by Kenneth Todd Ruiz
photography by Adam Omernik
They came from Pakistan and India. The Arab states of the Persian Gulf. From Morocco, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. Some from the north and east of Africa. Like most every American, they followed the same brave impulse to uproot and seek a better life in a distant place. They worship the same God of Christians and Jews, though instead of building steepled churches, they erected mosques, two of which are in Pomona, separated by four miles, along with two schools, separated by Foothill Boulevard.
On the northern edge of town, where La Verne, Pomona and Claremont meet, a skyward stretching minaret stands above the Islamic Center of Claremont, established by a group of Sunni college students in the early ‘80s who were tired of praying together in their apartments or empty classrooms. Across Foothill Boulevard, the City of Knowledge, a Shia school, occupies a former bowling alley building. The school is affiliated with the Ahluh Bayt mosque, located south of Bonelli Park, on Murchison Avenue.
The Center and School support a new born Muslim community that stretches to the south. They created homes, started businesses and grew families. With the same alacrity as previous waves of immigrants, the newly arrived ceased being immigrants, and became Americans.
Haleema Shaikley’s home has many doors. When the Iraqi native built her Upland home in 1983, she had something special in mind—a desire for something more than hardwood floors, cathedral ceilings and walk-in closets. Four years after completing her degree in microbiology at Baghdad University in 1972, Shaikley came to the United States, married and settled in Southern California, one of a growing community of Muslims that has since swelled to approximately 60,000 in the Inland Empire. “When I first got married, my husband and I said we would go back home to Iraq before our first child reached the age of 5,” Shaikley, now 54, recalls. “When he turned 5, the situation in Iraq was not one that we wanted to be in. One of my patients, a teacher, told me about home-schooling.”
Shaikley, who admits to having little idea of what she was doing, wanted to build a school. “I heard about how most schools have doors to the outside,” she explains. “If you go to our house today, every room has an exit to the outside. The whole house we built as a school.”
While the mosques in Pomona attended to daily spiritual needs, Shaikley saw a need for a place where her children could benefit from the best of American education while maintaining the ethical and spiritual traditions set forth in the Koran.
“The Koran compels us as Muslims to seek knowledge,” says Shaikley, who holds a master’s in microbiology and earned her doctorate degree in dentistry at the University of Southern California. “I believe that through education, we can get to the source of Islam.”
Following an incomplete mental blueprint—more a rough sketch, Shaikley now admits, she and her husband constructed a home that could be a place of learning. They even set aside space for a playground. Ultimately, their home never accommodated any students, and the first of her children attended public schools in Upland.
In the meantime, Shaikley’s ambition grew. After hosting several classes at the Ahluh Bayt mosque, her determination to open a first-rate school increased, and in 1997, her dogged perseverance paid off with the opening of City of Knowledge in Pomona. Located on Garey Avenue, it is now a state accredited school educating children from preschool through high school. Although only 21 seniors have graduated, the school boasts a perfect matriculation rate, with all graduates going on to higher education.
Shaikley’s youngest two children graduated from the school before entering University of California schools in Los Angeles and Irvine. She herself is currently putting the finishing touches on another doctoral degree at the University of La Verne, this time in Education Leadership.
Up the street at the Islamic Center of Claremont, Vice President Radwan Hafuda says that Muslim students tend to be overachievers. “Everyone wants to be a doctor,” he laughs. “I ask them, what do you want to do with your life? Their answers? Doctor, doctor, doctor. Computer engineer, doctor.”
The mosque on the north side of Foothill Avenue houses its own Sunday school and grade school for children and is a member of the greater Islamic Center of Southern California, which recently celebrated its 50th anniversary. Additionally, the mosque arranges annual trips to Mecca in Saudi Arabia for Hajj, a spiritual pilgrimage that is one of the five pillars of Islam.
Hafuda admits the name of the mosque, which sits on the Pomona side of the border with Claremont, can be confusing. “We have an identity crisis,” he jokes. “This has caused some disfavor with the city.”
Things are busiest on Friday afternoons, with extra prayer mats unrolled outside to accommodate the crowd. Fortunately for nearby neighbors, calling people to pray at sunrise over power-amplified speakers, common in the Middle East, does not happen.
A diverse group, the mosque’s constituency consists of Arab, African, Asian and European Americans. Some wear traditional Pakistani kurta suits, others the elegant kaftans of Arabia. A few pray in three-piece suits, but most come in traditional Southern Californian: T-shirt and jeans. Services consist of typical humanist sermons. Be honest. Be compassionate. Provide service to your community. As in any church, the same restless children, eyes bleary with boredom squirm. The same looks of reproach and embarrassment come when, inevitably, a mobile phone ringtone interrupts the sermon.
Imran Ahmed attends the mosque regularly. Born in the United States, he has lived in Pomona for almost two years. “To pray in the masjid is much better than to pray at home,” he says, using the Arabic word for mosque. Ahmed has memorized the entire Koran, and can recite any page or verse from memory. “Even if you destroyed every copy of the Koran, burnt every book and erased it from the internet, it could be rebuilt from the memory of people like Imran,” says Hafuda.
Oddly enough, although the Islamic Center and the City of Knowledge school are separated by only one street, there is little coordination or communication between the two. “We very seldom interact,” admits Hafuda. While both serve all Muslims, the mosque was opened by followers of the Sunni sect of Islam, while Shaikley and the other founders of the school are Shia.
“Shia and Sunni are political terms,” claims Shaikley. “We are 99 percent similar, and we can’t let the 1 percent that is different be a wedge. Unfortunately, the gap is increasing between the groups.”
She hopes in the future to see the school and the mosque coordinate efforts in the community they share. For her part, Shaikley credits the school with helping turn around the north Pomona neighborhood that had been in decline for years. “I’ve been in this area for a long time, since 1980 in Upland,” she says. “I remember my husband said to be careful at night driving on Garey, because it wasn’t the best neighborhood. As soon as the school opened, it brought life to the area.”
Between classes, the hustle and bustle of this life echoes through student-filled halls. There is little perceivable difference from a public school, except the students are well-dressed and better behaved.
In the library, Nigerian-American Islamiyah Bello speaks in the soft tones of a patient mother and has a smile for every student. She followed her father, a diplomat, around the world for years before settling in the United States. Originally from Lagos, she and her husband now call La Crescenta home. After being laid off from a banking job, Islamiyah began volunteering at the school where three of her four children are enrolled for the first time this year. “I took the chance to be involved in my children’s education while in this transitional period,” Islamiyah says. “It’s a very good environment, and it’s giving me an opportunity to help.”
She says her children were initially not as enthusiastic about the change. “At first they were resistant; they didn’t want to leave their friends,” she remembers. “It was hardest for the 12- and 14-year-olds. But they have adjusted and made new friends.” Her 7-year-old son Hafiiz, out of his mother’s earshot, even admits that he likes the school and has made friends since transferring from La Crescenta schools.
Islamiyah rides the bus more than 30 miles every school day to Pomona, because she says City of Knowledge is one-of-a-kind. “I like that my children are learning Arabic,” she explains. “I want them to read the Koran in Arabic, because the English translation does not do justice to its meaning. It is our holy book; they should be able to read it.”
In addition to the typical academic subjects, the school instructs students in ethics and Arabic, the unifying language of all Muslims regardless of ethnicity. Both classes are optional, however, and some non-Muslim families choose not to participate. “We stress working together regardless of faith,” Shaikley says. “We welcome all schools of thought, and we allow the students to pray how they like. Non-Muslim students are welcome.”
Even after 15 years of toiling to realize her dream, Shaikley’s work had only begun. Since opening, she has overseen daily operations as principal, at the expense of her private dental practice. “It’s hard between everything to have a life,” she muses.
In a uniquely American synthesis, the school is housed in the shell of what had been another community institution—a bowling alley.
In addition to a diner-turned-cafeteria at the height of kitsch ‘60s culture, this affords them space for 14 classrooms, a library, administrative offices, and computer and science laboratories that would be the envy of any public school. And there is ample growing room.
Today, though, the school is struggling to keep its doors open. Four years after opening, in the first year of the 21st century, the momentum at City of Knowledge seemed unstoppable. Enrollment continued to climb, and piecemeal expansions were added to the campus—a classroom here, a laboratory there. By fall, the school won accreditation from the state of California’s Western Association of Schools and Colleges, bringing the school into the system and validating Shaikley’s vision. Enrollment reached a new high with 241 students starting the school year that September. Shaikley says she and the staff were energized and excited. Anything seemed possible.
Until the world outside crashed down on the one they had labored to build. Until 19 men claiming the same faith turned commercial airliners into desperate weapons of mass murder.
One third of the student body dropped out. Some parents returned their children to public schools, while others abandoned their foothold in America and departed to their nations of origin. People were scared.
Despite assurances that this “War on Terror” was not a new crusade against Islam or war on their religion, people were being arrested, harassed and deprived of their rights across the country, simply for abiding by the same 1,400 year old religious text.
Since then, everything has been different. “We have had two very rough years with the war in Afghanistan and now in Iraq,” Shaikley tells. “Morale has been down; the psychological impact has been difficult.”
Since then, Shaikley says the school has been in the red, and she is uncertain of its future. “I do not know what the next day will bring.” A bright spot among these difficulties has been the backing of the larger community. “It is their support that has kept us going,” Shaikley asserts.
On Sept. 11, members of the community, including members of the Church of the Brethren and Society of Friends, formed a line in front of the school. This was not a wall of containment, but a message to those who might misdirect vengeance and harm. These were their neighbors; they were to be protected. “Right after 9-11, neighbors and friends came to tell us, ‘We know you’re not a part of this; you mean a lot to us,’” Shaikley says. “The community believes in us; that’s how we are able to survive.”
During the past three years, additional stigmas have been attached to Islam and its unifying language, Arabic. Two years of news headlines have burdened innocuous words such as madrassah (school) and talib (student), with sinister associations. Shaikley blames some of the misunderstanding on a common confusion between Islam and the cultures that practice it.“Each nation has its own culture and practices,” she explains. Unfortunately, the outsider sees something and applies it to all Islamic culture. If somebody sees that a woman cannot drive in one country, they think, ‘Islam does not allow a woman to drive,’ when in fact that is not Islamic culture, but the culture of that country.” Such misadventures in logic could be used to blame all Catholics for Spain’s Inquisition, or Scientologists for John Travolta’s “Battlefield Earth.”
Emina Inloes, or “Sister Emina” as she is known by her seventh grade students, was neither born Muslim nor do her parents hail from distant lands. Yet after September 11, the 26-year-old former computer programmer from Irvine says she was sometimes told to “go back home.”
“I don’t think people see me as white, whether they themselves are white, brown, black or otherwise,” she says. “When they look at me, they stop at the scarf I wear.” Inloes speaks in precise bursts with a sharp, if nervous, intelligence. In the language of a strict rationalist, she admits a computer geek approach led her to embrace Islam at age 14. “I wanted to figure out religion for myself,” she says. “I examined each of them logically, and Islam seemed the most valid.” Inloes visited a mosque several times before her parents forbade her from going again. “My family was not quite as enthusiastic about Islam as I was,” she says. “Those foreign terrorists do not want you in their religion!” her father told her at the time. She says her parents have since grown to “tolerate” her faith, and she has since left the information technology industry to teach at City of Knowledge.
“When my friend’s aunt died, I looked at the grave and thought, ‘What do I want mine to say?’” she recalls. “That I was a great computer programmer?” Now she teaches math and physics at the school, and fosters the creativity of her English and drama students.
Down the hall, Joe Salas teaches a variety of subjects, including language arts, mathematics, history and government to different classes of students. Salas, a square-jawed 30-year-old with a bank teller’s clean-cut conservatism, earned a degree in international business at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. Another convert to Islam, he appreciates discussing God and faith with his students, an opportunity afforded by teaching at City of Knowledge. “The thing that made me accept Islam most was the idea that I am my own master,” declares Salas, who is working on a master’s degree in education at ULV. “The decisions I make in life determine where I will go after I die. For me, it was a message of personal accountability; you pave your own way to hell or to eternal paradise.” According to Salas, another misconception of Islam is that it requires adhering to a limited, dogmatic, interpretation of the Koran. “There is one verse in the Koran that tells us how to interpret it,” he explains. “It says, ‘Part of this is allegorical, and part of this really happened.’” He says that to take it entirely literally or figuratively, either way, is to miss the point. “There’s a middle ground, a straight path,” he declares.
“Not to stray off and totally discount what the Koran says, or become so conservative that you take it to mean a woman cannot drive or has to wear seven sheets over her body.” He says accomplishments by women such as Shaikley prove this more than anything else.
For her part, Shaikley is focused on the future; rebuilding morale and increasing enrollment. At an annual fundraising dinner in November 2003, near the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan, several hundred people broke fast together and raised $78,000. That evening, student proposals for a City of Knowledge mascot were presented at the dinner as well. Instead of the usual predatory animals and racial stereotypes popular as school mascots, the school asked students to pro-pose ideas with an Islamic theme. Ultimately, a flying, winged-horse called a “Buraak” was selected from the entries. Shaikley says the creature, which looks like the Pegasus from Greek mythology, once carried the Prophet Mohammed in the Koran. “Not a Pegasus,” she corrects.
While the school struggles to prosper again, Shaikley herself has taken on yet another role: diplomat. “Islam encourages us to reach out to other people,” she says while seeking a passage in the Koran on her desk. “We did not do enough of this.” She believes the local Muslim community was too insular prior to Sept. 11, and more outreach efforts should have been taken. “These things should have been done before,” she regrets. “September 11 gave me an entirely new mission.”
Now, she regularly goes to speak at churches and in the community.
“Life has to get back to normal,” she declares. “Enough is enough. This year, I hope we will regain our spirit.”