VICTORIA, Texas – It was about 18 months ago when fire destroyed the gold-domed Victoria Islamic Center, leaving Muslims fearful for their safety and opening doors to their good neighbors.
“I was scared to my core. We had no facts. All we knew is the mosque is going up in flames. I thought, ‘Is someone coming to kick us out?’” Irfan Qureshi said of the early morning fire, The Antonio Express News reported.
In the middle of the charred ruins, compassionate neighbors began to approach him and offer help.
“They were saying, ‘We’re very sorry,’ and handing me cash and checks. You can’t put a price on how much that lifted us up as a community,” he recalled.
The mosque was set on fire on January 28, 2017. On Monday, a federal jury convicted Marq Vincent Perez of burning the mosque.
Perez, 26, who had voiced his hatred of Muslims online, faces up to 40 years in prison when he is sentenced in October.
Despite the hoped-for legal outcome, many Muslim families remain traumatized.
According to Muslim leaders, some members have not returned to worship after the fire. Some women took off their hijab to avoid being identified as a Muslim in public.
“It’s like the church shooting in Sutherland Springs. These memories can haunt us. It happened once. Who can say it won’t happen again,” said Ajrami, 50, who was born in Gaza.
“Especially on Friday when we have the congregational prayers and potluck dinner, with more of the ladies and the kids. I find myself standing with my back to the wall and watching the front door,” said Abe Ajrami, a board member of the Victoria Islamic Center.
Instead of locking themselves in, Muslim leaders emphasized the mosque’s open doors, involvement with others and civic participation that included the Rotary Club, Habitat for Humanity and Christ’s Kitchen, which feeds the poor.
“We had good relations with the Victoria community. Different churches invited us and we had them come to visit us,” Hashmi testified.
The growing congregation included Muslims from across the Middle East and Asia, as well as many American-born.
“This is not only a place of worship, we have our weekly potluck dinners here and a school for teaching. We also have our funerals and our weddings here,” he said.
Omar Rachid, another mosque board member, said an anti-Muslim climate that is encouraged by some political figures and national media outlets, means that Muslims can’t afford to lower their guard.
“The reality of it is that Muslims in America have been subjected to more insults, attacks and hate crimes in the last two or three years than ever before, specifically more than after 9-11. Islamophobia is thriving,” he said.
“This is not America. It is not the America I came to 35 years ago,” he said.
Over the years, he said, members of the mosque have done their civic duty in Victoria.
“We serve our community. We volunteer. I have given thousands of hours to area agencies and charities. I have run for mayor. I was chairman of the United Way and the chamber of commerce,” he said.