As opening day for a new Omaha mosque draws near, the area’s Muslim population is not only growing, it’s also becoming more diverse, thanks in part to an influx of refugees and newcomers looking to fill jobs in fields such as medicine and technology.
The $6.5 million mosque — part of an interfaith site near 132nd and Pacific Streets called Tri-Faith Commons — is more evidence of the Muslim community’s growing presence. The mosque’s prayer space is scheduled to open Friday, in time for the start of Islam’s holy month of Ramadan. The remainder of the 15,000-square-foot, two-level mosque is set for completion by early June.
Omaha-area Muslims come from more than 20 countries in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Europe. Estimated at 6,000 to 7,000, the metro area’s Muslim community is roughly double the size it was two decades ago, said Lacey Studnicka of Lutheran Family Services, a nonprofit that works with refugee families of all faiths.
“They are your neighbor,’’ she said.
Omaha’s Muslim population has roots dating to the World War II era. UNO’s Yaseer said some of the first Muslims in Omaha were blacks who in the 1940s and 1950s came from Chicago for jobs at packinghouses and area farms. Starting in the 1970s, Muslims began arriving as refugees from Afghanistan and other nearby nations, he said.
Today, many Muslims come as students, and some stay and raise families, Studnicka said.
El-Refaie’s father was born in Egypt and arrived in Omaha in 1984 to study physical therapy at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. His father now runs a clinic in the Millard area.
El-Refaie is the imam, or religious leader, of the Millard Islamic Foundation, near 144th and Q Streets. It’s one of several mosques already established in the city.
Vic Gutman, project manager for the organization leading the interfaith effort, said it’s encouraging to see the mosque nearly completed.
The nonprofit Tri-Faith Initiative is leading the effort to have Christians, Muslims and Jews represented at the 35-acre site. Part of the Sterling Ridge retail-office-residential development, the Tri-Faith site sits on land formerly occupied by Highland Country Club golf course, more recently known as Ironwood.
Temple Israel became the first active facility of the interfaith campus when it moved into its new synagogue there in 2013.
Countryside Community Church, the Christian presence at the site, plans to start construction on a new church this summer.
Syed Mohiuddin, president of the American Muslim Institute in Omaha, said all funding for the mosque construction was raised locally from Muslim and non-Muslim sources.
Mohiuddin, a cardiologist and a professor at the Creighton University School of Medicine, said an imam has been hired for the mosque.
The new mosque became a political issue for a candidate in the District 1 race for Omaha City Council. Paul Anderson dropped out of the race in April after being rebuked by opponents and others for sponsoring a radio ad criticizing the mosque’s construction.
Anderson’s remarks in the ad and in interviews with news media were widely criticized as anti-Muslim. Anderson later said he came to regret his choice of words in the ad.
A public open house is scheduled for July 9, Mohiuddin said, to let people tour the mosque and visit with local Muslims. He said he wants the mosque to be a welcoming place for the community.
Gutman said the interfaith site will be a hallmark for the city.
“It’s gone from a concept to an unfolding reality,’’ he said. “I think it will be a point of pride for the city and we will be known for that.”
That hallmark will be a clearly marked mosque towering over the nondescript Jewish temple and a “community church.” See the pictures here: