Syrian immigrants started settling in Iowa more than a century ago
They are both Muslims and Christians and have coexisted with others in the heartland
But now, the goodwill they have built is at risk after ISIS attacks have heightened anxiety
Editor’s Note: CNN’s Moni Basu reported this story from Iowa following the Paris attacks. The issue of Muslim immigration to this country is a hot topic as Iowans head to Monday’s caucuses.
The small white building is inconspicuous except for its shuttered windows adorned with painted mint-green domes. A silver crescent catches the sun above the door as men with beards and women with their bodies covered from head to toe enter.
It’s a mosque, nestled in the most unlikeliest of places, in the heartland of America, not far from emblematic cornfields that make this city the largest producer of ethanol in the world.
Built in 1932 with hard-earned money scraped together during the Great Depression, Mother Mosque has given sanctuary to Syrian immigrants who came from places like Damascus and the Bekaa Valley. They arrived not yesterday, but a century ago.
In this part of eastern Iowa, Islam’s faithful survived decades of segregation in America, post-9/11 backlash and even the great flood of 2008 when the Cedar River crested at more than 31 feet and drowned this city. Imam Taha Tawil recalls how the community came together to rebuild the mosque, the oldest in America, when floodwaters destroyed the ground floor.
Here, in the heartland, some are questioning whether Syrians fleeing the war in their homeland should be accepted in the city that freely took in their ancestors. They say the governor of their state, Terry Branstad, is right to join the chorus of other state leaders who have said no to the White House in resettling Syrian refugees.
“I am not a Muslim hater but I am so opposed to this,” says David Ahart, 55, an electrician in Cedar Rapids. “There is no way to know who these people are.”
Emma Aquino-Nemecek, 58, is herself an immigrant, from the Philippines. “When I came to America, they knew everything about me,” she says. “But there is no way of documenting these people or checking their stories. I wasn’t so concerned until Paris. This could happen to us here.”
And Joel Mason, 25, says he enlisted with the Iowa Army National Guard and went to Afghanistan so he wouldn’t have to fight a war on American soil.
“It’s not worth taking a chance,” he says. “It only took 19 of them on 9/11.”
“Iowa should be the No. 1 state to open its doors, knowing the history of immigration here,” says Hassan Selim, 28, the imam at the Islamic Center of Cedar Rapids, one of three mosques in the city.
Selim, a native of Egypt, was proud to become naturalized as a U.S. citizen in November. To his new compatriots, he says: “There is no basis for the fear. You are not closing the door to terrorists with this policy, but to children.”
Shutting the door to Syrians in need could also play into the hands of ISIS. The people who turn to that kind of ideology are desperate, he says. “If you don’t give them an opportunity, they will get even more desperate,” Selim says.
The division of opinions runs as deep as the Cedar River– and they matter.
In this part of Iowa, a state central to all things political, the Syrian refugee crisis could be a factor in the upcoming presidential primary caucus.
Syrians a part of society’s fabric
From his office, Mayor Ron Corbett likens his city to another that has government buildings similarly situated on an island in the middle of a river. “There’s only two places that are like this,” he proclaims. “Cedar Rapids and Paris.”
News of the terrorist attacks in Paris saddened Corbett deeply; his former wife is from France and his five children are French nationals. As the mayor of Cedar Rapids, he urges caution when it comes to Syrian refugees settling here. He can’t get the image of the bodies in the blood-smeared Bataclan concert hall out of his mind.
He also thinks of meeting Andy Berke of Chattanooga, Tennessee, at a mayors conference earlier in the year. A few months later, in June, Berke was dealing with shootings at military centers in his city that killed four Marines.
“It’s not a migrant issue,” Corbett says. “It’s a security issue.”
Corbett came to this part of Iowa for college and never left. He wanted to stay and make a difference when the state was reeling from the farm crisis in the 1980s. He served in the state Legislature until he felt a need to help this area after the 2008 flood. People here call it “Iowa’s Katrina.”
He’s acutely aware of the longstanding Arab community in his city. Syrian- and Lebanese-Americans are doctors, teachers, entrepreneurs and lawyers, some of them well known.
They joined the armed services and went to war – Abdullah Igram returned from the Pacific in World War II and helped pave the way to have an “M” for Muslim as a choice for Army dog tags. Two of the chaplains on the city’s interfaith council are Arabs. A cancer hospital and YMCA are named after businesswoman Helen Nassif. The city is home to a global halal meat supplier, and hummus has been a staple here since long before the national health food trend took hold. And recently, an Arab man was elected mayor of neighboring Marion.