in Arabic with translations in English, she said. "You see what a community it is. We feel like we fit in this society, too."
Although the mosque does not have its own imam, the equivalent to a priest or pastor, it will have one someday, Latt said. The dedication on Sunday brought out Muslim leaders as well as Mayor Tom Henry and Fort Wayne Police Chief Garry Hamilton.
Over barayani, a rice and beef curry, Henry and Hamilton spoke with Dr. Tariq Akbar, president of the Universal Education Foundation of Fort Wayne and his predecessor, Dr. Gohar Salam along with Ahmed Elhattab, executive director of the Islamic Society of North America based in Plainfield, Indiana.
"For quite some time, we've tried to be an inclusive community," Henry said. "We've been working with the Burmese to let them know they are a part of our community, and as long as they're hardworking and productive members of our community, they are more than welcome."
That said, his administration in 2010 put in a call to the U.S. Conference of Bishops asking that the numbers of Burmese refugees coming into the town be slowed down. Social service agencies here were swamped as they helped people find lodging, a job and learn English. "You talk about a challenge," Henry said. The city decided that if the children learned English, "the children could teach the adults, because the children pick it up really quickly."
Hamilton said the police department is trying to overcome the language barrier and "starting to recruit people from different backgrounds."
Akbar said the Islamic Center on Goshen Road offers English language classes, but Burmese immigrants are only a part of the 10 to 20 different nations represented in the local Muslim community.
Latt estimated that of the 7,000-8,000 Burmese immigrants in Fort Wayne, about 2,000 of them are Muslim. Both Muslim and Christian Burmese have been oppressed in Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, whereas the Buddhists have not endured the same kind of problems, Salam said.
"We do miss our country," said Zin, a young man in a bright new white long tunic and matching cap who did not want to give his last name. He is 26 and would like to go back to Burma some day.
For Salam, it was interesting to hear a participant in his 50s marvel at a new mosque opening.
"He said in his lifetime, this is the first time he's seen an opening of a mosque," Salam recounted. "They have not been allowed to open up a mosque (and now there is one opening) in of all places, Fort Wayne Indiana. This is historic."