When Ayman Mohamed arrived at the Tarbiya Institute in Roseville for morning prayer on Feb. 1, he saw his religion had been attacked. On the mosque’s white front walls, “Muslims Out” and other hateful messages about Islam had been spray-painted in black. Even a nearby truck had been vandalized.
Shocked and saddened, the mosque’s director of Islamic studies opened up the building and ushered in his congregants for the day’s first prayer. His message to his stricken congregation: Stay strong, despite the the angry rhetoric used by some national leaders targeting their faith.
“A lot of people, as the elections were unfolding and after the inauguration, were scared and came to us fearing for their safety and asking, ‘What can we do? How can we protect ourselves?’” he said. “It definitely increases people’s anxiety and puts everyone on edge.”
Coming at the same time as other anti-Muslim attacks and a presidential order banning entry by people from seven predominantly Muslim countries, many Muslim Americans are asking themselves whether they still are welcome in this country while they worry about their own safety and the safety of their loved ones.
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In response, mosques, student groups and mental health agencies around the Sacramento region are stepping up and offering Muslims a safe place to share their anxieties and receive professional help.
The Amala Hopeline, a Sacramento-based mental health hotline for young Muslims, has seen a spike in calls since Donald Trump’s election, said Saba Saleem, a volunteer and one of the founders of the organization. During his campaign, the president promised to ban Muslims from entering the country and accused American Muslims of not doing enough to stop terrorists.
The Amala line received 77 calls in November 2016 seeking help, compared to the usual 15 calls per month, hotline staff said. December and January saw 24 calls each, compared to just seven calls total during the same two months a year before.
Saleem, 23, said mental health issues are rarely discussed in Muslim families because of the stigma attached to mental illness and suicide.
“People are hesitant to openly talk about it because they’re accused of not being religious enough,” Saleem said. “They say you’re depressed because you don’t pray enough, and if you just pray more, your mental health problems will just go away, which is isn't a solution for the majority of people.”
The two issues people talk about most on the calls are depression and family stress, according to data from the group. Cultural and religious pressures, relationship problems and financial worries also come up regularly. The line is a project of the Muslim American Society Social Services Foundation and is open five nights a week.
Some mental health counselors say Muslim Americans are in a moment of crisis, and the need for services is greater than ever, said Stanford University psychiatrist Dr. Rania Awaad. Fear and helplessness, if sustained over time, can make people mentally shut down, she said.
“It becomes a psychological condition when it starts to interfere with your daily life,” Awaad said. “There is this very real anxiety, and a sense of ‘What if I’m next?’ The ability to cope, in general, has definitely gone down.”
UC Davis student Nida Ahmed is still coming to terms with a string of attacks that have targeted Muslims in recent weeks.
In late January, a vandal smashed six windows, damaged several bicycles and wrapped pork – a forbidden food in the Muslim faith – around the front door handle of the Islamic Center of Davis. Last week, 30-year-old Lauren Kirk-Coehlo was charged with a hate crime in connection to the attack. Police said she wrote in a text message that she wanted to kill “many people” and had looked up information online about other mosques.
Elsewhere on the continent, a Jan. 29 mosque shooting in Quebec City, Canada, claimed six lives.
As the internal vice president of the Muslim Student Association on campus, Ahmed said she was so worried about herself and her fellow students that she couldn’t keep up with her studies.
“It really takes away your focus when your identity is being targeted,” she said. “That Monday I was kind of at a breaking point because of everything that was going on. I had a midterm I just couldn’t study for. I emailed my professor and had to postpone it, because I was stressed out and anxious.”
A Pew Research Center analysis of FBI data found that in 2015, anti-Muslim assaults were at their highest level nationwide since 2001, after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Police reported 91 assaults on Muslims nationwide in 2015, up from 56 in 2014.
Bahman Fozouni, a professor emeritus at California State University, Sacramento, with a focus on Middle Eastern government and politics, said the increased violence is part of what he called “terror management.” When people associate a certain community with a traumatic event, they see themselves as an “in group” and the other community as an “out group,” he said.
“What that does is cause people to cling and stick very strongly to their cultural view,” Fozouni said. “The first victim here is complexity. You just see them as the enemy and they’re evil, and all shades of gray are taken out to cope with the sense of threat.”
On the UC Davis campus, Ahmed’s group has organized several postelection events to support Muslim students who feel targeted, including a town hall to protest the travel ban and a legal-aid workshop for immigrants. In the fall, Ahmed helped the campus counseling center hire a psychiatrist with a focus on Muslim students, she said.
Awaad said many Muslims prefer working with a counselor who understands their cultural and religious background. For example, a non-Muslim counselor might perceive religious fasting as an eating disorder, or call praying five times a day, a custom in Islam, obsessive.
“Some of these things would have to be clarified, and a Muslim patient might just rather see a Muslim therapist and not have to explain,” Awaad said. “You have to sort out illness versus culture versus religion, and it can be complicated.”
Because of the stigma against mental health counseling, few licensed clinicians come from Muslim backgrounds, Awaad said. Until that gap is filled, she hopes religious leaders will be first responders to the growing mental health needs of American Muslim communities.
To that end, the Khalil Center, a faith-based therapy practice in Santa Clara where Awaad serves as clinical director, recently hosted its first mental health training for Muslim community leaders.
UC Davis student Ahmed said she has been coping with her own fears by talking with her therapist and taking comfort in her favorite television shows.
“Mental health is part of our spirituality; we’re supposed to take it seriously,” Ahmed said. “A large part of that is being with community, coming together and having healing spaces.”