Local Muslims face uncertain financial future

The only mosque in the Rogue Valley is tucked in the corner of the old Nim's store in Phoenix. The walls are painted mustard yellow &

or "Mecca gold" as some refer to it &

and the room is sparsely furnished with slightly used furniture. The room is warm when filled with worshipers on Friday afternoons, but space heaters suffice during the week when few people are there.

Members of the Muslim American Society of South Oregon say they are grateful to have a designated meeting space, but with so few Muslims in the Valley, they are just scraping by.

Monthly rent is $1,000, and utilities rack up another $400 to $500, said Abdullah Cabral, one of the association's board members. The center has between 20 and 40 active participants, and about half of them are foreign students studying at Southern Oregon University.

"One week I cleaned out the donation box, and there was only $25," Cabral said. "You can't live on that."

Although the Quran states that Muslims are to support the mosque, there are no requirements to give, he said. The struggle for funding is his congregation's jihad, or holy war, he said.

A long history

Cabral and his wife Salamah moved to Southern Oregon 24 years ago and became Muslim seven years later.

When they joined the Ashland Muslim community, the group was meeting in a one-room house on East Main Street. Most women didn't go, Salamah Cabral said, because there was barely room for the men. They met on SOU's campus for a few years, then eventually moved into the house funded by the Saudi charity Al-Haramain in 1997.

The Ashland branch of the charity was run by Pete Seda, a local peace activist now suspected of illegally funneling money to Chechen rebels.

While Al-Haramain was in operation, the building offered enough room for men and women to pray in separate rooms, and there were two kitchens. Al-Haramain even helped fund a pilgrimage to Mecca for members, a trip that all Muslims are supposed to take at least once in their lives.

In 2003, Seda left the United States after being interviewed by the FBI, and the agency raided the Al-Haramian headquarters in Ashland the next year, ending the relatively prosperous time for the local Muslim community.

"It hurt us at first because we were all related with him," said Salamah Cabral. "When they saw us, they all put us with Pete and al-Haramain ... I think they interviewed all of us who lived here."

The Cabrals, who answer all phone calls to the center, simply took their phone off the hook after Sept. 11 when the deluge of hateful calls poured in.

With the loss of their building, the congregation moved into a trailer owned by one of the members, but it wasn't a place to call their own, the Cabrals said. Last May, they had the grand opening of the Phoenix mosque.

Seda, who returned to the U.S. in August, was released from prison in December and is attending prayers at the Phoenix location. He cannot leave the house where he is staying without court approval, and although he is allowed to find a job, the possibilities are severely limited, said SOU professor Terrie Claflin, who knew Seda when they were both students and is now writing a book about him.

An uncertain future

In addition to losing their leader and building, the community also lost student members because visas were suddenly harder to come by, said Mary Foster, a member of the mosque for several years.

Students still come, but many stay for shorter periods of time, often just long enough to learn some English.

"In my case, you just learn to pronounce their name, and then they're gone," Salamah Cabral said.

Some students come from obviously wealthy backgrounds, she said, driving Jaguars or bringing expensive prayer rugs from their home countries for every female member.

"Sometimes generosity comes from overseas, and a lot of times with these kids that come from very well-to-do families, we would hope that maybe someday one of them will tell their families and their families would send money," she said.

But the chances of that happening are slimmer than ever, students from Saudi Arabia said.

Meshari Abunayyan, a Saudi Arabian student, found the mosque after about three months of study at SOU, but was unsure about attending at first.

"The first time I came here I was a little afraid," he said. "I thought it was unofficial."

He wasn't sure how locals and even the U.S. government might react, he said.

Both he and Bader Mughim, another Saudi Arabian student, plan to study at SOU for several years, and although they said they feel connected to the Muslim community, they don't expect anyone back home to send money.

"We are afraid to ask for support," Mughim said. "The main point is for us to come here to study."

Right now, the group is working on gaining non-profit status, so at least donations are tax deductible, Abdullah Cabral said. But the future is still uncertain.

"If we don't get money coming in, then we're not going to make it," he said.

Staff writer can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 227 or . Post a comment at .

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