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Politics & Government

A Nation Engaged: Muslims in Milwaukee Discuss What it Means to be an American

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Marti Mikkelson
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What does it mean to be an American? That’s the final question we’re posing to Milwaukeeans, as we wrap up our joint project with NPR called A Nation Engaged.

We stopped by the Islamic Resource Center on Milwaukee’s south side to ask members of the Muslim community what it means to them to be Americans.

Janan Najeeb is president of the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition. She came to Milwaukee from Palestine more than 40 years ago. Najeeb says being an American means equal treatment for everyone.

“It’s a country of opportunity, opportunity for everyone. But as an American, I also recognize that it’s important for us to think of all of our fellow Americans as being equal citizens,” Najeeb says.

Najeeb thinks in order to achieve that vision of equality, the next president will have to spend significant time smoothing over hard feelings. She calls the tenor of the presidential race distressing.

“I think it’s unprecedented the type of vitriol that we’ve heard against Muslims, against immigrants, against women, against refugees and I think it’s important for our next president not only to concentrate on economic opportunities and health care and prosperity for everyone and getting us out of the quagmire of wars that we’ve gotten ourselves into, but also to heal us internally as a country,” Najeeb says.

Another person joining the discussion is Reema Ahmad, a lifelong Milwaukee resident and community organizer. She says she’s been helping to educate voters on the issues this election year.

“For me, the most quintessential thing about being an American is our freedom of expression, our ability to say what we believe, to fight for what we believe but within the bounds of reason, right? We’re not trying to hurt people by it,” Ahmad says.

“I think to be an American means to be resilient.”

Munjed Ahmad practices immigration law in Milwaukee.

“To be an American means to be strong and steadfast, to be an American means to be just, to be an American means to understand that we live in a melting pot society, that we live in a society where we have to be tolerant toward one another.”

Ahmad hopes the next president has a strong sense of fairness.

“The theme for me is that the president needs to understand that his role or her role is to create justice around him or her and then branch that justice out to the rest of the world. If we can have a president that cares about justice, then I think humanity will be in a better place,” Ahmad says.

While Ahmad was born in the U.S., Ahmad Nasef hails from Damascus, Syria. Nasef moved here 20 years ago. He studied at the Medical College of Wisconsin, and is now a physician in Milwaukee.

“It means everything to us to be an American, freedom, equality, prosperity and new opportunities. If you work hard you can do whatever you want to do,” Nasef says.

Nasef says he still has relatives in Syria and they’ve been through much hardship. He hopes the next president will help cultivate human rights.

“To ease the suffering of the refugees, the Syrian refugees, all over the world, to ease the suffering of the situation in any country where people are being prosecuted. There’s a lot of innocent people dying all over the world and if we want to claim that we are the best country in the world, we have to make sure that we act upon it,” Nasef says.

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