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PRESTONSBURG, Kentucky — With its coal-caked hills, isolation and deep poverty, Southeastern Kentucky is probably not the first place that springs to mind when one considers the Muslim experience in America.
But nonetheless a small Muslim community has settled in the Appalachians, making a home forged in the ash-black-smudged margins. Friendships are made and communities are established, even as a wider debate rages around the prejudice of GOP frontrunner Donald Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims immigrating to the U.S.
Bilal Ahmed, 22, is from Elizabethtown, an affluent area near Louisville. But he decided to come to the University of Pikeville near the Virginia border to challenge himself and get out of his comfort zone. He described his freshman immersion in Pikeville as “brutal,” not because of anti-Muslim backlash, but just adjusting to college life.
In fact, after the first semester, Ahmed was so homesick that he filled out an application to transfer. But then exams intervened. Ahmed was taking Biology 151 and stressing over an upcoming exam, so he stepped out of his comfort zone and approached the kid behind him, asking him how he planned to prepare for the big test.
“We started studying in the library together and just hit it off and became best friends from that time on,” recalls Shey Spencer, 23. The two went on to become resident assistants, tutors in organic chemistry, and co-founded a campus chapter of National Society of Leadership and Success.
Ahmed credits his friendship with Spencer, a soccer and tennis player, as convincing him to stick it out at Pikeville, a decision the aspiring eye surgeon is now happy he made. Ahmed’s social circle gradually expanded and, like Spencer, many of his new friends were conservative Christians steeped in Bible Belt culture.
Ahmed has a theory for why he and others have been well-received in Appalachia.
“The foundation of my friendship is that both groups — Muslims and people from Central Appalachia — feel marginalized. Muslims are viewed as terrorists, Appalachians as uneducated and poor,” Bilal says. So the two groups have found common cause aside a mainstream media machine that paints both groups with the same broad brush.
Such cross-creed friendships in the heart of Central Appalachia do not surprise Christopher Green, an associate professor of Appalachian Studies at Berea College in Kentucky.
“Many people outside the area don’t think about it, but Central Appalachia is an incredibly diverse region religiously. You have Baptists, Pentecostal, Holiness, Catholic churches and mainline churches, there is a tremendous diversity of religious experience through Christian denominations,” Green says. Because of this, he says, “There is tremendous respect for people who hold religion close, no matter the denomination.”
Kentucky has three medical schools: one in Louisville, one in Lexington, the other in tiny Pikeville. The medical school has enough Muslim students to have a Muslim Doctor’s Association.
University communities are generally welcoming of outsiders. While Bilal will pack up and head to Toledo, Ohio, to finish his medical studies, there are Muslims who have grown up in the area — so many that in 1999 a mosque was opened here.
Outside of Prestonsburg, a short drive north on US 23 and is the Big Branch of Abbott Creek Road, a small ribbon of asphalt that disappears into the folds of the area’s unyielding hills. Travel a mile or two and it appears in a holler — as locals call narrow valleys tucked in the hills — an elegant mosque, its Arabic script standing out in an area more known for its thoroughly accented English than Middle Eastern languages. Welcome to Masjid Al-Farooq.
While mosques in other southern states have experienced increasing turbulence and threats, the Prestonsburg mosque has generally been met with nonchalance.
“I got one call after 9/11 from someone at 2 a.m.,” recalls Syed Badrudduja, the mosque’s imam who is also a well-known local surgeon. And that phone call, the imam notes, wasn’t even from the area; it was from Ohio.
The insular, protect-our-own culture of eastern Kentucky extends to the Muslims who call the area home.
“People have been very kind. Even after 9/11 people would come up to me and say `if anyone gives you problems, we’ll take care of it for you, we have your back,’” Badrudduja says. He says that the mosque serves a need in remote southeastern Kentucky.
“There are a few Muslims in every county. The whole area was in need of a mosque,” Badrudduja says, saying the mosque draws worshippers from as far away as Hazard and Harlan, in addition to neighboring Pikeville and Prestonsburg.
‘People have been very kind. Even after 9/11 people would come up to me and say, “If anyone gives you problems, we’ll take care of it for you, we have your back.”’
Kentucky imam and surgeon
On a recent day, about 20 men gathered in the mosque for traditional Friday prayers. Almost everyone in the room was a medical professional: cardiologist, surgeon, pediatrician. There was one accountant. The professionals are drawn from all areas of southeast Kentucky and neighboring West Virginia. The vice-imam, a pediatrician, led the group in prayer. One man in surgical scrubs came with his son. Cell phones are ubiquitous. If someone were ever injured on the premises there’d be a doctor in almost any specialty to help.
Yassin Khattab, originally from Syria, is the only private-practice pediatrician in the underserved area around Prestonsburg. He has over 5,000 patients from a seven-county area. He says the Muslim physicians play such an important role in the community’s health that they are made to feel very welcome. Khattab said one of his nurses recently came to him visibly upset and asked:
“What will happen if Donald Trump is elected?”
“Nothing,” he said. “I’ll still be here practicing medicine.”
Asaad attended a “Muslim home school” located behind the mosque for a time (his younger siblings go to public school) and then started his college studies at Big Sandy Technical College before transferring to the University of Kentucky, and then Eastern Kentucky University to finish. He hopes to study to become a dentist. Assad studied for a year in Syria between high school and college. But Asaad can’t imagine himself practicing dentistry anywhere but eastern Kentucky.
“I want to contribute and give back to my community,” says Asaad, 22. “The Muslims that they are putting on the news do not represent us.”
Muhammad Ahmad is a cardiologist in Pikeville. He says that many Muslims come to rural areas as part of their visa and work study programs that require them to set up shop in an underserved area for three years. But, Ahmed notes, in the case of Pikeville, most stay far longer.
“This is a nice place to stay and raise a family,” Ahmed says.
The warm welcome comes as no surprise to Robert Musick, chaplain for the University of Pikeville.
“I feel passionately that Appalachia is different. We are not Southern,” Musick says. “We are deeply central Appalachian, Scots-Irish, and we’re a very welcoming, hospitable people.”