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American Muslim

The Argue  - April 24, 2006

Newark woman gives voice to Muslims
Sept. 11, 2001, attacks spurred once-quiet activist into battling stereotypes

By Angela Woodall

NEWARK — When Samina Faheem Sundas first set foot in the United States nearly 30 years ago, she never imagined that one day she would be a voice for fellow Muslims.

When she arrived in 1979, the then soft-spoken 23-year-old had a bad taste in her mouth from U.S. immigration policies and no greater desire than to return to her native Lahore, Pakistan.

For that reason, she made up her mind to wall herself off from others and wait out the years she would have to stay until her husband finished his studies.

Today, however, Sundas is the national chairwoman of American Muslim Voice, with an office tucked away in the second story of a plain Newark office building near Newark Memorial High School.

The goal of the 3-year-old organization, and of Sundas, is to build bridges between followers of Islam and non-Muslims.

It has not been easy.

Sundas was a quiet activist for Muslims. Then on Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers affiliated with al-Qaida, a terrorist organization that follows a rigid interpretation of Islam, crashed planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, sending shock waves through the United States.

Because of 9/11, Muslims were labeled as terrorists, Sundas said. But what happened on that day goes against everything Islam stands for, she added.

Sundas became involved with American Muslim Voice because, she said, prejudices against Muslims still were strong two years later.

"Fellow Americans needed to know the truth about Muslims," she said. "We all pay the price for the many misconceptions about Muslims."

She said fear made it difficult to convince some Muslims to speak out against the stereotypes.

According to Sundas, Muslims were alarmed by rounds of detentions and deportations of men from the Middle East, Central and Southeast Asia and other largely Islamic areas.

Then came legislation such as the Patriot Act and the Clear Act — a 2003 congressional bill that would have given local and state law enforcement officers the authority to enforce federal immigration laws.

The organization is making progress, according to Sundas, by teaming up with religious organizations, colleges, churches and other groups active in protecting civil and constitutional rights.

According to Sundas, the partnership has helped.

"We could speak until we were blue in the face before and wouldn't be heard," she said.

Sundas said she personally has felt the bite of prejudice.

In recent years, she started losing clients at the day care center she runs in Palo Alto. She did not realize the decline was personal until someone told Sundas that a few families were afraid to put their children in her care because she is Muslim.

Sundas also said her life has been threatened because of the work she is doing. She dismissed the idea of quitting, though.

Her dangling gold earrings began to bounce as she spoke, a look of determination spreading across the delicate features of her face.

"I will die trying to make the American dream happen, the dream of feeling safe, secure, respected and loved at home."

And by home, she meant the United States.