IUP: Muslim Oasis in Trump Country; Sahar Al-Shoubaki Was Engrossed in Graduate Studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania When Her Frantic Mother Called from Jordan. [Derived Headline]

By Erdley, Debra | Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, May 21, 2017 | Go to article overview

IUP: Muslim Oasis in Trump Country; Sahar Al-Shoubaki Was Engrossed in Graduate Studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania When Her Frantic Mother Called from Jordan. [Derived Headline]


Erdley, Debra, Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review


Sahar Al-Shoubaki was engrossed in graduate studies at Indiana University of Pennsylvania when her frantic mother called from Jordan.

The retired principal of an English-speaking school feared for her daughter's safety after the Nov. 8 election of President Trump. She had read about Trump's campaign call for a "total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States" and heard disparaging comments about Muslims that seemed to permeate the campaign.

"She was worried," Al-Shoubaki said. "She told me to take off my hijab. She didn't want me to stand out. And I said, 'No, Mom. Don't worry.' "

On the surface, the concerns seemed well-grounded.

Indiana grew up around the coal industry. Although the university now is the county's largest employer, Trump's promise to "bring back coal" resonated with voters. They supported him 2-to-1 over Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Those numbers and the ensuing debate over Trump's executive orders barring citizens from several Muslim-majority countries from entering the United States were jarring.

Al-Shoubaki, 32, is studying for a doctorate in English literature and criticism. She serves as president of the Muslim Student Association.

A Jordanian citizen of Palestinian descent, Al-Shoubaki said several Muslim students told her they opted not to go home this summer for fear they might not be permitted to return. She said she experienced a handful of insults last fall -- rude hand gestures and comments from strangers who singled out the petite woman in a headscarf.

But Al-Shoubaki prefers to focus on how people in Indiana -- a town that celebrates the late Jimmy Stewart as a hometown hero -- went out of their way to ensure she felt safe on Nov. 9.

Professors messaged her, sending texts, emails and calling about her welfare even before her mother did. They were concerned and apologetic.

"They said, 'We're really sorry this is happening,' " Al-Shoubaki said.

Students, local residents and clergy also reached out in the days following the election.

"A lot of people were so nice, so kind. The good definitely outweighs the bad," Al-Shoubaki said.

Indeed, the vote that helped push Trump into the White House -- a vote some would see as endorsing his comments about Muslims -- had an unforeseen impact in this college town in the middle of Trump Country.

Residents, faculty and the student body joined forces to support the roughly 300 Muslims among IUP's 1,000 international students.

Organized welcome

Darcy Trunzo, an artist and daughter of a coal miner, grew up in nearby Homer City and travels the nation scouting locations for films. She said she knew that kind of support was just under the surface in many Indiana County communities.

It is evident in a handful of small tri-colored yard signs telling newcomers in English, Spanish and Arabic that they are welcome.

"Things are much more nuanced here than the picture the media portrays," Trunzo said.

She reached out to friends in Indiana and the surrounding area on social media, and they quickly put together a roster of safe houses in the community that agreed to welcome international students and minorities as well as volunteers to provide escorts in the event anyone felt threatened.

"We named the group 'Welcome Home,' for lack of anything else," Trunzo said. "It went from being four or five people within a couple of days to be 250 people."

Well before the election, students in Christine Baker's history of the Middle East class began forming United Against Islamophobia.

Kelsey DeLozier, an IUP freshman, chaired the group and helped it become a recognized university organization. It joined with the Muslim Student Association to do community outreach.

"We held a game night and invited the whole community so people could get to know one another. …

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