Abdulwahhab Alabid, known as Wahab, came to America from Iraq determined to
succeed. He went to work at Amazon. He started a catering business with his son,
Ahmed, and wife, Jinan. He connected with a local family early on who helped him
find the mobile home he bought and renovated (the beginnings of a small, Iraqi
enclave in rural Ooltewah). He and Jinan recently received U.S. citizenship.
“I came with big ambitions,” he says.
But along the way, he realized succeeding in America went beyond the basic
necessities of life. Friendship was required.
“I think the most important thing is for people to interact with the community,” he
says. “Normally, we are a very social people. Clothes, food, that is not as important
as the social aspect. We come here, and there is no one. If we don’t find people to
interact with, this is when we feel more isolated.”
It was Wahab’s friendship with a local Seventh-day Adventist family that helped him
find community in America. That friendship blossomed into a larger effort to help
Muslim refugee families moving to East Tennessee feel welcomed, understood and
equipped to start a new life—while still embracing their values of faith and homeland.
Wahab is one of two Muslims and three Adventists on the five-member board of the
Adventist Muslim Friendship Association (AMFA). The organization assists refugees with
cultural integration in a ministry rooted in the groups’ shared faith and spirituality.
(Wahab also serves on Bridge’s board of directors.)
“We wanted to create a safe space where refugee families will feel at ease,” says
Gabriela Phillips, called Gaby, who helped found the program in 2009 in
Chattanooga. She now leads AMFA as it has expanded across the entire country.
“The gift we give refugees is ourselves,” she says.
Gaby estimates the group has worked with about 50 families so far. Anyone involved
in AMFA goes through a four-session training to better understand the Muslim faith
and cultural values and learn how to meet families’ needs in a way that incorporates
faith into the community integration process. The training also incorporates
information specific to refugees and their needs. AMFA members assist with English
tutoring, help children with homework and provide other assistance in a way
designed to build long-term friendships, not simply serve immediate needs.
Adventist volunteers always pray a blessing on the home of a new refugee
arrival—“Our trademark at AMFA is we are people who pray,” Gaby says—and
volunteers and families meet for “storytelling,” which focuses on characters
common to the Bible and Koran. Adventist volunteers learn appropriate Muslim
terms for God and how to pray in the Muslim manner.
“Early on we took the model of helping the refugees to integrate in a godly way,”
says Gabriela. “Faith is very important to them, and it’s important to us. In the end,
we all are blessed.”
There have been some hiccups. Wahab remembers the time he and Jinan attended
church with his new friends—an encounter the church was not prepared for,
although the couple graciously took it in stride. AMFA volunteers are asked not to
invite to church the families they are serving.
But ultimately these relationships help Muslim families overcome differences in
language, faith and culture as well as prejudice in the community around them
to take their rightful place in the fabric of America.
“We learned you don’t have to change yourself to be like Americans or change
Americans to be like you,” says Jinan.
“The freedom of choice (in the U.S.) is very good,” says Wahab. “Here, belief is very
personal. God, when He judges people, He will not judge all Muslims or all
Americans. It will just be Wahab.”