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‘It makes you feel you belong’: Schools provide Muslim students space, time for daily prayers

Najma Ahmed talks about how comfortable she feels attending Pelican Rapids High School.David Samson / The Forum1 / 2
Brothers Farah and Ato Hashi share a laugh when talking about first moving attending school in Pelican Rapids.David Samson / The Forum2 / 2

PELICAN RAPIDS, Minn. — Somali immigrants who come to live here quickly learn to deal with the huge differences between Africa and America.

"For me, the only thing that was shocking was the accent, and the food, and the school system, and the weather. I think that's it," joked 16-year-old Najma Ahmed.

But for Ahmed, a junior at Pelican Rapids High School, and other Somali students who study while their parents work at the local turkey processing plant, there is a constant.

It is their religion, Islam.

For the strictly devout, it requires praying five times a day. Praying as a congregation at the local mosque is required on Fridays.

That means those students must carve out one or two 10-minute breaks to pray during school, depending on the time of year.

It happens quietly at Pelican Rapids High School, in an out-of-the-way stairwell and a nearby elevator alcove.

Students leave one class a bit early, arrive to the next a bit late, and in-between, kneel and render their devotions to God.

It's a small thing, but it means the world to the students.

"America is a freedom country. ... If the most important thing is religion in your life, and someone gives you the freedom to do what you want to do with your religion, you have this sense of feeling that you are accepted," said 18-year-old Ato Hashi.

"It makes you feel you belong here," the Pelican Rapids senior said. "We are united. You're not going to be different from anyone else."

Prayer and school is a subject that's been litigated to the Supreme Court level several times in the last 50-plus years between committed Christians and those who demand separation of church and state.

The result has been a legal gray area for school districts.

In general, if students want to pray at school, they can as long as they do so quietly, don't disrupt the work of others and don't subject fellow students to peer pressure.

But the Supreme Court has consistently ruled against things that smack of school-sponsored prayer, such as Christian prayers broadcast before the start of a school day, as violating the the First Amendment of the Constitution, which protects against government establishment of an official religion.

'The American way'

Area superintendents say accommodations have long been made for the Christian majority.

"When I was in schools, we accommodated the Catholics by serving fish on Fridays," said Moorhead Superintendent Lynne Kovash.

For a time, there was also "religious release," for religious instruction on Wednesday mornings, she said.

There are church and mission trips, she said. And at the high school, Christian students used to do a rally around the flagpole.

More recently, a few Muslim students at the high school and middle school levels have asked for time and a quiet place to pray, Kovash said, and it "hasn't interrupted education. It really hasn't."

By Minnesota statute, "reasonable efforts must be made by a school district to accommodate any pupil who wishes to be excused from a curricular activity for a religious observance," Kovash said.

"We have to very careful that we don't promote or inhibit religion," she said. "You know, you walk that fine line. Whether it's Lutheran, Catholic or Islamic, whatever, we work together. In education, we should be open to all religions. One is not more important than the other."

Deb Wanek, superintendent for the Pelican Rapids School District, said things have worked well in the decade she's overseen district operations.

About 10 percent of Pelican Rapids' 880 students are black or African-American, most of them Somalis, she said.

The students who request to pray are responsible for catching up with any missed classroom work, she said.

"It's a pretty tight schedule, so it's not like they're out wandering free," Wanek said.

When students go to the nearby mosque on Fridays, they generally get to and from their devotions with no problems. Students who don't are quickly brought back in line by parents and community elders, Wanek said.

She said it's important to talk about the issue "to set the facts straight."

"I always feel bad when our Muslims get kind of a hard rap," Wanek said. "But our other churches had that. It isn't anything new. It's part of the American way, being accommodating and being respectful."

The Fargo and West Fargo school districts have policies that allow for prayer in their schools.

Fargo School District spokeswoman AnnMarie Campbell said requests for prayer accommodations during the school day are seldom made, but "if requested, administrators work with the student/family to meet the request, in compliance with our policy." The policy is contained in a document titled AP 4270, covering a range of issues tied to religious beliefs and customs.

Heather Konschak, spokeswoman for the West Fargo School District, said the district's two high schools and two middle schools have no students asking for prayer accommodations at this time.

Sheyenne High School students have requested time to pray in the past, typically using a conference room or other quiet, private place, according to a statement Konschak provided The Forum.

At West Fargo High School, most of the students that inquired during the first semester used an off hour to pray. In a statement Konschak released, West Fargo High School officials said space has been "the bigger challenge."

"It is hard to provide space and not supervise them. The spot that was used is now part of construction," the statement said.

'A hopeful sign'

In September 2015, Fargo Shanley High School agreed to delay a boys soccer match with West Fargo High School.

That may not have been newsworthy in itself, but the reason was.

The Packers, it turned out, had several players who would have been unable to play on the game's scheduled day because it fell during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice.

West Fargo's head coach said it was the first time he had to reschedule a match for a Muslim holiday.

"I think it's just something to be aware of as our community becomes more diverse," James Moe told The Forum.

Michael Smith, superintendent for St. John Paul II Catholic Schools at the time, said the decision was easy, because religious holidays are important.

"Our community is based on these celebrations," he said. "Therefore, we completely respect West Fargo's decision to honor the religious holidays their community deems important."

David Myers, executive director of the Center for Interfaith Projects, said the move was a sign of growth for the Fargo-Moorhead area.

"To me, that was a very hopeful sign," Myers said.

Leaders in Fargo-Moorhead's Muslim community say they believe the systems in place in the school are meeting their needs.

"I haven't heard of any, at least any outwardly visible cases, of discrimination in the schools," said Ahmed Kamel, a professor at Concordia College who has run for the Fargo School Board. "From my point of view, yes, absolutely, the schools are doing their best."

Mohamed Sanaullah is a board member of the Islamic Society of Fargo-Moorhead, a mosque in south Fargo that serves about 6,000 people in the area.

"I know most of the school districts are very accommodating," he said. "They are very engaged and sensitive about that these things are looked after. I don't think I've heard any complaints."

"They (schools) are supportive. ... I have not seen any difficulties" in Moorhead schools, said Hakun Abdullahi of the African-American Development Center. He has not heard of any problems in Fargo or West Fargo schools, either.

Student ambassadors

In Pelican Rapids, the Somali students have also become ambassadors to schools that have less-diverse student populations. They share information about their culture and answer questions as part of a multicultural club.

The students have visited Fergus Falls, Detroit Lakes and Hawley schools to interact with other area students, they said.

"It is unique" Hashi said. "I joined, because I didn't want anyone to see me as a stranger."

"Plus, it boost my confidence in giving speeches. That's the main thing of why I'm involved," Ahmed said.

Farah Hashi, 17, is Ato's brother.

The junior said he's had some interesting conversations. He explained to one girl that he was required to pray five times a day.

She said, "'Wow, we only do it on Sundays!'" Farah Hashi said.

"At the end of the day, you want them to say, 'Hey, I met this guy and he told me about his religion,' " Farah Hashi said.

The students said fellow students and teachers have been very accepting.

"At the end of the day, we all have to learn something about each other," Ahmed said.

And that is especially true with getting the time to pray, the students said.

"Our religion is respected," Ato Hashi said. "If you have that freedom, and that feeling you belong, you don't need to worry about anything else. That's life. There's nothing else."

"We're just so lucky," Ahmed agreed. "We're just lucky, lucky, lucky."

Helmut Schmidt

Helmut Schmidt was born in Germany, but grew up in the Twin Cities area, graduating from Park High School of Cottage Grove. After serving a tour in the U.S. Army, he attended the University of St. Thomas in St Paul, Minn., graduating in 1984 with a degree in journalism. He then worked at the Albert Lea (Minn.) Tribune and served as managing editor there for three years. He joined The Forum in October 1989, working as a copy editor until 2000. Since then, he has worked as a reporter on several beats, including education, Fargo city government, business and military affairs. He is currently The Forum's K-12 education reporter.

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