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Millennial Muslims see chance to change perceptions

Juweria Dahir came to Buffalo from England. The University at Buffalo graduate student works part-time for the city, and can’t picture herself leaving.

Amherst resident Manhal Siddiqi is preparing to study at UB on a full scholarship.

Nida Syed works in an emergency room, and is preparing to teach English in Malaysia on a Fulbright scholarship.

And Fadi Suboh is studying mechanical engineering at UB, and hopes to get into a combination law degree and MBA program after that.

All four of these accomplished young people are millennials, and they are Muslims. They were saluted on Saturday for their achievements. But beyond the awards, they said they want to serve as role models and make an impact on how people think about their religion.

The Muslim Public Affairs Council of Western New York presented them with its first “Outstanding American Muslim Millennial Awards,” at the organization’s 12th annual banquet. The event drew a sellout crowd of 400 in the Hyatt Regency Buffalo.

Muslims in America have found themselves turned into a campaign issue in the presidential race, with Republican front-runner Donald Trump calling for a temporary ban on Muslims entering the United States.

The council’s head, Dr. Khalid J. Qazi, said awards like these are a way “to showcase our positive development, positive image and our youth leadership. So we’re not going to dwell on any negativity. We’re going to dwell on positivity.”

Dahir, 23, is a graduate student in architecture and urban planning. She came to UB – “for love” – as an undergraduate, and enjoys making an impact on quality-of-life issues in the city through her work.

“I’m not sure whether there’s enough about Islam on the media, and when there is, it’s really the negative things,” she said. “I think for anyone who’s never interacted with a Muslim person, if they’re just bombarded with all the negative stereotypical things of Muslims, then that’s all they’ll ever know. So myself, hopefully being seen as someone they can relate to, that might hopefully break some barriers.”

Siddiqi, 17, will graduate from Williamsville North next month, and intends to eventually go to medical school. Both of her parents are physicians.

Siddiqi leads the Muslim Student Association at her school and said she didn’t encounter anti-Muslim prejudice growing up in her community. As for campaign rhetoric like Trump’s, she said: “We go back at it peacefully. We don’t retaliate against it. We just continue to show that we are peaceful, and everything we do is the same as you. The only thing is I have is a different religion.”

Syed, 23, graduated from UB in 2015, and works in a hospital as a medical scribe. It’s been an eye-opening experience, between the different backgrounds of people who come in for care, to the illnesses and diseases the staff treats.

Syed is familiar with educating other people about Islam. When she was attending Nardin Academy, her history teacher for several years brought her into her class to talk about Islam with other students.

Those types of personal connections can change perceptions about Muslims, she said. “You can create a bigger change basically just by co-existing and getting to know and understand each other on an individual level.”

Suboh, 20, who will be a senior at UB this fall, said he went to City Honors with only a few other Muslims. But he said he came to appreciate the city’s diversity through clubs and activities off campus.

The Amherst resident already has in mind what he wants to do when he has completed his studies: “When I start working for a company or work on my own, be my own boss, the very first thing I would be doing is giving back and trying my best to do a positive difference in the community that I grew up with, giving back to the American society that helped me to get to where I am right now.”

The event’s keynote speaker was Khurram Dara, a 2007 graduate of Williamsville North High School. Dara, 27, now works as a lawyer in New York City. He said millennial Muslims have a unique opportunity to make an impact.

“I think there are a whole host of people in the country that maybe have an image of what a Muslim person is supposed to look like, what they’re supposed to sound like, even how they’re supposed to dress,” he said. “And I think if you look at the millennial generation, they tend to shatter all those stereotypes. We enjoy movies and music just as much as the next millennial. I think in a lot of ways, we have the ability to bridge the gap that either really exists or is perceived to exist.”