In an effort to build bridges toward understanding, Kennesaw State University's Museum of History and Holocaust Education has used a $72,000 grant and partnered with a museum and a university in Casablanca, Morocco, to gather oral histories on what it is like to be a Muslim in the South.
The KSU museum was one of only five museums in the U.S. to receive the grant, which came from the American Association of Museums and U.S. State Department's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, KSU leaders said.
"This grant helps us reach into a community with whom we have not yet connected," said Dr. Catherine Lewis, director of the KSU museum.
The KSU project team interviewed Muslims in Georgia primarily about Muslim life in the South, while the project team from KSU's partner university, Hassan II University - Mohamedia in Casablanca, interviewed members of the Ben M'Sik neighborhood there about their lives and their perceptions of America.
Earlier this month, several Muslims from Morocco came to the U.S. and shared their stories in a forum at KSU. The one overarching question:?"What does it mean to be Muslim in America and specifically in the American South?"
Maryam Ozer was one of them. She came to the U.S. from Albania in 1999, and said she was surprised during a visit to a flea market to realize how much Southern accents differed from the English she had been taught.
"I don't know if I was more upset not being able to buy the watermelon or to study so many years in school learning English, and still not getting the price of a watermelon," she said, laughing.
Another panelist, Ayhan Kurucu, who was born in Turkey, said many Americans' perceptions of Islam come from watching television news.
"You think that there is no life beyond the United States but fighting, fighting, fighting," he said. "That's not true, there are people just like you overseas trying to make a living and trying to enjoy the short life."
Stephanie Green, who has lived in Cobb since 1993, traveled to Morocco with other KSU students in December to interview people for the project. One of the most fascinating things she said she learned was that there is a computer program call to prayer for Muslims who do not live in areas where the call to prayer is available.
"It never occurred to me until I went to Morocco for this project how much the call to prayer is a part of the life of Muslims in other places," Green said.
Jason Lutz, another KSU interviewer, said he has learned that Islam is incredibly misunderstood in America.
"Even without being asked, many of the interviewees began to discuss topics which they knew non-Muslims misunderstood," he said. "The saddest part of the interviews was when many of the interviewees spoke about blatant misrepresentations of Islam in the media, but felt helpless to correct them. I hope that this project has given them that opportunity."
Professor Samir El Azhar, Ben M'Sik Community Museum co-coordinator, said the world is in need of intellectual, social and political engagement from leaders in every nation, regardless of religious, ethnic or cultural considerations.
"The objective of the project we are working on - the Casablanca/Kennesaw project - is to establish bridges of dialogue and understanding, so that each one of us moves a step towards the other," he said.
During their visit, the Moroccan delegation, led by El Azhar of Morocco's Hassan II University, toured Atlanta and received Gov. Sonny Perdue's commendation before traveling to Washington to present their research to State Department officials. The Ben M'Sik Community Museum, in Casablanca, was part of the project.