Muslims help Muslims in Boca Raton
As an act of charity--a congregation helping a young family get back on its feet--it was probably not unlike a thousand other small graces that occur in South Florida every day.
After falling out with his business partners, Daniel McBride, 39, found himself jobless in October 1999. He was struggling with bills, a lonely, homebound immigrant spouse, and two infants to feed. The chiropractor and his wife were living in a small apartment in a loud, seedy section of Oakland Park. Like other recent arrivals, they had no family nearby. They barely knew their neighbors, other transients who were fresh from one place and yearning for another, well away from the pawnshops and liquor stores. Like their neighbors, the McBrides were in transition: between cultures, lands, races and religions. In their short time together, the couple had made a series of category-killing choices that cut across color lines and catechisms. He is a lapsed Catholic from New York who converted to Islam in his mid-30s. She is South African -- a mixed-race "colored" in her native land, but black in the American racial context. Raised a Protestant evangelical, Estie McBride, 28, recently embraced her husband's newfound faith, most visibly reflected in the traditional hijab covering her hair and neck. What anchored them in South Florida--a megalopolis growing darker in complexion, more varied in religions, Babel-like in its many tongues -- was their faith. The McBrides are members of a small but devout congregation at the Islamic Center of Boca Raton, a mosque in an office park near Florida Atlantic University.
As word spread that they had hit a rough patch, members of the mosque pooled their money to help out. Returning to his car one afternoon, the doctor and his wife found it full of groceries: bags of food, baby formula and other necessities. Mirsad Krijestorac, a Bosnian refugee who had struck up a close friendship with the doctor, had spearheaded the effort. A small act, yes. And this, after all, is what communities--those networks of friends, families, co-workers or neighbors that define us--are supposed to do. But as race, language and cultures continue to meld in the yawning sprawl of South Florida, community is becoming ever more complex -- and simple acts a bit more extraordinary. "I came out to the car, and it was full of groceries. I mean, just packed full. I couldn't believe it," Daniel says. "Here were people, a lot of them, who are trying to make it here, too. Most of them aren't my race, aren't from my country, but they gave what they could to help us. "In South Florida -- with the crime and the urban sprawl -- people took care of us when we needed it," he says, shaking his head. The small mosque in Boca Raton has all the elements of a Norman Rockwell painting, but only if the famed artist of middle-class America added more skin tones, cell phones, kafiyyehs and Quranic verses to his portraits of community. As a microcosm of what's happening in the region, the Islamic Center offers a peek into the future of community here, and the McBrides a glimpse at one modern family.
Like South Florida's newer migrants, they and their fellow believers are young, often parents. Many are professionals working at universities or large corporations. Others are small- business men and women kneeling to pray in offices and workplaces in the afternoon or early evening. They are immigrants, foreign-born sojourners from a wide variety of countries, who may have spent time in New York City or another Northeastern city before moving here. And they are browner, part of a more diverse group of people moving in from countries like Trinidad, Pakistan, Egypt or Bosnia, as well as Latin America. Their migration can be spiritual and emotional as well as physical. Many are fleeing wars. Some poverty. Some convert to new religions even as they make new homes. Others are drawn back strongly to their native faiths as they search for community here. A Sun-Sentinel survey done by Florida Voter of 1,000 residents in Broward, Palm and Miami-Dade counties found that immigrants give greater importance to religion in their daily lives than do non-immigrants. Immigrants ranked religion just behind family and work in terms of its importance in their daily lives. U.S-born residents placed religion further down a scale, behind friends and recreation. Daniel McBride From the moment he started reading the Quran, Daniel felt it was the instruction manual for the religious life he had long been seeking. Daniel, raised Catholic in Elmira, N.Y., had always felt the presence of God. But he lacked a clear channel of communication. After finishing college in Virginia, Daniel spent almost a decade teaching physical education in elementary and junior high schools. In the early 1990s, he enrolled in an Atlanta college, his goal to become a chiropractor. As he continued to grapple with a crisis of faith in his early 30s, Daniel began investigating other religions. Judaism crossed his mind, but it never took hold. He ranged over Protestant theology, from fundamentalist Christianity to sitting in on African-American congregations. "I always had a strong belief in God, but I didn't know how to worship," Daniel says. "I didn't know how to pray. I didn't know how to show respect." A friend lent him a copy of the Quran.
"I realized this was it," Daniel says. "It was clear, straightforward thinking in the book. It just all came together: so many things I had been thinking for so long." By then, he was a chiropractor in Jacksonville. Seeking out a mosque he had read about in a newspaper, Daniel quizzed the imam, the spiritual leader, about the translation he was reading. After being reassured it was an accurate Quran, Daniel made his profession of faith, an act known in Islam as a shahadah. Even as he became spiritually moored, Daniel was becoming a global citizen. Just before his decision to convert, the chiropractor had taken a job in South Africa, filling in for vacationing native doctors for several months. In less than a year, Daniel had changed professions and religions and was about to move halfway around the world. "You always hear of people coming to a religion because of some crisis or catastrophe in their life, but that wasn't the way with me at all," Daniel says. "I was on top when I decided to convert: I had a new profession. I was moving to a new country. I was looking forward to life and things were coming into place." Estie McBride Arriving in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, Daniel found himself isolated. He was lonely and trying to live according to the dictates of his new faith. And he had moved to a country that was in the midst of a massive racial revolution. In 1995, South Africa was shifting from an all-white rule under the system of apartheid to majority black rule under a democratically elected government. The year before, former political prisoner Nelson Mandela had been elected as the country's first black leader. A black majority upset age-old divisions that had governed relations between black, white and the mixed-race populations. The revolution seriously crippled Estie Grootboom's ability to find a teaching job just as she was trying to become independent. Just out of college, a child from a middle-class family of teachers in the small sheep-farming town of Graaff-Reinet, she had moved several hours away to the city of Port Elizabeth in search of work. A sheltered young woman from a small town now living in a big city, Estie was unable to find either a job in a school or more lucrative work as an airline hostess. "It's very hard to explain what it's like over there: It was like Boca Raton would be just where the whites live," she says. "Fort Lauderdale would be where the coloreds lived. And all the blacks would live in Miami. That's the way people live over there. It's organized like that. You don't really question it. "We had always grown up thinking we were inferior to whites, but knowing we weren't as bad off as blacks."
Walking one day by an office on her lunch break, Estie was stopped by a white man. He said that he was an American, and that he had noticed her walking by for several days and wanted to meet her. His name was Daniel McBride. "It was the first white man ever who wanted to be friends with me," she says. "And he was a professional. I was very scared. I had heard a lot of stories about white men attacking colored girls, taking advantage of them." Even though he had less than three weeks left in his stay, the two started seeing each other. Daniel left to return to the United States and Estie wasn't sure she was going to hear from him again. Within weeks, a letter arrived saying he wanted to continue their relationship.
He called once, then again and again. Soon, the two were speaking almost every night, often at the cost of hundreds, even thousands of dollars a month. Daniel asked her to marry him, sent a plane ticket. The couple moved back for a while to South Africa, where Daniel operated a chiropractory practice in Graaf-Reinet, a town that seemed a throwback to those Rockwellian communities of the 1950s. "Everything closed at 5, and on the weekends everything just shut down completely," he remembers. "For a year it was nice, but I really had grown used to 24-hour convenience stores, going out to the supermarket and knowing you can find something whenever you wanted it. It was time to leave." They lived for a while in the Bahamas, then decided to settle in South Florida. Daniel's parents lived in Sebastian, and he was looking for a place closer to them, yet tolerant of both his religion and his mixed-race marriage.
"We're an interracial couple, so South Florida made more sense," Daniel says. "We found an area close to an Islamic community, close to my parents, so we could tie it all together."
The imam After they find a home or an apartment near their job, after they check out the local schools, the migrants who make South Florida their home often search for a place to worship. For foreign-born immigrants especially, churches, mosques and synagogues can be important points of entry. The language and the values are familiar. Good friends as well as good business contacts can be made there. It's a natural place for those with a yearning to volunteer their time in the new world. The community of like-minded believers can be one-stop shopping: a crisis center, welfare shelter, day care center and chamber of commerce. Opened last year in Plum Plaza in Boca Raton, the 2,200-square-foot Islamic Center is the place of worship for about 200 people. Formed originally from a community of Muslim students and professors at FAU, the mosque is now a gathering place for many young families and career-minded singles. The many couples with children were what drew the McBrides, despite long commutes from their first home in Broward County. Though Daniel still works in Hollywood, the family recently moved into an apartment within walking distance of the mosque. The pressure of making it in South Florida often cripples marriages, stresses finances and hampers efforts to plant roots. Immigrants worshiping at the mosque often are supporting extended families in places as far-flung as Indonesia, Pakistan or the occupied West Bank. Still others are refugees, from war-torn cities like Sarajevo or Belgrade, who have lost everything. The imam of the mosque, Ibrahim Dremali, presides over this congregation with a mix of humor and devotion. If American television ever does a drama about Muslim families, central casting might call him for an Islamic version of Seventh Heaven or Touched by an Angel. "I'll get calls late at night from couples fighting over things like money or how to raise their children," Ibrahim says. "Islamically, a woman has the right to her money, the money she earns, her dowry money. It is her money. But a lot of men come to the United States and like to change the rules. "You get called on to help solve these problems. Maybe the husband needs money to help support his parents, maybe there is a fight over their kids," he says. "I like to use humor so they'll come to me. If you don't make people feel comfortable, they won't approach you with their problems." The act of immigration is rarely so simple as moving from Point A to Point B. Long after they arrive, immigrants wrestle with changes in perception that can alter personal beliefs, codes and creeds they had thought were long established. Each brings a concept of community rooted in his or her native culture. As if unpacking from a long journey, they discover things about themselves that had lain undisturbed since being tucked away. "When people move to another country, they are often looking for a new means of religious expression, as well as a job or a new life," says Edemilson A. Cardoso, a pastor with two Brazilian-based Seventh-day Adventist congregations in Broward County. "I see this a lot," he says. "Many in my congregations weren't Seventh-day Adventists in Brazil. Many had no religion at all. But they come here and they're looking for new way to believe as well as a new way to live." Mirsad Krijestorac Before he arrived in the United States seven years ago, Mirsad didn't give much thought to religion and even less to Islam. Mirsad, 33, a well-known rock music promoter in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, made his community in the fast-paced world of artists, intellectuals and nightclubs.
But as war broke out in the early 1990s, Muslims became targets in Belgrade. Mirsad's high-profile career in the Yugoslavia of dictator Slobodan Milosevic made him a marked man. "First they'd beat or killed Muslims who were successful businessmen," Mirsad says. "And they'd put that in the newspaper like it was shocking news. But the news actually served the purpose of sending the message. "Many people got the message and left," he says. "It got to the point that I was being stopped, guns were being pointed at me, so I left, too." Mirsad lost everything. Arriving in New York with few contacts and no community to turn to, he ended up depressed and spent most of his days in bed. "That war destroyed all the human values inside of me to the point that I literally collapsed," he recalls. "I was desperately trying to build the human values I had again, but there was nothing to hold on for." After about six months laid up with a bad back and other stress ailments, Mirsad began thinking more and more about Islam. He realized that he had little knowledge of the religion of his ancestors. He had no idea why Muslims were so hated, why a mere Muslim name had destroyed his glittering life in Belgrade. "Simply because of my name, what connected me to Muslims, I had to go through everything," he says. "So I said, `Let me see what this really means.'" Moving with his family to South Florida, he slowly found his way to the Boca Raton mosque. The equivalent of a born-again Muslim, he began educating himself about the religion that had determined his fate. The tiny storefront mosque quickly came to define his community in South Florida. His wife made her shahada here, her joyous friends calling him at work to give him the good news. His children found friends among the children of Arabic, black and white children whose parents come here: a diversity, he points out, that is lacking in many other religions. Attending religious lectures, he started to notice Daniel. Both stood out as white, non-Arabic speakers. Both were seeking to learn more about the religion, Mirsad as a child of secular European Muslims, Daniel as a recent convert. Both had served as the vehicles for their wives' conversion to Islam. Both had two children.
"Eventually we found a lot of things in common," Mirsad says. "You like to spend time with the people who like the same things you do." When the McBrides fell on hard times, there seemed little question as to what he must do.
"You know that your neighbor has a problem, what are you going to do?" Mirsad asks. "You're going to help him. Is that something special? I feel like it's nothing special. I actually feel like I didn't do enough." What Mirsad finds so wondrous about his new country is not the permanence of its communities, but their impermanence. The mobility, the sprawl that so many Americans complain about may be its saving grace, he suggests. So, the idea that a Bosnian refugee would rediscover his faith in exile, find his way to Boca Raton and end up helping an American who found his own way to a new faith--it really isn't that surprising at all. "When you go to Europe, you see people whose family have lived there for generations, and they feel this is very important and they want to hold on to it," he says. "And when I see this in America, I have to laugh. "Look, you build houses here so you can destroy them easily. It's a completely different kind of thinking. Over there in Europe, you build them so they'll last 200 years."