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Being Muslim in Colorado Springs



Zeena (left) and Sarah Nisar deal with intolerance more on social media. - LAURA EURICH
  • Laura Eurich
  • Zeena (left) and Sarah Nisar deal with intolerance more on social media.

Pardon the cliché, but Zeena and Sarah Nisar look like your typical Colorado Springs sisters.

I admit, when I reached out to the Islamic Society of Colorado Springs to talk to young Muslims who might be voting in their first election this year, I had an image in mind.

But when Zeena, 20, and Sarah, 17, walked into the coffee shop where we met last week, there was nothing to indicate the sisters are Muslims. They wore jeans and casual shirts that could have come from American Eagle.

"We're often mistaken for Hispanic, I kinda roll with it," says Zeena, who like her younger sister, has long brown hair and dark brown eyes. They have a younger sister who has green eyes — a trait she picked up from her paternal grandmother.

Since the Census Bureau does not ask questions about religion, there's not an exact count for Muslims in the United States. In January, the Pew Research Center estimated that Muslims make up 1 percent of the U.S. population — about 3.3 million people.

So it's not a surprise that the sisters don't report knowing many other Muslims outside the local mosque.

While the Pew Center predicted that percentage will double by 2050, Donald Trump would like to put a stop to that. In December, he said he would ban all Muslims entering the country. (He has since modified his position to indicate the ban might cover everyone from countries impacted by terrorism.)

"This country was built on immigration," says Zeena, whose father is from the U.S.; her mother came to America from Afghanistan about 22 years ago.

When asked where their parents met, the girls said, "the airport," as theirs was an arranged marriage. Their paternal grandfather was also an Afghan; their grandmother grew up in Wyoming, but now lives in Colorado Springs.

The sisters were born in Delaware but moved to Colorado Springs when they were young. Zeena attends the University of Colorado at Boulder, where she studies biochemistry. She plans to go to medical school and hopes to eventually help establish health care in developing countries. Sarah is about to enter her senior year at Doherty High School. She's ready to leave Colorado Springs after graduation; she's not sure where she will attend college, but she does know she's interested in studying business, law and the film industry.

'Tolerant and accepting are two different words.'

Sarah says growing up she's had less freedom than her friends, but compared to other Muslim families, she knows she has it good.

The girls say they have discussions, and sometimes debates, within their own family. These discussions are generally centered on the environment and social issues. Their grandmother is conservative. And almost on cue, she strolled into the coffee shop and joined our conversation.

I asked her, as the grandmother of Muslims, how she feels about Trump's proposed ban. She said despite what he says, she thinks those are just words, she doesn't believe a complete ban would occur.

"The prosecution of any minority group never ends well," Zeena says. "Rhetoric can be toxic, the way people throw around words."

"Tolerant and accepting are two different words," Zeena says, and she turned to her grandmother and asked, "Are you accepting or tolerant?"

The sisters haven't experienced face-to-face discrimination. It helps that unless they are attending mosque, they don't wear headscarves — a tradition they don't think is entirely necessary in the United States.

Things are different on social media. When she sees ignorance or hate posted on Facebook, Sarah says, "Something triggers in me and I need to say something."

Zeena agrees, "You can't let that ignorance fester."

Sarah said she enjoys being able to trip people up in arguments (she'll be a natural in the legal field). But arguing is not the goal, she says: "Instead of looking at the differences, look at how similar we are."

This will be Zeena's first time voting in a presidential election — and it's probably no surprise that Trump will not be getting her vote. But neither will Hillary Clinton. She says she will vote for a third-party candidate.

And if given the chance to talk to Trump, what would they say?

Zeena said she would ask, "What do you mean by 'great'?"

She would remind him that this country was built on the hard work of immigrants.

After a little thought, Sarah followed with her own questions for the candidate:

"What are you going to do to help the environment? What are you going to do to help me?"

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