|American Muslims Reach Out
to Afghan Mosques|
By Kaukab Jhumra Smith
|Maryam Khan of Ellicott City, Md., spent five months
working on reconstruction projects in Afghanistan last year.
(Photo courtesy Maryam Khan)
Thursday, March 31, 2005
Part of Maryam Khan's job in Afghanistan last year was
to build barracks for the new Afghan army, including areas for cleansing
rites and prayer.
After five months under heavy U.S. security, Khan, an
American, yearned for more contact with ordinary Afghans.
When she returned home to Ellicott City, Md., last
October, she found she couldn't leave thoughts of them behind.
"I felt like most of the Afghans there were just tired," said Khan, who
works as a civil engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. "They were
tired after years of war, and they just wanted peace."
So when Khan, 23, learned of a volunteer project that would connect
American Muslims with people in Afghanistan, she jumped at the chance.
She joined forces in late January with Lionel Ifill, 22, a U.S. Army civil
affairs specialist stationed along the eastern Afghan border, to help bring
together neighborhood mosques in the United States with mosques in
It's a way of letting Afghans know that people in the United States care
about them, Ifill wrote in an e-mail from Afghanistan.
Under Khan and Ifill's plan, an American mosque "adopts" an Afghan mosque,
sending care packages filled with clothes and blankets, cans of vegetarian
food, school supplies, toiletries and copies of the Quran.
|A mosque's dome and minaret peek from behind this busy Kabul market. With prayers held five times
a day, mosques serve as neighborhood gathering places for Afghans.
(Photo by Maryam Khan)
Since late January, more than 12 volunteers from five U.S. states have
signed up to start gift drives at their local mosques. At least four
Maryland mosques -- in Baltimore, College Park, Laurel and Gaithersburg --
are on the list, although none has sent packages overseas yet.
Ifill, a Christian who says he's not active in a
church, has been in Afghanistan since September. Since deploying, he has
found himself scrambling for ways to connect with ordinary Afghans, whose
lives usually center around Islam, he said.
"For the most part, everyone over here in the military is Christian," Ifill
wrote in an e-mail. "We try to find ways to help out with the mosques, but
coming from a different religion, we may not be able to relate as well as we
Ifill and Khan have never met in person. Ifill grew up in Silver Spring and
Takoma Park before moving to Philadelphia. Khan, born in Baltimore to
Pakistani parents, served as president of the Muslim Students Association
her junior year at Johns Hopkins University. After graduating, she joined
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and volunteered for a civilian tour in
Afghanistan, serving last May to October.
Khan is recruiting Muslim student groups to help with the project as well.
Fahad Ashraf, president of the Muslim Students Association at the University
of Maryland, Baltimore, said his 30-member organization would send a package
to Afghanistan within the next two months.
With a goal of just one package per group, "it just seemed like a good,
small-scale project that we could easily get involved in," said Ashraf, a
third-year dentistry student.
Ashraf Haidari, an Afghan embassy spokesman in Washington, said that
encouraging American and Afghan Muslims to connect personally is "a good
gesture," especially if it helps those in need during the cold Afghan
winter. He cautioned, however, that assistance should reach "the right
|Afghan men wrap sheets and shawls around
themselves against the cold.
(Photo courtesy Maryam Khan)
Ifill and Khan say they have discussed security concerns with military
superiors. They have also responded to worries of American Muslims who fear
their gifts of goodwill may leave them vulnerable to suspicions of aiding
To avoid security breaches, Ifill and Khan say, packages will be sent
through Ifill's military mailing address, which has the added advantages of
being faster and cheaper than regular mail. Ifill will unpack all items,
document them and "send them up higher" to military seniors before
re-sealing and delivering the gifts, Khan said.
"In other words, no package will come directly through the mail to the
Afghan mosque or directly through the mail to the U.S. mosque," Khan wrote
in a reassuring e-mail to potential volunteers. "It all will be a very
No electronics, cash or anything that could be used as a weapon will be
allowed, Khan said.
If Afghan mosques want, they can send loose items to Ifill in a similar
gesture of goodwill. He will inspect and document them before mailing them
to the United States.
Donors won't know the identity of recipient mosques until after the gifts
have been delivered, Khan said. Nor could Afghan mosques trace gifts back to
individuals: Ifill will destroy identifying information and return
Some volunteers are taken aback by the stringent security measures. "I
didn't even think of it as a problem, to be honest," Ashraf said. Still, he
said, he appreciates the safeguards.
A State Department official who works
on Afghanistan affairs said the project would not be a security threat even
if held outside military channels. "There are all sorts of people-to-people
projects going on"
without government involvement, said the official, who asked not
to be named.
Each package delivered to an Afghan mosque will contain a generic letter in
three different languages, English, Pashtu and Dari. Khan's friends,
including a contact at the Afghan embassy in Washington, wrote and proofread
The letter to Afghan mosques in the Pashtu
and Dari languages.
"We do not want anything in return,” the letter says. “We just want to send
our warm wishes to you." It is signed simply, "With peace and love."
Some see real cultural benefits to the project.
"This idea will help people to understand that in the
U.S., Muslims have their rights, they have their mosques, they are free to
do everything about their religion," said Ghafoor Liwal, a former spokesman
for the Constitutional Commission in Afghanistan who is on a
Fulbright-funded fellowship at the University of Maryland, College Park.
educated people in Afghanistan know this, Liwal said, others will be
Ifill has a similar goal. "I hope the outcome of this project is for the
Afghan people to realize that being in the U.S. doesn't mean that you cannot
be a God-fearing person," he said.
more about the project, e-mail Maryam Khan at email@example.com.
University of Maryland
Philip Merrill College of
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