When people ask Abdullah Kamel why he lives in El Paso, the 19-year-old Coronado High School graduate doesn’t always know how to respond.
“They bombed our house,” Kamel said recently after evening prayer at the Islamic Center of El Paso on the Westside.
Kamel grew up in Damascus, Syria, in a 350-year-old house that had been in his family since the Ottoman Empire.
Four years ago, Kamel said he and his family boarded a plane in Syria to visit El Paso. They planned to stay for three weeks. Kamel, who knew little English, has since become fluent.
“I literally brought nothing with me – not even clothes. I thought I would buy them here and bring them back with me (to Syria),” he said.
In Syria, Kamel’s mother had been undergoing treatment for cancer, but the medication had become expensive and difficult to get. Anti-regime protests in Syria had sparked a brutal crackdown by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Today, the country is embroiled in civil war.
“All of a sudden (the conflict) got worse and worse and worse to the point that my parents decided not to go back,” Kamel said.
The Damascus neighborhood Kamel grew up in, Jobar, now lies in ruins. He counts 10 schoolmates who have died as a result of the war. His friends and family are scattered from Jordan to Europe.
Kamel, who is a U.S. citizen through his father, said he is fortunate. “Being a U.S. citizen is a gift,” he said.
Kamel and his family found a home away from home with El Paso’s small but growing Muslim community, which is anchored by the Islamic Center of El Paso, a striking building with pointed arches, domes and minarets. Built in 2003 on Paragon Lane in West El Paso, it houses a mosque, small school and library.
“It is a place for worship, a place for learning and a place to help the community,” said Nabil El Fallah, who has been the imam at the Islamic Center for a little over a year.
It’s hard to make generalizations about the Muslim community here. Many of its members are of North African and Middle Eastern descent. There are Americans, Mexicans, Hispanics and Anglos.
El Fallah estimates the Muslim community here has between 2,000 and 3,000 members. About 300 people attend the Friday prayer service, when the imam gives the sermon, or Khutbah.
While El Paso’s Syrian community can trace its roots back to the late 1800s, those who immigrated to El Paso where mostly Christian, and the city’s Muslim community is relatively young.
“One of the main differences from Syria is that there are people from everywhere here,” Kamel said. “And it’s nice, because when you get into a line to pray, it doesn’t make a difference who you are or where you are from. I think that is very important.”
El Paso’s Muslim community sprung in part from the University of Texas at El Paso. International students who were Muslim needed a place to worship. They met in an old house near campus until the Islamic Center was built, according to Omar Hernandez, an El Paso native who became one of the city’s first Muslim converts when he converted from Catholicism in the early 1980s.
“Over time you had many of those students who started marrying and having families and it started to grow into a community,” Hernandez said.
The Friday prayer service, or Jumu’ah, at the Islamic Center is held in a large rectangular room with no pictures or other adornment. A dome three stories tall fills the room with light. Women participate in the service in a separate room where they view the sermon from behind mirrored glass.
The building has two entrances, as this reporter learned the hard way. The doors on the right are for women; the left are for men.
By 1:30 p.m. on a recent Friday, 200 or so men were kneeling on the carpet as more trickled in. Most wore work clothes but some had slipped into traditional cotton galabias, a gown commonly worn in North Africa.
After the call to prayer, the imam mounted the podium. El Fallah, 36, is a tall man with smooth, dark skin set off by a white kufi cap and black beard. He has gentle eyes and a warm smile, but delivered a forceful sermon, urging congregants to step up their good works and to fear Allah. The sermon was in English, broken by quotes from the Quran in Arabic.
“He (Allah) wants us to prepare for one thing – to prepare for one thing and nothing else: How are you going to meet your Lord and how are you going to make it to paradise?” El Fallah said.
He pressed congregants to be good to their neighbors. What matters isn’t who you are – if you are a rich person or poor person, powerful or weak – the imam said. What matters are your good deeds.
“Hard work is going to take you to Jannah – paradise,” he said.
El Fallah, who is from Morocco in North Africa, has been an imam at an Islamic center in North Carolina. He grew up in Marrakesh and met his future wife, an American Muslim convert from California, through social media. The photos of Morocco he posted on MySpace caught her eye.
Her dad was stationed with the U.S. Army in Spain, which is separated from Morocco by only eight miles of water and is a popular vacation spot. The couple met in person during one of her visits to the mountainous desert kingdom.
“I introduced her to my family and things worked and we ended up getting married,” El Fallah said.
They were married in Morocco, where El Fallah was an imam for a year before coming to America at the age of 29.
“After some long conversations, I was convinced to come and live here (in America),” El Fallah said.
Hispanic and Muslim
El Fallah said he has never been in a community like El Paso, where more than 80 percent of the population is Hispanic and Catholicism is the dominant religion. The El Paso diocese has 55 parishes and serves more than 650,000 Catholics.
The Islamic Center sees two or three people accept Islam every two months, according to El Fallah.
“Before I came to El Paso, I always thought Latinos don’t accept Islam easily,” he said. “But my perspective has totally changed because of the Latinos I have seen accept Islam in this little Islamic center.”
Glenn Meissner, a 26-year-old soldier with wire-rimmed glasses and close-cropped hair who is stationed at Fort Bliss, came to the Islamic Center on a recent Sunday evening to pray.
A devout Catholic for most of his life – he says he’s read the works of St. Thomas Aquinas – Meissner converted to Islam three months ago, a decision he had been mulling for the past year and a half.
“When I first did the prayers, I’d have to stand there, book open and go step by step. But after about a week, you’re good to go,” said Meissner, a Florida native whose family is of German descent.
“Giving up bratwurst was a hard one,” he said.
Hernandez said the Muslim community here has been put “on alert” by growing anti-Muslim rhetoric, particularly comments by Republican frontrunner Donald Trump, who called for Muslims to be banned from entering the U.S. for a time in the wake of a mass shooting in San Bernardino, California that killed 14 people.
The imam said he was recently asked by a Muslim woman in El Paso if it is permissible not to wear a headscarf in public when it is not safe. In the end, she decided to keep wearing her hijab.
“We have to give the sisters credit because during these times, there is a lot of pressure on them,” El Fallah said. “With the hijab, they are showing everybody, ‘Hey, I’m a Muslim.’”
Muslims in El Paso generally feel very welcome, Hernandez said, but the community has not been immune from threats.
After 9/11, the mosque didn’t receive any threatening phone calls, Hernandez said. Instead people sent flowers and cards. Strangers asked if there was anything they could do to help.
But when the Iraq war started, things got worse. In 2004, a man named Antonio Nunez-Flores threw a Molotov cocktail at the mosque in El Paso. It failed to explode; Flores was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
When El Fallah talks to people outside of El Paso’s Muslim community, concerns about terrorism and the self-described Islamic State, or ISIS, are rarely far below the surface. But he doesn’t shy away from confronting the elephant in the room.
On a recent Thursday afternoon, after classes were out at Bel Air High School on the Eastside, El Fallah mustered some dry wit while speaking to a drama group.
“I don’t have a bomb,” he began, prompting chuckles. “I don’t even know how to use a gun.”
The drama group is performing the play “The Balkan Women” and invited members of the Islamic center to talk to them about Islam. The play is set in a Serbian detention camp for Muslim women in 1990, and the actors were hoping to make their performances more authentic.
“The actions of ISIS are far away from the teaching of Islam,” El Fallah told them, referring to the violent extremist group that has terrorized large swaths of Syria and Iraq.
In an earlier interview with El Paso Inc., he said that ISIS was “following an agenda to destroy Islam.”
“ISIS is not happy with the Muslims, too, and is killing Muslims,” El Fallah said. “They are against the will of the people. They jumped into Syria and have destroyed everything.”
Kamel, who now attends El Paso Community College and wants to be a dentist, says he likes living in El Paso. But he hopes to return to a peaceful Syria one day, and would like his kids to be born and raised there.
“I do have hope,” he said. “Of course I have hope.”