Γιαννης Παπαδοπουλος

Greek muslim feels ostracized

By Ioannis Papadopoulos

SHREWSBURY- Cathy Zouval knows what different means.

As a daughter of Greek immigrants in the United States, Cathy grew up feeling different from the other kids. But she had her family – until she turned 18.

That is when she converted to Islam. She has paid for her decision with about 20 years of isolation.

Cathy’s mother had forbidden her to talk to their relatives. The last 20 years she has spoken to her uncles, aunts and cousins only 10 times, and has felt discriminated against in the American society. These years seemed to her like an odyssey: A constant struggle to live in a family and a country “that were not yet ready to tolerate the differences.”

A scarf hugs her gentle face and her dress reaches her ankles. Her hands are the only part of her body that is not covered with clothing. Once Christian Orthodox, now a teacher at Al Hamra Islamic Academy in Shrewsbury, Mass., Cathy feels as though she is twice a stranger in the United States. “A stranger in my home!” she says.

For Cathy’s religious family her conversion to Islam seemed like an insult. “My parents were devastated. They felt like I rejected their beliefs. I was the embarrassment of the family,” she says. Only her sister stood by her and never criticized her choice.

“When people ask me where I come from, I don’t know what to answer. If I say that I am American they will see the scarf and think that I am lying. If I say that I am Greek, who will believe me? A Greek Muslim is not something usual.”

In Greece, about 90 percent of the population is Christian Orthodox.

Cathy was born in New Jersey. Both her parents came to the United States from Greece. Her mother’s origins lead to Chios, a Greek island in the Aegean Sea, and her father’s to Tripoli, a city in the southern Greece.

In her family home, Cathy remembers that everyone spoke Greek. English was prohibited once the door closed in Zouval’s residence. Cathy took Greek lessons in elementary school. Everyone in her family is a Christian Orthodox.

But Cathy felt that Christianity wasn’t a religion for her. “I had so many questions. Why did I have to kiss the priest’s hand? Isn’t he human as I am? Why do I need someone else to communicate with God? I respected all the rituals but I felt confused.”

As a freshman at Boston University, Cathy took a class about Islam. Less than a year later, in 1987, she became Muslim. She says that Islam is more academic. As a Muslim she feels that the prayer brings people closer and gives them a chance to share views and opinions. “I wanted to learn more for Christianity, but I felt that the Bible was never enough to answer all my questions.”

When the time came to make a family of her own, Cathy made another revolution. She married a foreigner, a Lebanese. It is considered a tradition among the Greek immigrant families in the United States to marry their children only with someone of Greek origin. Cathy says that all her friends and relatives are married with Greeks.

Today Cathy has four children who are students at Al Hamra Islamic Academy. Cathy teaches in their classrooms. “They are here [Al Hamra Academy] to enjoy the academics and find morality,” the 38-year-old teacher says.

“This school teaches children the Islamic and universal values of honesty, integrity, peace, friendship and respect,” says Sadia Khan, the principal. In Al Hamra the scarf is part of the girls’ uniform. The students learn Arabic, study the Koran, and pray everyday to Allah.

Cathy’s day at school starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 4 p.m. When the clock ticks 1 p.m., she washes carefully her hands, face, elbows and legs, takes off her shoes and walks the stairs up to the second floor of the school. She closes her eyes, kneels and prays to Allah. No one can speak to her at that time. If you ask her something she will not answer, she might not hear at all. It’s like she escapes from the school’s brick building. This is her sacred moment.

Cathy and the other teachers in Al Hamra face daily the challenge to help students become self confident with their identity. But Cathy feels uncomfortable when people in her local society judge her. “I feel that everyone is judging me just by looking at me,” she says. “How would you feel when people think that you are the enemy even if you haven’t done anything wrong? How can I battle this fear?”

She prefers to send her husband to the supermarket than going by herself. “It is very stressful,” she says. Cathy splits her life between her children and her work. “It’s like I am hidden away within my family.”

These 20 years since her conversion were hard and painful. But time managed to heal some of her wounds. The last two years her mother calls after the Ramadan to wish for her. Cathy calls back every Christmas.

Cathy is planning from now her summer vacations. She wants to go back to Greece and visit her house in Chios. The only thought that haunts her mind is how people will treat her overseas. “Will they mind that I wear a scarf or not?”

(This story was published at the Worcester Telegram & Gazette)

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