City coalition discusses ways to integrate Muslims and Latin Americans

Tuesday, November 29, 2011 | 10:23 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — The Bias-free Columbia Coalition met Tuesday evening in Columbia City Hall to discuss efforts to make Columbia a welcoming community for people of all backgrounds. In the third meeting of the ongoing series, the presentations centered on programs that help integrate Muslims and Latin Americans.

Rashed Nizam and Arwa Mohommad of the Central Missouri Islamic Center gave a sample of a presentation they have developed to spread awareness of Islamic culture.

Mohommad, who was born in Columbia to Iraqi parents, tried to dispel myths and misconceptions about Muslims throughout the United States and within Columbia, stressing that Muslims vary greatly by ethnicity, level of practice and culture. 

She explained that in Islam, jihad does not mean "holy war" but usually "personal struggle for the sake of God," wearing a hijab should be a choice that each woman makes for herself, and the Quran holds men and women to be equal. She also gave advice for police officers and others who enter Muslim homes and places of worship to respect gender boundaries, remove shoes and give women time to cover before entering. 

Alejandra Gudino from MU Extension spoke about her program to help rural, agricultural communities welcome new members. She also explained a program to help immigrants from Latin America learn about the Columbia community. Her friend Roxana Gomero of the Columbia/Boone County Department of Public Health and Human Services organized the program, but she could not attend the meeting.

Organizer Don Love praised the programs and said his goal was for "everyone to get to know each other." He said he thought that a lot could be done on personal levels and that the community doesn't "necessarily need a high-fee facilitator." 

Alisa Warren from the Human Rights Commission spoke up from the audience to bring up the need for education within the business community. She said employers could benefit from learning about religious and cultural differences and needs, such as a Muslim employee's religious requirement to pray five times a day.

A common theme throughout the presentations was that immigrants and minorities want to contribute to their community.

"People ask me how I feel about this country," Nizam said. "My country is not where my grandfather was born, my country is where my grandchildren will be buried."

The Bias-free Columbia Coalition has planned its next meeting for 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 7, when they will meet in Columbia City Hall to hear Kansas City police officers explain their "unconditional respect" training program.

The coalition includes the Columbia Police Department, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Missouri Association for Social Welfare, the Human Rights Commission, the Chancellor's Diversity Initiative, CoMo Citizens, American Civil Liberties Union and the Missouri Civil Liberties Association.

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