Praying with humility
SUMMIT COUNTY – Away from the polished pews, statues and stained glass windows in Summit County sanctuaries, Silverthorne resident Oumar Niang prays in a barren environment.Niang uses the small living room of a Silverthorne apartment, where there is no bed, couch or coffee table, as a place to worship.He is one of 50 Muslims who pray at this mosque in the Blue River Apartments. Ideally, Muslims would gather five times every day at the mosque, but because of their work schedules, most only meet at noon on Fridays. However, Niang attends almost every day.After he enters the white-walled apartment, Niang removes his shoes. He wears a long ivory robe and kneels on the forest-green carpet.During prayer, Niang and other Muslims stand while the imam, or mosque leader, reads from the Koran, which is the holy book of Islam. After the reading, they kneel and lower their upper bodies to the ground. They repeat this twice in the morning, four times at midday and late afternoon, three times at sunset and four times again at nightfall. After prayer, Niang returns to work. Like many Summit County residents, West Africans who move here often work two or three jobs at ski resorts, City Market, Target or Wal-Mart.Their strict, disciplined lifestyle contrasts with most Summit County residents’, as almost 79 percent of locals say they don’t identify with a religion, according to a study by the Religions and Public Life in the Mountain West survey of Colorado counties.”Work, home and pray. That’s all we do,” Niang said.
The Muslim community needs a plain, simple space to use for nothing besides prayer, and since there are no mosques in Summit County, in April, West Africans pooled their money to rent an apartment solely for worship. They continue to donate $15 a month to support the mosque.Dillon’s Lord of the Mountains’ West African Community Care Team (WACCT) works with West African immigrants, helping them adjust to Summit County living and find a place to worship. Though the Elks offered its upstairs facility, the Muslim community couldn’t accept it because it’s used for other purposes, said Nancy Gulley who leads WACCT.According to Niang, anyone who is Muslim is welcome into the mosque, including Americans. Though Muslim women are welcome, none attend because only one West African man from Mauritania brought his wife and children here, Gulley said.Niang’s wife and 10-year-old son live with his parents, brothers and their wives in West Africa.”I have gone home only twice in six years,” Niang said. Approximately 100 West Africans live in Summit County.”People here treat us very well,” Niang said.
Prior to ringing up groceries or selling ski passes, the West African immigrants were cattle herders in Mauritania. In 1989, the light-skinned, Arabic government forced some black Muslims out of Mauritania, driving them into Senegal refugee camps. They allowed other black Muslims to remain, apparently choosing who stayed and who left randomly.According to Gulley, Senegal closed the refugee camps in 1995, forcing all West Africans to leave. Unable to return to Mauritania, several came to the United States and obtained refugee status.
According to Niang, the hardest thing about being Muslim in the United States is that American culture doesn’t accommodate their needs.”In America, they don’t build something (just) for Muslim people. They don’t build a mosque,” Niang said. “In Muslim religion, we have to wash mouth, face, head and hands to pray. It’s a problem to do that in the bathroom (at work) when other people come in to wash hands.”Two weeks after the Silverthorne mosque opened, agents from the FBI and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) visited workplaces and apartments of West Africans in Summit County. The agents held several at gunpoint and questioned them about al-Qaida.”We know nothing about al-Qaida,” Niang said. “Maybe immigration (came) here because we did not tell them about the mosque.”In May’s FBI and ICE raid, some of the West Africans were detained, and the WACCT helped release them.According to Gulley, one of the detained men lost his jobs and health insurance because of the incident. Soon after, the man broke some of his ribs and faced medical bills without carrying insurance. He ended up spending a week at St. Anthony Central Hospital with a stomach ulcer.”It’s no wonder he had an ulcer with all he was going through,” Gulley said. She and WACCT helped pay some of his medical bills.One of the Muslims involved in May’s raid is still being detained. “His hearing was supposed to be a month ago, but it was postponed to Dec. 6, (2004) and then to Dec. 20,” Gulley said. “He’s been in detention for over six months now.” Gulley has tried to find out the status of the man’s hearing but hasn’t received a response yet.He has refugee status, which allows him protection in the United States. Prior to his detainment, he had a job with medical benefits and was taking English classes.”These guys are Muslim, and they practice Islam. They have no association with terrorists,” Gulley said. “Most of these guys are very devout Muslims, which doesn’t encourage war or attacking people.”
After living in West Africa for 15 years as missionaries, Jim and Nancy Gulley wanted a program to help West African refugees in the United States, so the Gulleys met with several Africans and asked what they could do. The West Africans said they needed English classes and a mosque. Several of the West Africans also had legal issues, so the West African Community Care Team (WACCT) began at Dillon’s Lord of the Mountains Lutheran Church to solicit legal aid to help them apply for residence permits and green cards, Nancy Gulley said.The Gulleys also have helped those without medical insurance by applying for the Good Samaritan grant through the Lutheran church. WACCT translated the medical brochure into French for the West Africans who did not speak English.The group has sponsored social events to involve the West Africans in the community, including a Ramadan dinner last year, which more than 140 people attended. Two years ago, the WACCT held a picnic at Rainbow Park in Silverthorne. WACCT also has provided food baskets to West Africans, legal assistance to those seeking asylum and permanent residency, English classes and community activities.Jennifer Huffman can be contacted at (970) 668-3998, ext. 248, or at email@example.com.
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