Muslim Student Association finds strength in numbers

Mo Dow, Campus Life Reporter

As the fall semester comes to a close, members of the Muslim Student Association at Whitman are reflecting on the changes that the organization has gone through since the start of the academic year. Although the club has been in some capacity for years, it has recently begun to take on a new shape and attract new members.

One of the new students taking on a leadership position in the club is first-year Mohammad “Franko” Omair. Omair grew up in Palestine and found the move to Whitman to be a major adjustment. Without much support for Muslim students on-campus, Omair hoped that the Muslim Student Association would help bridge the gap between his cultural background and Whitman’s unfamiliar climate.

“MSA helped me in creating a sense of community… When I arrived here at a liberal arts college, especially coming from a third-world country, and a different culture, I’d hoped there was something representing me on campus. I found there wasn’t visibility for Muslim students on campus,” Omair said.

As Omair moves into one of the leadership positions within the club, he hopes the community that everyone at the MSA has worked on creating together can continue to thrive and become a space where students from all walks of life can bond with one another.

“I heard in previous years it was really difficult, especially with less Muslim students, to meet their needs and cover the budget for them… This year it has become much easier as we’ve created MSA… Now as an official group we can speak to the campus, and reach management. MSA helped me transition into a better human, I would say… MSA created this atmosphere where we all come from similar cultures, but different countries. We have these principles in common, and we want to share them and discuss them, and discuss them with other communities on campus.”

Another member of the club, Hamze Haashi, feels like his experience at Whitman has really been improved by the MSA and the community it provides. Although Haashi was still able to practice his faith before he joined the MSA, he did miss the feeling of community that growing up in a religious community brought him. He found that daily prayer was harder and needed to be more intentional, than it had been before he came to Whitman. 

“Most of the Muslim students do this stuff on their own, this is the first time where we want to do it in a more communal way, where we include other students as well,” Haashi said.

Joining the MSA allowed Haashi to have the chance to feel connected with home and his cultural and religious identity. Not only did the MSA provide a space for his spiritual needs, it also allowed him to connect with other Muslim students, as well as other international students more broadly. 

“For me, I came from a 100 percent Muslim country. Coming here, for the first few days, I felt very disconnected… Because I’m here now I have to do more, put more effort into it… Now with the MSA it’s a lot easier, now we can talk about it, plan events and visit the mosque in the Tri-Cities together,” Haashi said.

The club is sponsored by Adam Kirtley, Whitman College’s Interfaith Chaplain. In his 15 years at Whitman, Kirtley has found that Muslim faith and identity have often been left underrepresented.

“These groups exist to do, in some ways, two main things. One is to foster connection and a sense of belonging for students who hold that identity. I sort of consider that to be sort of an inward facing sort of purpose for these groups. And then of course, there’s an outward facing element as well, which is to engage the broader Whitman community too, to help teach people about their traditions, cultures and worldviews,” Kirtley said. 

Kirtley is thrilled that the MSA is gaining so much traction and has worked hard to provide students with the resources they need to support the Muslim students on campus.

“I just couldn’t be more excited to see this community come together, and see this emerging and enthusiastic student body come together,” Kirtley said.

The Muslim Student Association intends to keep building its momentum going into the spring semester, with an array of upcoming events. An especially significant time within the Muslim faith, the coming months contain several important holidays, including Ramadan. The MSA hopes to promote these holidays, both offering Muslim students a place of community where they can celebrate together, and to invite other students to get to know a culture that might not be familiar to them. The MSA will also be working to support Muslim students during the upcoming fasting period, by working with Cleveland Commons to offer alternative meal options and by providing other important resources to fasting students.