Richmond mosque provides safe space, education for Muslim families
on December 14, 2014
The last thing you’d expect to sit opposite Jerry’s Cocktail Lounge in Richmond is a family-oriented, Muslim place of worship, let alone a full-fledged Islamic school.
Yet every Sunday, over 150 parents, students, elders, and teachers pile out of their cars or from the closest bus stop to walk over to Richmond’s Masjid Al-Rahman. Many families come from as far as Albany and Emeryville. Mosques in West Contra Costa County are sparse – the only other Muslim place of worship in the area is Masjid Noor, on Richmond’s Cutting Boulevard.
Walking through the front gate, men and women separate as they enter their own private spaces. The smell of cardamom (a favorite South Asian and Middle Eastern spice) is abundant in the air, and it is impossible to determine whether the aroma comes from the kitchen or from clothing. Women and children chatter, but it isn’t long before Shabana Shahbaz (better known as Ms. Shabana), the school’s administrator and coordinator, urges them all to take their seats and wait quietly for their teachers to arrive.
The mosque is diverse. Women walk in wearing hijabs, niqabs, Pakistani shalwar kameezes, Arab abayas, and of course, jeans. Every time a sentence is uttered, it is repeated in English, Urdu, and Arabic.
To communicate with the non-English speaking women, Ms. Shabana, who speaks both English and Urdu fluently, issues orders to her helpers and has one of them translate into Arabic.
Before classes begin, a girl, perhaps 7-years-old, rushes to Ms. Shabana’s table with a confidence only children who have spent their conscious lives translating for their foreign parents have, and asks, “How much do I owe you for this month?”
Ms. Shabana refuses to trivialize her question, treating her with the respect and dignity her question deserves. “Sweetheart, you only owe $20,” says Ms. Shabana. “Okay, great, I think I have a twenty,” answers the young girl, who has to stand on her tippy-toes to see over the table.
Across the hall, in the men’s space, a similar scene is afoot – Arab, African-American, Latino, and Pakistani men teach younger men and boys. The women have genuine classrooms on their side of the mosque, the men must divide the main prayer hall into smaller classrooms at random, the divisions made clear by the small circles and neat rows of gathered children.
Masjid Al-Rahman, or the Islamic Society of West Contra Costa, charges families only $10 a month per child. The tuition funds operating costs, snacks, and the year’s Eid parties (the two major Sunni Muslim holidays). The administration understands that many of the families are low-income, and keeps costs as minimal as possible. Textbook fees are additional and vary from $10-$60, depending on class level.
At the beginning of the year, over 200 students were enrolled at the Sunday School. That number has dropped to around 150, largely due to the school’s new policy of expelling students who miss more than three weeks in a row without proper notice. Ms. Shabana expects the numbers to exceed 200 again soon – the school has a long waiting list of students wanting to get in.
The schools curriculum focuses on Arabic (reading, writing, and speaking), Quranic memorization, and Islamic history.
Parents are drawn to the mosque and the Sunday school for much more than just its education, however.
During a phone call, Ms. Shabana explained, “It’s a place for the children to be amongst people who believe in the same religion and morals, it’s a safe environment for them, not only to learn, but also to have a sense of belonging. It’s hard for younger children to keep a balance of what the outside world is and what the religion is.”
Many of the Sunday school’s teachers and assistants once attended as students. One parent attended as a student, has had one daughter graduate from the school, and her son is currently in level five. She and her daughter now serve as volunteers.
“The masjid is very important in our religion. And Sunday is the only time we have to do what we’d like to do more of – getting together with other Muslims,” said the parent.
The mosque was founded in the early 1990s. Several immigrant families residing in the East Bay spent three years praying congregational prayers in each other’s basements until they had the means to fund their own mosque. Once the mosque was established, the next step was to build a school.
“We had the place rented, that was the first step. Next, we had to give an education to our children. It was obvious,” said Jawaid Ijaz, one of the original founders of Masjid Al-Rahman.
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