Youth Coalition for Understanding
Fardosa Hassan: Creating Space for Questions
by Ibrahim Hirsi
Coming of age in Minneapolis, Fardosa Hassan dived with enthusiasm into any community-service opportunity that helped improve the city and society as a whole.
The mere mention of Washburn High School in Minneapolis reminds Hassan of a host of community service activities she got involved with before she graduated in 2008.
“You have to give back to your community,” Hassan said. “Some people don’t have the opportunities I had. I feel like I owe them a lot.”
Hassan said her participation in community service and civic engagement gives her peace of mind and validation that her presence in the world can play a role in the betterment of society.
Today, hundreds of youth in the Twin Cities benefit from the mentoring Hassan has been providing since December 2012 as the youth coordinator at Interfaith Youth Leadership Coalition (IYLC).
A program of the Saint Paul Leadership Coalition, IYLC brings together Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, atheist and other middle- and high school-aged students, promoting interfaith understanding and reducing prejudice and misunderstanding through dialogue and community service.
The students discuss racial and ethnic diversity, cultural differences, and issues important in their context.
“It’s a space where the students get the opportunity to express themselves,” Hassan said. “In public, we don’t talk about faith, we don’t talk about tolerance. This program allows the youth to express their faith and values. It allows them to engage and be respectful about different faiths.”
During a time when faith has repeatedly been used as a manipulative political thorn, IYLC gives young people a chance to learn from one another — not from the media, which Hassan believes misinforms people about faith and religion.
The IYLC team identifies misconceptions about religions and call the youth around the table for dialogue.
“It’s so easy to have tensions increased because people do not understand one another’s background,” said the Rev. Patricia Lull, executive director of the St. Paul Area Council of Churches.
Students Lead to Make a Difference
Hassan coordinates a committee of ten high school students who run IYLC’s biggest events and activities. Meeting twice a month, the team identifies and discusses world problems, school experiences, and tensions between faith communities.
The group then proposes solutions, designs programs that bring together hundreds of people, and announces action plans such as creating service-learning opportunities, local justice initiatives, and service projects.
“They’re young, but they really are determined to make a difference,” Hassan said of the committee. “During those events, they’re the ones who run the show.”
Amy Kreider, a youth who took part in IYLC, described it as an eye- and heart-opening experience. Kreider has lived in Minneapolis all her life, which she described as a “very culturally and religious diverse” city. Being surrounded by such cultural and religious diversity made her curious. “I’ve always been interested in learning about how other people live,” Kreider says. “I wanted to know about their values and how they are different from my own.”
Instead of sitting back and assuming, Kreider joined IYLC to ask any cultural and religious questions that crossed her mind.
Reflecting on her time in the group, Kreider said that one of the most important lessons she learned was that “Asking questions is a lot better than not asking questions and assuming. A lot of people are afraid to offend somebody [if they ask questions], so they just assume things.”
When Hassan was around Kreider’s age, she didn’t get the opportunity to discuss faith with peers. In fact, Hassan intentionally turned a deaf ear to conversations and activities about it.
“I didn’t want to talk about faith,” Hassan recalled. “I was involved in many civic engagement programs, but my interest was never in faith.”
Hassan’s attitude towards faith and religion changed when she attended Augsburg College. The required introduction to Christianity courses, she said, helped her become more knowledgeable and confident about her own religion, Islam.
“I would read about Prophet Abraham in Christianity; then I would read the Quran to learn what Islam says about him,” Hassan said. And she did the same for other topics.
Seeking Muslim Participation
For months now, Hassan has been inviting Twin Cities mosque leaders to bring their youth to IYLC events, but to no avail.
Hassan thinks that some Somali-American Muslims fear their participation in interfaith discussions will cause their faith to fade and melt into other religions.
“No, no one is converting the other,” she said. “It’s about talking about your own religion to others, and asking questions about what you don’t know about other religions.”
Explaining how she understands “interfaith,” Patricia Lull said: “We invite young adults to grow in the understanding of their own faith traditions — to be more deeply Muslim, more deeply Christian, more deeply Jewish, etcetera. At the same time, they are having a more profound understanding of somebody else’s religion so we never want to give up what’s distinctive.”
Not everyone in the Muslim community, however, thinks like Hassan and Lull. Some community members have questioned Hassan about her work with IYLC and told her that no Muslim should associate with such groups. When some Muslim religious leaders stood side by side with their Christian, Jewish and Hindu counterparts at Central Lutheran Church in Minneapolis in 2010 for “interfaith services,” other Somali community members accused them of entering the church and performing prayers with non-Muslims.
Through local Somali media, they declared that those who participated in the services lost their faith, a statement that has discouraged some Somalis from participating in any interfaith program. “She does some work that not everybody gets excited about,” said Lull, who has known Hassan for the past four years. “I admire her courage and her bravery.”
Despite this opposition, Hassan continues to encourage Muslim youth to be part of IYLC. “If you don’t explain your religion to those who are interested, then other people who know nothing about Islam will do the work,” she said. “Also, IYLC isn’t all about religion talks. It’s about community services. It’s about teaching tolerance. It’s about creating a better place for all.”
This article was originally published by MinnPost on July 12, 2013.
Header Photo: Pixabay