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Hussam has been a lifelong human rights activist who is passionate about promoting democratic societies, in the US and worldwide, in which all people, including immigrants, workers, minorities, and the poor enjoy freedom, justice, economic justice, respect, and equality. Mr. Ayloush frequently lectures on Islam, media relations, civil rights, hate crimes and international affairs. He has consistently appeared in local, national, and international media. Full biography at: http://hussamayloush.blogspot.com/2006/08/biography-of-hussam-ayloush.html

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Manzanar pilgrimage was ‘amazing experience’

Manzanar pilgrimage was ‘amazing experience’

Source: InFocus Newspaper

April 26, 6:30 a.m.

"Beep beep beep beep beep…"

I struggled to turn off my alarm clock as I was still in a deep sleep. I almost forgot that I had to get up this early on a Saturday morning for a reason. Then the anticipation suddenly kicked in. I was going to Manzanar.

I rushed to get ready and arrived within an hour at the Anaheim office of the Greater Los Angeles-area chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the organization that initiated the Muslim community’s visit to Manzanar. CAIR arranged the bus ride for 58 people to make the trek. Leading up to the event, five community forums were held at different mosques in southern California to educate and inspire the Muslim community to go on this overnight pilgrimage.

I did not know whether to feel anticipation of excitement or sadness. I was going to a previous "War Relocation Center" as the 1940s U.S. government referred to the Japanese-American internment camp.

Initially surrounded by buildings, street lights, and cars on both sides of the bus, we left civilization for expansive sandy brown, brick-colored mountains, desert sand, and widely disbursed Joshua trees in the Mojave desert of California. It turned from beauty to isolation.

12:30 p.m.

We drove deep within Manzanar for at least another mile to get to the site where the monument actually stands. Only one of eight remaining watchtowers was to our far right. This is where guards would stand, with guns pointing in.

In February 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, setting into motion a mass displacement and detainment of American men, women and children of Japanese ancestry – less than two months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. Overall, about 120,000 Japanese-Americans had been held in internment camps, some 11,000 of them at Manzanar. Not a single person was ever charged with espionage.

Imagine being taken away from the comfort of your own home, torn from your family and neighborhood, leaving behind almost all of your belongings, and kept like criminals in the middle of nowhere, without having committed any crime and without prior knowledge of the destination. The internment of this ethnic group is one of the darkest moments in American history. It raised a national debate as well as frustration over suspension of civil liberties during war time.

We joined a diverse crowd of about 1,300 people under the hot scorching sun. There was no canopy set up to shield us from the sweltering heat. If there was, would we have felt the effect of how it must have been for those who were brought in and detained here for three years?

After the short introductions, everyone migrated to the white monument in front of the Sierra Nevada mountains, on the grounds of a former cemetery. Part of the ceremony was an interfaith service bringing together leaders of different religions. On behalf of the Muslim Community, Imam Ali Siddiqui, President of the California Muslim Institute in Corona Valley, was there to give a prayer.

An experienced interfaith community leader, this was Siddiqui’s first trip to Manzanar.

"It was an eye-opening experience," said Siddiqui. "I made a commitment to use this experience and relate it to my khutbas (sermons) for the Muslim community to learn from."

One of the most touching portions of the service was a Christian litany that all participants joined in reading aloud. One of the lines was "O God, stand by our Muslim brothers and sisters in their time of suffering." It was such a welcoming and supportive moment for the Muslims to appreciate and learn from. After the ceremony was over, each person was given a carnation or rose to place on the monument to remember those of the past.

Altaf Wahid, 16, believed it was his most memorable moment.

"It helped symbolize the important actions that took place," said the Buena Park resident.

Afterward, we visited the museum which displayed pictures, documentaries, and furniture from the internment camp during World War II. Pictures and a display of how the camp was actually set up were there for everyone to view.

"I thought the museum was amazing," said 14-year-old Dalia Albassam of Rancho Cucamonga. "They had two-to-three-minute movies playing that I watched."

The museum depicted the living conditions of internees. There was no separation of stalls. Bathroom toilets were right next to each other. Barbed wire fences surrounded the people who lived at the camp. It was an extremely dehumanizing condition they were put in, and how they were able to bounce back as a community provides a lesson for everyone.

The program included an evening group discussion and question and answer session with previous internees, who were informative and inspirational. They were able to succeed in life after coming out of the camps by "patiently waiting," they said.

"As we grow and educate ourselves, we have to let that anger go, "said Marjorie Matsushita, a past internee in Wyoming.

She emphasized that the new generation, no matter what ethnicity, must step up and not be silent. She said we should learn from history and not live in fear.

April 27, 2 p.m.

This experience shows that the Muslim community must form bridges with other communities and learn about the injustices suffered by not only Japanese-Americans, but other minorities as well. It is vital to the functionality in this nation.

As Hussam Ayloush, CAIR-Greater Los Angeles-area executive director, said on the ride back to Orange County, "This pilgrimage was a message of hope."

Upon returning, I can say the pilgrimage was an amazing experience. The Japanese-American community was supportive from the moment we stepped off the bus until the time of our departure and thanked us for coming. Our bus turned into the historic site.

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