Lori Saroya is the co-founder and executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Minnesota (CAIR-MN), a civil rights and legal advocacy organization for Minnesota Muslims and other racial, religious and ethnic minorities. CAIR-MN’s mission is to enhance the understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding. CAIR-MN received the 2011 Nonprofit Mission and Excellence Anti-Racism Award from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and MAP for Nonprofits, was named the 2012 CAIR Chapter of the Year, and was selected for Minnesota Philanthropy Partners’ 2013 “Nonprofits to Know” (see page 15).
Q: Why is your work important?
A: CAIR-MN seeks to create a society where Minnesota Muslims and other racial, religious and ethnic minorities are treated with the respect and dignity that they deserve — in the workplace, at school and in the community. In post-911 America, fear and ignorance of Muslims has only increased. International events directly affect American Muslims, who face harassment, bias, discrimination, and hate. In 2012, the CAIR-MN civil rights department handled nearly 180 cases, including school bullying and harassment, land use opposition, hate crimes and vandalism, racial and religious profiling, and extrajudicial exile. The majority of the cases involved employment discrimination, including discrimination in hiring and firing, hostile work environments, and denial of religious accommodations. American Muslims are going through challenging times. In our nation’s history, we have seen other minority groups treated the same way — and it could be a new group in the future. So we’re not just advocating for Minnesota Muslims, we work to protect the rights that many Americans have sacrificed their lives for.
Q: What’s your most important accomplishment?
A: In only six years, CAIR-MN has become a trusted legal resource for the community. It is the go to place for legal assistance in the Muslim community. In addition to providing free legal aid to Minnesota Muslims, we also get cases from outside the Muslim community, often individuals who are perceived to be Muslim, such as Hindus, Sikhs and Arab Christians. Recently, CAIR-MN received the 2013 Difference Makers Award from the American Bar Association’s Solo, Small Firm and General Practice Division for “making a difference through pro bono work.”
Q: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve had?
A: Our biggest challenge is meeting the demand for CAIR-MN’s services in the community. Our two civil rights attorneys take on 3-4 new cases each week and refer twice that many out. People come to CAIR-MN for help when they are facing some very difficult circumstances. This includes the employees who were called “terrorists” and “monkeys” at work and fired when they complained about the hostile environment; the Muslim students who were bullied and had pork thrown at them at school; the imam whose mosque window was shattered twice in two weeks; the woman who was fired after she chose to wear a religious headscarf; the Jewish student who failed a college exam because she had to miss class for a religious holiday; the American citizen stranded abroad after his hajj trip because he was unlawfully denied a boarding pass; and others. The individuals we serve surprise, humble and amaze all of us at CAIR-MN.
Q: How can people get involved?
A: Individuals facing religious, racial and ethnic discrimination can contact us for assistance. Employers can contact us to find out more about CAIR-MN’s “Positive Interactions” diversity trainings. CAIR-MN also has regular volunteer, intern and law clerk opportunities available.
Learn more about this featured nonprofit by watching the Minnesota Philanthropy Partners Nonprofits to Know video.