Muslim intern builds bridges between faiths

by Jill Ragar Esfeld

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. — Before leaving the United States and her summer internship at Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas, Yara Al Adili wanted to have her picture taken in front of a hay roll.

She was fascinated by these huge objects that decorate fields across Kansas. In all her 21 years growing up in Palestine, she’d never seen anything quite like them.
Something else that captivated Yara during her stay here was donuts, especially Dunkin’ Donuts.
There are no such treats in her hometown of Bethlehem — or at Bethlehem University where she is a senior studying business administration and marketing.
And don’t even get her started on curly fries, onion rings or barbecue. She loved them all.
“We’ve been eating lots of really bad foods,” said her Kansas host “mom” Jan Lewis, former president and CEO of Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas.
Aside from eating, Yara spent her summer charming the staff and volunteers at Catholic Charities where she helped build a cultural competency library.
In her homeland, Yara’s name means “a drop of honey”; Lewis thinks that moniker is spot-on.
“I think that’s what she’s been,” she said. “She’s just so joyful.”
Getting to work

Though Yara is Muslim, being surrounded by Catholics wasn’t hard for her. She’s attended Catholic schools all her life.

“I was really thrilled to learn about how so many of her friends are Christian,” said Lewis. “And that her experience at Bethlehem University is really about this coming together of those faiths.”

Ten students from Bethlehem University are participating in an initial offering of the Sir John H. McGuckin Mentoring and Internship Program.

Sponsored by the Bethlehem University alumni relations office in cooperation with Catholic Charities USA, the program places students with Catholic Charities operations throughout the United States so they can learn firsthand how the organization provides services.

“So we can go back home and take the knowledge and experience we learned and gained and just help in improving Bethlehem and Palestine,” said Yara.

Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas was Yara’s top choice for her internship.

“The job description said, ‘Help build a cultural competency library,’” she said. “And I think coming from a different culture I would be able to help.”

She hasn’t been disappointed.

“This project I think is coming along beautifully,” she said. “What I had to do is look for books that are about different cultures — the history of different cultures.”

In addition to books, the library carries movies, documentaries and software, like the Rosetta Stone foreign language learning program.

Lewis patterned the idea for the library after one she saw at Caritas Roma — Catholic Charities in Rome. Its purpose is to help workers gain better insight into the cultures and ethnicities they serve.

“Part of our strategic vision is that we will continue to form the hearts of our staff and volunteers,” said Lewis.

A wider view

The library was Yara’s primary responsibility during her internship, but she experienced quite a bit more during her time with Catholic Charities — including satisfying a craving for a favorite food from home.

“I actually had a chance to help fix a meal for the guests at Shalom House,” she said.  “I made something I’m really famous for doing, which is stuffing grape leaves.

“That is my favorite food from home, so I got to eat it.”

Yara has enjoyed visiting the many different outreach programs that Catholic Charities of Northeast Kansas provides.

“I’ve been to several different offices,” she said. “I’ve attended a lot of different meetings, and done job shadowing.

“I’ve met different refugees, and I actually helped move furniture in a warehouse.”

And what this young Muslim girl from the Middle East said about her experience with Catholic Charities may surprise some.

“It has allowed me to live out the precepts of Islam,” she said.

Indeed, Islam instructs Muslims to help the needy and to protect and safeguard the poor, sick and oppressed.

“We’ve had lots of great conversations about our different faiths,” said Lewis. “Finding the similarities between them has been really good.”

Yara understood she was a bit of an anomaly in Kansas, and she was happy to satisfy the curiosity of many people.

“Everybody has been genuinely interested in the fact that they have a Muslim girl with them,” she said. “I think I have been able to portray a different side of Islam than the media portrays here.”

A different side of Islam

“I think our view of Islam is the radical piece that we see,” said Lewis. “Everything we see is filtered through this lens of terrorism and radicalism and oppression of women.

“And so to see someone whose family is supporting her in pursuing a career — and to know how aligned we are around so many issues — was probably a surprise to me.”

Yara has often been asked why she doesn’t cover her head.

“It is a personal choice,” she explained. “I will probably do it eventually, but I haven’t decided to wear that yet.

“That is not something you must do or that men oppress you or make you do.”

Yara has found herself assuring many of her new American friends that Muslim women are allowed and even encouraged to be independent, seek education and travel the world.

“I never thought Islam was this misunderstood,” she said. “Now I think I have a mission somehow to help people understand Islam.”

In addition to talking about her faith, Yara has spent some time educating staff and volunteers about Palestine.

“I’ve been able to explain where I come from and what it’s like back home,” she said.

In talking about her home, Yara said she would like Americans to understand the hardships Palestinians face, but to also know how they strive to get along.

“I want them to know it’s not easy to be living back home,” she said. “But it’s actually not as horrible as it’s portrayed.

“I want them to know that we live together as Muslims and Christians. We’ve been living like that together all of our lives.

“And we don’t think about the differences between people when we meet them.”

Besides her favorite foods, Yara misses the bright sun of Palestine and the coffee shop where she hangs out with her friends.

This is the longest time she’s ever spent away from home, and she has a definite plan for when she returns.

“I think the one thing I miss most is my house. So I plan on lying on the floor for a couple of days and just being in my house,” she said.

A new view

While clearing up some misunderstandings about her homeland, Yara has learned that she had a few misconceptions about United States, too.

“I just did not know there were so many poor people here,” she said. “I did not know there were so many difficulties facing people in the United States.”

In her senior English book, Yara said the United States is called the “Land of Opportunities.”

“And this is probably what everybody thinks,” she said. “But what I have learned is that it can be really the land of opportunities if you work toward something, if you make your own opportunities.

“It’s not going to hand things to you.”

Yara is returning to Bethlehem with new perspectives about America, the services provided by Catholic Charities, and herself.

“I think I’ve changed a lot,” she said. “I’ve learned a lot about myself.

“I was a little bit shy at first, but I think I’ve gotten over that — sometimes I can be a better speaker than I thought.”

After a short vacation with the Lewis family in Colorado, Yara will meet with the other interns in Washington, D.C., for a debriefing before they return home.

“We had our first touch-base with the Catholic Charities USA coordinator last week,” said Lewis. “And her question was, ‘Would you do it again?’

“And I said, ‘We would definitely do it again!’”

About the author

Jill Esfeld

Jill Ragar Esfeld received a degree in Writing from Missouri State University and started her profession as a magazine feature writer, but quickly transitioned to technical/instructional writing where she had a successful career spanning more than 20 years. She returned to feature writing when she began freelancing for The Leaven in 2004. Her articles have won several awards from the Catholic Press Association. Jill grew up in Christ the King parish in Kansas City, Missouri; and has been a member of Holy Trinity Parish in Lenexa, Kansas, for 35 years.

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