Harassment by security forces became a daily reality, and Nasr found himself in jail for doing his job. He was never told what he had done wrong or what laws he had broken. Nasr feels the radicals were twisting honest religious belief to manipulate the people.
“They were just using Islam to stay in power,” he says. “If you were against the war you could be arrested. They said you were anti-Islam. I’m not against Islam. I just wanted peace.”
After his arrest and detention, Nasr’s life in Khartoum slowly but inexorably became intolerable.
“It was hard on my oldest son,” he says. “He’d cry because he thought they would come and take me away.” So, in 1997, he moved with his wife and two sons to Cairo, Egypt where there was a growing Sudanese refugee community.
Soon his brother-in-law called from the United States and urged Nasr to join him. Nasr was skeptical about getting a visa but he went to the American embassy anyway. To his surprise, his request was granted immediately.
“I told them my story and they told me to go visit my family in America,” he says. “When I got here, my family said I should apply for asylum.” Again he was skeptical but again things worked out.
“They said ‘We found your name on a list and you don’t have any problem,’” he laughs. “I don’t know why.” He and his family were quickly granted political asylum. In 2000, after living briefly in Falls Church, Va., Nasr and his family moved to Iowa City.
While he considers himself a practicing Muslim, Nasr mostly avoids the mosque in Iowa City. He thinks Muslims there have a view of Islam that reminds him of what he experienced back in Sudan.
“If you go to the mosque, women have to wear a scarf or some head covering,” he says. “I don’t want to force anyone to do that. Most Sudanese don’t like this way of Islam.” Nasr points out that his wife does not cover her head.
Not all Sudanese Muslims in Iowa share Nasr’s view of Islam and an oppressive Sudan.
On a barely warm Saturday afternoon, Tayeeb Grocery is bustling. The pleasantly ramshackle store is stocked with cans of Somali fava beans, jars of Syrian hot peppers and coolers loaded with hard-to-find soft drinks like Vimto and Cockta. A handwritten sign taped to the front door reads “Organic Amish Halal Chicken Available Here.”
Behind the counter, owner Nazr Osman rings up a clutch of purchases for a tall Sudanese woman. She is dressed head-to-toe in a modish Indian-style sari and strappy high heels. After she leaves, Osman wipes sweat from his deeply furrowed brow and smiles.
“You meet everybody Muslim here,” he says. Osman, 40, came to the United States 10 years ago; first to South Dakota where his wife studied physics and then to Cedar Rapids. Osman opened the grocery in 2000 to tap into the growing Muslim population in Iowa City. He says business is good, and that America has treated him well.
“I came here for a better life, you know,” he says. “The economy in Sudan is not in such good shape. We got pushed out really.” Trained in food science, Osman recently opened a restaurant in Cedar Rapids serving Middle Eastern specialties like falafel and shawarma.
Sitting around a battered table next to the cash register, Osman, his father Hassim, his brother Kamal and his brother-in-law Abdul El Sheikh, eat Papa John’s pizza, extol the virtues of their life in America and puzzle over the negative public perception of Sudan.
Between bites, Osman and El Sheikh scoff at the public reaction to the well-documented slave trade in southern Sudan and dismiss the ongoing genocide in the Darfur region where the United Nations estimates upwards of 400,000 have been killed by government sponsored militias.
“There are 500 tribes in Sudan,” Osman says. “It’s normal to have conflict.”
“The international agencies confused things,” says Kamal, an ophthalmologist from Sudan passing through on his way to a conference in Atlanta. “They didn’t recognize local customs.”
While they say they do not attend mosque with any regularity, both Osman and El Sheikh share a conservative interpretation of Islam and say their wives cover their heads “in the Muslim way.” Both have kept their children out of the Cedar Rapids pubic schools’ sex education program.
“What the girl needs to know, she learns from her mother,” El Sheikh says before explaining that he also rejected a doctor’s suggestion that his daughter get the vaccination for HPV, the virus linked to cervical cancer.
While both men appreciate their non-Muslim neighbors, they believe there are lines that cannot be crossed. Neither said they would allow their children to date non-Muslims.
But Nasr, having felt the sting of religious discrimination, is determined to see people as individuals. He says he thinks often of the man who died when he was taken to jail.
“I don’t like classification of Muslim or non-Muslim,” he says. “I think anyone should have their faith with no problem. If he is Muslim, I respect him. If he is non-Muslim, I respect him. The same thing for Christian or non-Christian.”
Nasr believes his faith in America stems from this.
“The United States is a good place to live in peace and safety,” he says. “No one will bother you if you are Muslim or non-Muslim. As soon as you respect the system and the rules, no one will bother you.”