For Muslim leader Lori Saroya, the challenges are opportunities
ST. PAUL -- At the Capitol Thursday, Lori Saroya used an example from her own life to tell a group of Muslim and Jewish high school students about the impact profiling can have on a person’s life.
“I was flying to Washington, D.C., and there were four S’s on my boarding pass,” said Saroya, indicating she was subject to extra screening and searches before being allowed to board. A lawyer, nonprofit executive director and winner of a 2014 Bush Foundation Fellowship worth $100,000, Saroya is Muslim and wears a head scarf. “I’m on the watch list at the federal level, and I have no idea why.”
Leaders from the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, known as CAIR-MN, and Jewish Community Action, worked with a dozen students on how to respectfully but firmly state their views on issues like bullying to legislators. The two Twin Cities organizations hope to make Jewish-Muslim Youth Day a yearly Capitol event.
It’s one of many activities carried out by Saroya in her seven years with CAIR-MN, and she plans for the organization to do more and serve more.
“Wherever there’s a challenge, we see an opportunity,” she said.
Earlier this year, for example, Saroya responded to an urgent request from the family of Muhammad Shahzaid Bajwa, an exchange student from Pakistan at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. After a car accident, he was in a coma. But because his visa was about to expire, the authorities planned to send him back to Pakistan, said his brother, Muhammad Shahraiz Bajwa.
“It’s like halfway across the world,” his brother said. “We were not willing to take those risks.”
After Saroya publicized the situation to the media, her legal network and elected officials, the federal government agreed to extend the visa. Muhammad Shahzaid Bajwa is still in a coma at a Duluth hospital, but he is showing progress, his brother said: “We are waiting for him to wake up.”
Saroya, who lives in Blaine, earned a law degree from Hamline University’s weekend program and worked in victim services at the nonprofit Council on Crime and Justice. As a volunteer, she helped start the Minnesota chapter of CAIR. She’s now its executive director.
CAIR-MN has spoken out and provided legal representation as Islamic-based facilities have sought permits in Twin Cities suburbs, the Hennepin County Jail changed its policy to allow inmates to wear head coverings, and students protested bullying at school.
Now Saroya thinks it’s time for her to take a step back from her 60-hour weeks at CAIR-MN to get more of what she needs to build the agency’s future, she said. With the $100,000 Bush Foundation Fellowship she recently received, she will get formal training in nonprofit management. “We’re going to the next level, and we need to be ready,” she said.
She’ll also be traveling across the country to talk to other communities, such as Catholic, Jewish and African-American, about how they have successfully handled some of the same problems faced by Muslims in Minnesota. And the agency is expanding to protect the civil rights of all citizens, regardless of faith.
“Now we’re getting to the point where we can open our doors wider,” Saroya said.
Her career has been shaped by her memories of childhood in Bloomfield, Iowa. Her family — the only Muslims in town — didn’t fit in, and some people made sure everybody knew it. They vandalized her home, left hate messages on the voice mail and searched family members’ purses when they shopped at local stores.
The family had settled in the Corn Belt because her father, originally from India, traveled a lot on business, and her parents wanted a safe and secure environment for their five children.
“They didn’t take into account the bigotry,” Saroya said. “I felt the more I tried to blend in, the less I did,” and decided not to try to be someone she was not. “That’s what started my interest in that kind of work.”
When she was in seventh grade, the family moved to Iowa City, and while still in high school, Saroya organized the Iowa Conference on Islam at the University of Iowa, which included events ranging from a basketball tournament to national speakers. After her freshman year, she transferred to St. Catherine University in St. Paul, a smaller college in a bigger city with a more diverse community.
For a sociology class project about post-9/11 problems facing Minnesotans, she was unable to find the required internship because there was no local organization focused on Muslim civil rights and advocacy. There were hate incidents against Muslims, she said, but no one was advocating for them, and they were hesitant to go to police because of their experiences with police in the countries they came from.
So in 2007, Saroya and other volunteers founded the Minnesota chapter of CAIR. Her husband Kashif was a co-founder; he works in information technology. The agency now has a staff of four plus independent contractors for advocacy and outreach, and she can see it getting bigger and better.
To that end, she was one of nearly 400 people who applied for the 2014 Bush Foundation fellowship in the region that includes Minnesota and the Dakotas, and she was one of 24 to receive it. She made it through the rigorous application process, said Lars Leafblad, the program’s leader, because she has deep expertise in her subject matter. “She was acutely aware of what she didn’t know … (and) she saw how she could connect the dots,” he said.
The fellowship is supposed to be a catalyst for transformation and big dreams, Leafblad said, and Bush staff and members of the community on the selection committees saw the potential in Saroya.
“They thought she had a deep, authentic passion for the work she was attempting to carry out. She continued to think even bigger about her vision,” Leafblad said. “They think of Lori as a long-term investment, 10 to 20 years from now.”
What CAIR-MN does
The Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations is a nonprofit civil rights and advocacy group that focuses on religious discrimination. It aims to enhance understanding of Islam, empower American Muslims and build coalitions to promote justice and understanding.
There are about 150,000 Muslims in Minnesota. CAIR-MN executive director Lori Saroya, like about half of all American Muslims, was born in the United States. Others, like many of the 70 percent of Minnesota’s Muslims who are Somali, immigrated from war-torn countries. Still others, like Saroya’s husband Kashif, who is Pakistani, came to the U.S. for higher education and stayed.
In 2007, when it was founded, the organization advocated for five people who were facing problems because of religious issues; last year, it worked on behalf of about 200. There are not necessarily more hate incidents, Saroya says, but more people are aware there’s a resource for help. About 4 of 10 cases are work-related, and often when settlements are reached, the agency asks for changes in company policy to prevent future problems.
“All they want to do is work and practice their faith,” Saroya says.
More and more, education is key.
“Whenever there’s a challenge, we see an opportunity,” Saroya says, explaining that the agency focuses on “training our community” to better understand Muslim employees, customers and students.
The agency puts on seminars for employers and law enforcement. Plus, staff can answer questions from employers and maybe prevent escalation of a problem.
CAIR-MN is one of 35 chapters of a national organization headquartered in Washington. The Minnesota chapter has been recognized with the Nonprofit Mission and Excellence Anti-Racism Award from the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits in 2011, the CAIR National chapter of the year award in 2012, and the Pro Bono Difference Maker Award from the American Bar Association in 2013.
The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.