Hanadi Chehabeddine understands the worries that many Americans harbor about terrorism and national security. She hopes that they also understand something.
“Muslims are afraid, too,” said Chehabeddine, 39, of Eden Prairie.
Chehabeddine, a Lebanese-born journalist, public speaker, wife and mother of three, has watched the escalating anti-Muslim political rhetoric — Donald Trump advocating banning all Muslims from entering the United States, for starters — with equal parts of heartache and hope.
Heartache because, as a devout Muslim and new American citizen, Chehabeddine agonizes that her Islamic faith has been co-opted by extremists.
“Any close encounter with the prophet Mohammed would create understanding about what a peaceful person he was,” she said.
She’s hopeful, too, because a growing number of Twin Citians are inviting the thoughtful and gracious bridge-builder into their homes, schools and community centers.
“One of the great things about America,” said Chehabeddine, a volunteer speaker with the educational nonprofit Islamic Resource Group (IRG), “is Americans.
“There’s a sense of goodness in people. It’s amazing to see people of non-Muslim faith stand up for us. For politicians to stand up for us. For women who are not covered to be willing to stand up for women who are covered.”
Still, her mission feels increasingly urgent as the stakes grow distressingly high.
In the past year, three Muslim students were shot to death in Chapel Hill, N.C. A driver tried to run down a Muslim woman in Cincinnati. A customer at a New York City pharmacy called a female pharmacist, who was wearing a headscarf, a terrorist.
In our pridefully progressive Twin Cities, a woman wearing a hijab reported being forced off a light-rail train. Another woman is recovering from serious facial lacerations after being smashed with a beer mug in a local restaurant.
Her “crime”? Speaking Swahili.
“This is the time to start the conversation,” said Chehabeddine, who was honored in November as the resource group’s 2015 Speaker of the Year. “This is the time to step up and let people in. Allow doubters to attend our lectures, witness our prayers and observe our practices. Let’s build those bridges that we never really built.”
‘Just be open’
Chehabeddine grew up in Lebanon, the third of four siblings. Her father died of a heart attack at 52, when she was 13. Her mother, Hosn Daaboul, never remarried.
“My mom raised us as good people,” Chehabeddine said. While the family loved to talk about religion in an Islamic context, “my mother realized that one’s spiritual practice could not be forced.”
A communications major fluent in Arabic, English and French, at 21 Chehabeddine headed to Dubai to work as an English copywriter, then on to London to do postgraduate work in advertising, with clients that included Duracell, Volvo and Nestlé.
She returned to Lebanon to explore her Islamic heritage.
“I never embraced it totally until I indulged in the readings, talked to people and discovered the beauty,” she said.
Around that time, an aunt introduced her to Imad Alassi, who was visiting home from the Twin Cities where he has lived since he was a 23-year-old college student.
They married almost eight years ago and now are parents of a 6-year-old daughter and 4-year-old twin boys.
The move to largely insular Minnesota was a hard adjustment for Chehabeddine, as it is for many transplants. “I’m a people person,” she said. “It was hard to get into the community.”
Plus, she was home with three young children, which made getting out even more challenging. Aside from early-childhood classes with the kids, she spent a lot of time watching television. That’s when she began to grasp how her rich and diverse culture was being misrepresented in much of the media, from dramas to the nightly news.
“It deeply affected me,” she said, “how this great tradition was slandered. Islam has been hijacked.”
The best antidote, she decided, was “just to be open,” one person at a time. She found her way to the Islamic Resource Group, which was created in 2001, and began training to become a certified speaker. She’s now one of nearly 30 speakers, all volunteers, who visit schools, community events and workplaces to educate the curious about Islam.
She doesn’t mind the questions. Once she was asked, “Do you take showers with that [headscarf] on?”
“There is no such thing as an offensive question or a naive question,” she said. “Ask.”
Two years ago, Edina resident Barbara La Valleur met Chehabeddine at a community education event called “Everything You Wanted to Know About Muslims and Islam.”
“She was an eloquent speaker and presenter,” La Valleur said of Chehabeddine. “With the Q&A, she wasn’t riled by any of the questions. I was shocked when she said it was the first time she had done the presentation.”
With shared media backgrounds and a passion for social justice, the two women soon became friends, “even though she’s my daughters’ age,” La Valleur said. They socialize in each other’s homes. La Valleur has visited Chehabeddine’s mosque.
“We can ask each other anything,” La Valleur said.
After the terrorist attack on the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo a year ago in Paris, Chehabeddine e-mailed fellow parents at her daughter’s school, inviting them over.
“I’m very good with elephants, especially the ones in the room,” she said with a robust laugh. “I told them that I wanted them to see who we are.”
As parents arrived, and most of them did, Chehabeddine greeted them with Assalam alaykom, peace be upon you. They ate Lebanese food and learned about Chehabeddine’s Islamic traditions. The women guests had their hands hennaed. Chehabeddine called the evening “magical.”
Carrying that good feeling into the summer, Chehabeddine participated in an interfaith event in Plymouth last July organized by the Minnesota Council of Churches with IRG. The evening brought together more than 300 people of many faiths and backgrounds at the NorthWest Islamic Community Center to share a fast-breaking meal of dates, rice, salad, hummus, kebabs, flatbread and baklava.
“I’m very proud of her,” husband Alassi said. Finding her way to IRG “was a turning point for her. She’s here for a purpose.”
A timely purpose.
After living in Minnesota 26 years, Alassi said he now is sensing something uneasy in the air. He’s expressed a desire to accompany his wife to speaking events at night.
“You don’t know,” he said.
After the San Bernardino killings in December by a married couple whom the FBI says were “motivated by radical Islamist beliefs,” La Valleur received a text from a newly shaken Chehabeddine. “She said, ‘I’m afraid to go out in my hijab.’ It made me cry. My heart just sank. I called her immediately. I said, ‘Hanadi, you have got to continue to stand up for what you believe in and wear that proudly.’ ”
Most mornings, Chehabeddine is up at 7 a.m. “with a lot of energetic kids.” She drops them off at day care and school, then returns home to read and blog, or heads to the library to do research. Her writing has been published in the Huffington Post, MinnPost, the American Diversity Report, Engage Minnesota and on her own blog, asamuslima.com.
She’s also pursuing an international leadership degree at the University of St. Thomas. Program director Jean-Pierre Bongila calls Chehabeddine “an excellent student who researches beyond what we study in class.”
She’s also been known to teach a lesson or two.
After the more recent massacres in France, Chehabeddine asked Bongila if she might read aloud something she’d written.
“It was a beautiful statement to her classmates,” he said. “It was about how this is extremist behavior and we are not extremists. That’s what she does. It’s a very tough time for that community. She’s there to speak on their behalf.”
La Valleur, who wrote a letter of recommendation to St. Thomas on behalf of Chehabeddine, believes she is destined for big things.
“She is going to be a leader, not only in this community, but nationally and internationally,” La Valleur predicted of Chehabeddine. “She has a powerful voice that needs to be heard.”
Chehabeddine is humbled to hear it. Yet she knows it’s only a matter of time before she’ll need to share her message of strength with a most precious listener.
“I try to empower her to be a strong Muslim,” Chehabeddine said of her 6-year-old daughter, who soon will be asking difficult questions.
“I tell her that some Muslims do bad things and some non-Muslims do bad things,” Chehabeddine said. “She doesn’t know what’s going on, but it’s coming.”
Follow Gail on Twitter: @grosenblum