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Town hall event to address growing Muslim community in Osceola

Posted on Wednesday, April 12, 2017 at 11:14 am

By Charlie Reed
For the News-Gazette
A town hall will bring together Muslim residents, local officials and anyone interested in Osceola County’s

News-Gazette Photo/Charlie Reed
Wafiq Sadat, 4, (front) and his brother, Waasi Sadat, 5, play in front of the Islamic Center of Osceola County, also known as the Masjid Taqwa, after Friday prayers last week. A town hall will bring together Muslim residents, local officials and anyone interested in Osceola County’s growing Islamic community Thursday at the Osceola County Courthouse.

growing Islamic community Thursday at the Osceola County Courthouse.
Organized by U.S. Rep. Darren Soto, D-Kissimmee, and the Islamic Center of Osceola County, the meeting is open to the public and will be from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Osceola County Commission chambers on the fourth floor of the courthouse.
“It’s a unity event. One of our strengths in Osceola is our diversity. With new and different cultures coming to the county it’s a good time to talk about our common goals,” Soto said.
An estimated 10,000 Muslims now call Osceola home and are among Central Florida’s most distinct minority populations. Many women wear the hijbab, or head scarf, and some men don the thobe, an ankle-length tunic – both expressions of religious piety.
Muslim Americans are like other Americans, said Abdul Patel, an imam, or spiritual leader, who heads the Islamic Center in Kissimmee.
“This is an opportunity for everyone to see the Muslim community and to see that we are all on the same page. We want our neighbors and the people who live next to us to know that, just like them, we want safety and security for every child and every citizen,” said Patel, who’s lived in Kissimmee for 17 years. “We’ll be the first ones to stand up and report crime to make sure the community we all share is safe.
“People come here to achieve the ‘American Dream’ because they can’t do that in their countries. A lot of Muslim countries don’t give that freedom,” Patel said.
Last week at Friday prayers, the most important weekly gathering in the Islamic faith, Patel urged worshipers to attend tonight’s town hall. He told the congregation it’s an opportunity not typically available in many other countries.
Government corruption is prevalent in many countries in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, which discourages public discourse, Patel said.
Most older and middle-aged Muslims born outside the U.S. “have never engaged in anything to do with the government. They don’t know their civil rights or civic responsibilities,” he said. “The Muslim community is reserved and they’re not used to volunteering in the community.”
But that’s changing, he said.
After the Pulse nightclub shooting last June, Patel helped organize an event a month later that brought together local Muslims, members of the LGBT community and family members of some of the 49 victims of the tragedy.
Homosexuality is strictly prohibited in Islam, and there were “challenges” in uniting the seemingly disparate groups for the United We Care event, Patel said.
“But it had nothing to do with religion. Despite differences in religion, culture and lifestyle, we are all family,” Patel said. “It’s our duty as citizens and our moral obligation to support people in our community and put humanity first.”
Patel hopes tonight’s town hall can go a long way in quashing suspiciousness and doubt among both Muslims and non-Muslims in Osceola County.
“You remove all that by engaging in the community and interacting with people. That’s how you remove the misunderstanding,” he said.
On Wednesday, law enforcement officials met with Muslim leaders for an annual “Bridge the Gap” meeting hosted by the American Muslim Leadership Center on west U.S. Highway 192. The event aimed to open lines of communication between law enforcement and the Muslim community. Attendees included Osceola County Sheriff Russ Gibson and a Kissimmee Police Department captain.
KPD has done several outreach events with the Islamic Center of Osceola County – the only mosque in Kissimmee city limits – including a luncheon for Muslim women to meet with both male and female officers.
“Culturally there can be a barrier to woman speaking to men,” said KPD spokeswoman Stacie Miller.
“All women who attended were aware that male officers would be there and that if they need help from KPD it may be a male officer that responds. This broke down several barriers within the culture of dealing with male and female officers and viewing them as a helper and not an adversary.”
KPD has also been working with children from the Islamic Center “to instill that law enforcement was approachable and is there to help everyone in our community no matter who they are or their religion,” Miller said.
Working with the Muslim community also has been a learning experience for members of the department, Millers said.
“They have the same concerns about community safety as everyone else who lives here.  They want their children to learn while in school, stay out of trouble and succeed in life. The more interactions we have, the more we learn that we are not so different.”