'I Wear It Very Proudly That I'm An American': Janan Najeeb

Jan 11, 2019

I'm An American is a series that explores what it means to be an American for people from underrepresented groups.

If you ask a group of people what it means to be an American, you might get a different answer from each person. For instance, responses based on someone's political beliefs, family history, military record, or other life experience.

But what does it mean to be an American for people from underrepresented groups in an era when civility and tolerance are sometimes in short supply?

In the first installment of our new series, I'm An American, WUWM's Teran Powell introduces a Muslim woman from Milwaukee.

Janan Najeeb has lived in Milwaukee most of her life. She was born in Jerusalem, of Palestinian heritage, but came to the United States with her family when she was 4 years old.

Najeeb says her family's relationship with Milwaukee goes back even further, starting with her grandfather in 1911.

“My paternal grandfather used to come to the United States as a merchant. He used to bring the oriental carpets and different types of materials and art artifacts to sell in the United States and so he would go to a few different cities, but one of his main bases, interestingly, was Milwaukee. So, there was this very small group of other individuals that lived in Milwaukee and so this was one of the places that he would come to.”

Najeeb's grandfather; his original alien card (top) and passport.
Credit Janan Janeeb

Najeeb is the president of the Milwaukee Muslim Women's Coalition and director of the Islamic Resource Center in Greenfield.

The center's library, open to the public, features thousands of books about Muslims and Islam.

Najeeb says much of her work involves building bridges with the broader community.

She describes how being an American fits into her identity: “Well, I see myself as an American Muslim woman, activist of Palestinian heritage. And so, all of those are identities are what makes me, me.”

Najeeb says there are more than 1 billion Muslims worldwide, and you can't always look at someone and tell if he or she is Muslim.

“There are Chinese Muslims. There are Muslims from Bosnia, and Macedonia; in Europe. There are Muslims from Nigeria and from the Arab world. There’s Pakistan, Bangladesh, Muslims in India. So, Muslims really are very, very diverse," she explains.

But even though there's a large and diverse population of Muslims, Najeeb says many people unfamiliar with Islam have distorted views. She says they believe negative stereotypes about Muslims being violent, or Islam oppressing women — things she says have no merit.

And Najeeb says sometimes people outside the faith believe Muslims are out of place in the U.S., including Muslim women who choose to wear the traditional hijab head covering. Years ago, Najeeb and her husband were at a Packers game when she encountered that for herself.

"I was wearing a green and gold scarf, and I had gone to go to the restroom. I was coming out of the restroom and a very large woman started just shouting things at me saying, 'This is America! We don’t dress this way!' and making comments like this, and I was pregnant at the time," she says.

"Silence … it means you’re part of the problem."

Najeeb says what bothered her more than the woman’s comments, was the fact that no one around spoke up.

“Silence … it means you’re part of the problem,” she says.

Yet Najeeb says because of the company she keeps, she rarely experiences prejudice. But she adds it's a frequent theme in her work.

“As an activist, I feel it’s a responsibility for me to be out there representing in order to lessen the harm that comes to the Muslim community, the immigrant community, the refugee community, to communities of color because any time any one of those groups is targeted, we all become a target.”

Najeeb says prejudice may not go away in the U.S. But she says it's up to open-minded and welcoming people to make sure that those who have the prejudicial attitudes aren’t the ones defining what it means to be an American.

Our I’m An American series will be featured throughout coming months.

Support for Race & Ethnicity reporting is provided by the Dohmen Company.

Do you have a question about race in Milwaukee that you'd like WUWM's Teran Powell to explore? Submit it below.