Cherry Hill Township wants residents to get to know their Muslim neighbors in the South Jersey community.
Known for its diversity and acceptance of people of different faiths and backgrounds, the Camden County town of nearly 71,000 wants to build a better relationship with its small but growing Muslim community by promoting cultural awareness for all races.
A new campaign, "Know Your Muslim Neighbor," begins Saturday at the township library so neighbors can get to know each other, learn about the Islamic faith and its traditions, and ultimately dispel stereotypes and break down barriers, said Muqaddas Ejaz, one of the event organizers.
"This is a step forward to tell our neighbors about the rich traditions of the Islamic culture," Ejaz said. "There is a lot of hatred that people are exposed to related to Islam."
Community leaders estimate that about 6,000 Muslims live in Cherry Hill. The Pew Research Center estimates that about 1 percent of New Jersey's population of nine million is Muslim, with the largest — and most diverse — concentration in North Jersey, in Paterson. (The U.S. Census Bureau doesn't ask questions about religion so there is no official count of the U.S. Muslim population).
Paterson and other cities have seen a spate of hate crimes and harassment against Muslims, often in the aftermath of a terrorist attack or disparaging remarks by President Trump about immigrants. Cherry Hill has largely embraced the Muslim community, Ejaz said.
But there are the occasional stares at woman wearing a hijab, a traditional Muslim head scarf, or the questions that the curious are unafraid to ask. Even the questions asked can often show a lack of understanding, she said.
"Sometimes I have people ask me 'Are you legal here?' " said the Pakistan-born Ejaz, 32, a naturalized citizen who came to the United States about 16 years ago.
So, Ejaz and two other Muslim women, Nertila Cana, a member of the Islamic Center of South Jersey, and Evana Cooper-Starling, a member of the outreach committee at the Gracious Center of Learning and Enrichment Activities mosque in Cherry Hill, pitched the library a proposal to host Saturday's event. Elby Wang, a research and outreach librarian, welcomed the group.
"It's very important to unify different communities," said Wang, who was born in Taiwan.
A similar forum last year to celebrate the Chinese New Year drew about 400 people, Wang said. Seventy-one percent of Cherry Hill's residents are white, 13 percent are Asian, 7 percent are Hispanic, 6 percent are black, and 2 percent are listed as "other," according to U.S. census data.
The Know Your Muslim Neighbor program is modeled after a national campaign largely spearheaded by the Muslim American Society. In a Detroit suburb, a Muslim woman invited strangers to have dinner with her family. In Seattle, a Muslim woman placed an ad in the newspaper asking residents to join her for coffee and "Meet a Muslim." Last March, members of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community positioned themselves at several locations around Philadelphia, holding up signs reading "#MeetaMuslim" or "Ask me anything."
Ejaz said the Cherry Hill organizers are working with other communities to host similar events elsewhere in South Jersey.
The two-hour Cherry Hill event will include presentations and hands-on activities related to Muslim traditions such as henna hand-painting. There will be traditional snacks and a sample of teas from around the world, Islamic music, and a poetry reading, Ejaz said. A translation of the Quran will also be available in several languages, she said.
A Muslim community leader will end the event with the Islamic call to worship, known as Adhan, and prayer, Ejaz said.
"It's frustrating that we have to 'normalize' ourselves for people. It's just the product of our times," said Afia N. Yunus of Cherry Hill, an immigration lawyer and Muslim rights advocate who plans to attend Saturday's event. "I'm hopeful that whoever comes leaves with a better understanding of who an American Muslim is."
Farhat Biviji of Cherry Hill, a founding member of the Jewish-Catholic-Muslim dialogue group of South Jersey, said stereotypes are not easy to dispel. The event is a step in the right direction, she said.
"The more we come together, the more we know each other and the better off we are as a nation," Biviji said. "This is an opportunity to create understanding."
About 90 people have signed up for the event and more are expected, Wang said. The event is free and open to adults and children. Registration is requested.