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The welcome and the unwelcome

September 30, 2007|By BOB MAGINNIS

What would you do to ensure that your mother and father got to heaven? Would you memorize a book so well that you could recite it without notes?

That's what Usman Qadri did. For a year and three months, the 11-year-old Washington County youth spent evenings memorizing the Qur'an, the central religious text of Islam.

Muslims believe the text was revealed to the prophet Muhammad over a period of more than 20 years. Those who memorize the text earn the title hafiz - and according to religious tradition will achieve paradise for themselves and 10 other people if they remain faithful and retain the verses.

I heard Qadri recite some of these verses at a dinner held in honor of the month of Ramadan, during which all Muslims who are healthy are required to fast from sunrise to sundown.

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The dinner was held in a tent on the lawn of the Islamic Society of Western Maryland's Hagerstown mosque.

As the lightning flashed and the wind blew outside, members of the society talked to their guests and fed them a catered meal.

I have been to a number of church suppers in my time, but they have mostly been for members of the congregation and their relatives. If those who attended learned anything new, it was usually what ingredient made someone's apple crumb cake so tasty.

But most of those who attended the Islamic Society's dinner were not members of the mosque, but invited guests.

Outreach is something the group has been doing since shortly after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Members of the mosque came to The Herald-Mail then to ask how they might give Washington County residents the message that not all Muslims were terrorists.

Eventually, the group helped form the Interfaith Coalition of Washington County, to help those of different faiths understand each other's beliefs.

The coalition has held many events, one with outside speakers and others in which small groups of people talked about their lives and their faith traditions.

The coalition even worked on a Habitat for Humanity House in Boonsboro. I suggested the project because when a group of volunteers work together, you soon find out who you can count on to keep their promises.

I remember well the day when Dr. Shahab Siddiqui and I worked to put siding on the back of the house and how proud we felt when "The House That Faith Built" was dedicated.

None of that would have happened if the Islamic Society members hadn't decided that it would be better to meet other members of the community, people who had grown up in a different tradition.

We are a richer community because of this and I had hoped that we would become richer still by welcoming the refugees brought here by the Virginia Council of Churches.

Well, if you're going to welcome a refugee, it will have to be someone who is already here. VCC's Richard Cline sent me an e-mail last week, saying that the office here would close, perhaps by the end of the year.

I haven't talked to Cline, but his e-mail said this, "I just wanted to let you know that the decision has been made to close the Hagerstown Resettlement Office. The people who made the decision felt that it was not in the best interests of refugees to resettle them in an area that is perceived to be unwelcoming."

As I said in last week's column, I believe that those who were the most vehement about VCC's program hadn't paid much attention to the articles written about it prior to an October 2006 incident in which a Burundian woman who could not speak English was treated as if she and other refugees had a communicable disease. (She actually had morning sickness.)

Hazmat units arrived, everyone was screened and all seemed to be well. VCC, police and other service agencies began holding monthly meetings to make sure nothing such as that happened again.

But for some people, that wasn't enough and they managed to createthe perception that Cline talked about, that Hagerstown is "unwelcoming."

As this is being written (Friday morning), there hasn't been anything on the news wires yet, but expect another story that might also refer to the debacle over the attempt to rename Memorial Boulevard Willie Mays Way.

Mays, you might remember, faced an "unwelcoming" atmosphere on his first visit here as a young ballplayer.

We don't have to worry about Mays coming back and probably not about any of the refugees who are already here staying for long. Once they get some marketable skills and a work record, I'm betting a bunch of them will pack their bags.

It's the ones who can't leave that I worry about. Consider this: A few couples I know have adopted children from China and other parts of Asia. They are lovely, well-behaved children.

What will their experience be as they grow older in a community "perceived to be unwelcoming" to people who are different? Will they stay and make this community a richer place or will they depart at their earliest opportunity?

I hope I'm wrong, but then I thought the refugee program had weathered the worst of the storm. Maybe it had, but the people in charge have decided to set sail for calmer waters.

Bob Maginnis is

editorial page editor of

The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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