Local Features
5:10 am
Tue May 25, 2010

Forging their own identity with a mix of East and West

West Warwick, R.I. – At the Islamic School of Rhode Island, religion is a central part of the school day. Even Kindergartners learn to recite the Koran from memory. Memorizing the Koran is typical for Muslim children everywhere, according to teacher Karim Kouraj, who comes from Morocco.

"It's the key to paradise for us," Kouraj says. "We focus on the little kids now because it's easy for them. Some of them, they might be able to memorize the whole Koran by the age 12 or 13."

Parents from all over Rhode Island as well as one family in Connecticut send their children here from preschool through eighth grade. With just 130 students, classes are small. They cover Arabic and Islamic history in addition to English, math and science. Shahzad Yakouv, who immigrated from Pakistan, has three daughters and a son at the school, which he says he prefers to traditional American schools.

"You have a little more ethics," Yakouv says. "Your kids are in an environment where they can learn a little bit more about your own beliefs and religions."

Most of the girls cover their hair with a scarf, or hijab, and after third grade, they sit separately from boys in the classroom. Eighth grader Tussnim Janoudi explains why.

"When you become an adult, that's when you have be more modest and part of that is not interacting a lot with boys or men," Tussnim says.

Her classmate Jechrim Shahzad prefers it that way, but for reasons that are more age-appropriate than religious.

"We really didn't like the boys that much," she says. "It was kind of a relief to be away from them."

School leaders estimate that four-to-six thousand Muslims live in Rhode Island, scattered in communities around the state. The school aims to foster a sense of shared identity - not only about religion, but also about their American experience.

Third grade teacher Najd Benwahoud grew up in Morocco, but he's well-versed in the story of Lewis and Clarke. This is not unusual in a school where students and teachers come from all over the globe, reflecting the diversity of the Islamic world even in the smallest, most Catholic state in the country.

"Our philosophy is to help create a Muslim American or an American Muslim," he says.

Principal Basima Al-Jallad, a Palestinian, says part of the school's mission is to teach students they can be both Muslim and American -- even if American culture can sometimes seem at odds with Islamic values like modesty.

"For example, I cover up, right?" Al-Jallad says. "And people outside, they don't cover up, but that doesn't make me disrespect them. So they understand the difference, and they are okay with it."

And the community in West Warwick has been welcoming to the school, according to Al-Jallad. A local church even sold them a building, allowing the school to pay in installments rather than paying interest to a bank, which is discouraged by Islamic law.

Like many businesses and homes in West Warwick, the Islamic school was hard hit by record breaking floods earlier this year. A mix of water, oil and sewage ruined the first floor, forcing the school to close. Then another West Warwick church came to the rescue.

"The idea of the different faiths never really crossed my mind," says Brian Regan, pastor of the Full Life Christian Fellowship, who invited the school to use his church building, which used to house a Catholic school, rent-free.

The Islamic school has settled into its temporary home, although it hasn't been an entirely smooth transition. Due to the flooding, the church has just one working bathroom, and there are not quite enough classrooms. But sixth grader Abdul Aziz says he's getting used to the new situation.

"At first I was happy, you know, the school got flooded: Yay, no more school," Abdul says. "But then I started to feel worse and worse, and I missed all my friends and my teachers. So, then when we came here I was happy that we were all together again."

The school needs to raise some $400,000 to pay for repairs. Just days before a fundraiser in Roger Williams Park, news broke of the attempted bombing in Times Square allegedly by an American of Pakistani origin. Parent Shahzad Yakouv, also from Pakistan, was shaken by the news.

"How you can kill a human or do this kind of act, no religion can describe that," Yakouv says. "There is nothing in Koran, nothing in Bible. Nothing in any religion. And we have to condemn them as much we can anywhere we go, any form we can talk about that."

Shahzad and others in the Muslim community are quick to say their religion does not condone violence. They hope their school and the help they've received from people in West Warwick will give their children a sense of pride in both their Muslim and their American identity.