Va. Mosque Reaches Out, Joining Immigrant Fabric

Lakoira Aitettaleb, 53, hands food to Juana Perez, 54, left, and Kim Chee, 40, at the weekly distribution at Dar al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church.
Lakoira Aitettaleb, 53, hands food to Juana Perez, 54, left, and Kim Chee, 40, at the weekly distribution at Dar al Hijrah mosque in Falls Church. (Sarah L. Voisin - The Washington Post)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 13, 2008

For years, the Dar al Hijrah mosque was an isolated, slightly mysterious presence in Falls Church -- a stark stone building hidden behind a row of trees, rarely visited by non-Muslims in the multi-ethnic Culmore neighborhood, and known mostly for traffic jams on Leesburg Pike as worshipers arrived for Friday prayers.

These days, the mosque bustles with visitors chattering in Spanish and Vietnamese as well as Persian and Urdu. Immigrants from a dozen countries gather there each Thursday, many with toddlers and baby strollers, to pick up donated chicken, bread, fruit and vegetables.

On weekends, the doors are thrown open for community blood drives or mental health fairs. At night, mosque officials often attend meetings at nearby churches, synagogues or social agencies, including a monthly brainstorming session called Culmore Partners.

"The average person here has had no interaction with Islam. They may even think we are the enemy, especially after September 11th," said Abdulkareem Jama, a network engineer from Somalia who is president of the mosque's board. "The more we open up and interact, the more we demystify things and seem normal to each other."

Dar al Hijrah has evolved dramatically since 2001, when it came under official suspicion amid reports that a man linked to the terror attacks in New York and Washington had visited there. This year, its glossy 25th anniversary report includes congratulatory letters from a variety of private and public institutions.

The mosque's coming out also reflects the growing cooperation between area Muslim institutions and the largely non-Muslim immigrant communities that surround them. In Culmore, the trend has brought many groups together to help immigrants who struggle with poverty, discrimination and legal problems.

Father Horace Grinnell is the pastor at St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church, a longtime anchor of Culmore. Until six months ago, he had never met the leaders of Dar al Hijrah. Now, they are collaborating on a health clinic and other projects.

"There has been a quantum leap in synergy and coordination," Grinnell said. "They were painted pretty harshly after 9/11, but now they are reaching out on all fronts. We can both be a resource for people, whether they are Catholic or not."

Beyond places of worship, the evolving mosaic of shops, restaurants and offices in Culmore and several other Northern Virginia areas reflects an increasingly comfortable meld of Middle Eastern cultures with the Latin American and Asian cultures that once dominated them.

On Leesburg Pike, a Pakistani dentist's waiting room has Spanish-language and Muslim-oriented newspapers; an Arab-owned travel company books trips to Central America; and an Iranian grocery owner often chats with the Salvadoran discount furniture seller next door.

"There is harmony here," said Luis Lazo, 55, as he stopped by to greet Lida Sadahjiani in her shop stuffed with Iranian delicacies. "We don't speak the same language, but we have known each other a long time."

Just across Leesburg Pike, Ali Altaf, 35, a bank employee, was eating lunch at a Middle Eastern restaurant with his wife and children. In the window were signs in Arabic, Persian and Spanish. His waitress was a Peruvian immigrant named Emiliana Navarrete, 21.

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