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Visiting A Historic Mosque In North Dakota


There's a historic site on a prairie in North Dakota where a mosque was built nearly a hundred years ago. It was the first building in the U.S. constructed specifically to be a mosque. Descendants of the families who built it are now sharing that story with Muslims who are new Americans. NPR's Leila Fadel went with them and has this report.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: Nicole Mattson was in college when she discovered her family were among those who built the mosque. She read about it in a book for an assignment on the Lebanese in the U.S.

NICOLE MATTSON: I checked out all the books at the library that they had, and I was reading one of them, and it started to quote Lila Thorlakson, who is my grandmother's sister.

FADEL: She had no idea her ancestors who hailed from the Bekaa Valley in what is modern day Lebanon were Muslim when they settled in North Dakota to farm the land some 120 years ago.

MATTSON: A lot of people are made to feel like they are coming here and they are something different, someone different than anybody who has been here before. And the history out on the prairie shows that that's not true. People like them have been here for more than 100 years.

FADEL: So she helped plan a field trip to the site with the Afro American Development Association in the area. Cani Abdullahi (ph) the program coordinator, says it's important to see the long history of this faith tradition in the United States.

CANI ABDULLAHI: We just don't come yesterday. We used to be here before 100 years ago there was a family flee from their country, Muslim family, came here, build a mosque.

FADEL: In fact, Islam now has a much deeper history than this story. Some 15% of slaves forced to the shores of North America were Muslim. Abdullahi and Abdel Wali Sharif Abdel Nasser, who's with the Fargo mosque, get in a red van and pick up people from a growing Muslim population in Fargo, N.D. and Moorhead, Minn.

ABDULLAHI: Are you ready?

ABDEL WALI SHARIF ABDEL NASSER: Yeah, we're ready to go now.

FADEL: Then they make the five-hour drive.

ABDULLAHI: We made it, guys (unintelligible).

FADEL: Before getting to Ross, N.D., population about 97, the group of Somali refugees - some American, some in the process of getting their citizenship - stand in a field of grass surrounding a tiny domed mosque. Nicole Mattson is waiting.

MATTSON: There's gopher holes all over the place.

ABDULLAHI: Oh, yeah, I can see.

MATTSON: So you got to watch your step or you're going to put your foot in a hole.

FADEL: She warns about the holes the gophers and badgers have burrowed. She has homemade snickerdoodles, chocolate chip cookies and her uncle, Emmett. He's giving a tour.

EMMETT OMAR: Anyway, what you see here is what the original mosque looked like.

FADEL: Emmett Omar's first name is actually Mohamed, and his parents were among those who built the mosque in the 1920s. It fell into disrepair after many families moved away during the Great Depression. The original building was torn down.

OMAR: Sarah Allie - she was my mom. And when they took down the big mosque, she was determined that we have something here for people to come and pray in.

FADEL: This new building, it's a 16-by-16-foot room. A Quran is open to Omar's mother's favorite passage. There's a prayer rug in the middle of the room and an easel with a poster of those who have passed from the Lebanese Syrian families that were in this area. But there are no windows.

OMAR: My oldest sister has been critical of me since we put the thing up for not having windows, you know, but when you see, you know, people driving around shooting in the mosques and stuff, you know, that's the last thing I wanted.

FADEL: A few acres away is a small cemetery where Omar's parents, grandmother, brother and other relatives are buried and where other families lay to rest Arabic names mixed with European names that married into the families. Abdi Gedi, a Somali American, says he took the trip to share what he saw with his five American children who are living through a period where they hear things like go back to your country.

ABDI GEDI: That, to me, the takeaway is I'll tell my kids this is where you come from. We all have origin, right? - Norwegian, Scandinavian, whatever it is. But this is where we are now, and this is where we belong.

FADEL: Because in a moment where the country feels divided, seeing this historic site, he says, gives him a sense of belonging and an imagined future where his children will be telling their American story. Leila Fadel, NPR News, Ross, N.D. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.