Lincoln's Sunni population has outgrown their mosque. They hope it will be ready next year
By Will Bauer , Reporter/Producer Nebraska Public Media
Sept. 7, 2022, 5 a.m. ·
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In his food truck parked in front of the Center for People in Need, Yaser Eddmeiri dropped hundreds of little green balls of mashed chickpeas into hot vegetable oil on a recent Saturday in August. Those balls became falafel, and he gave them to anyone for free.
The falafel served as an appetizer for the Islamic Foundation of Lincoln’s recent fundraiser.
“We want everybody to know that there's a good community in Lincoln of Muslim and non-Muslims the same,” Eddmeiri said.
The Palestinian was one a few hundred people in North Lincoln where Muslims and other Lincolnites feasted on authentic Middle Eastern and Mediterranean food.
The fundraiser is the latest event in a years-long quest to build a bigger and better mosque. The Sunni Muslim community in Lincoln has been growing rapidly in the past decade, reflecting a similar national trend. As a result, the mosque, that’s served as the center of their community since the 1980s, is now cramped and outdated.
“When we gather, we look and we can see 2,000 people out there between men, women and children,” said Khalil Jabor, a former board member of the Islamic Foundation of Lincoln. “That used to be shocking to us, but that's not a surprise to us now. I think the community is a lot bigger than that.”
Jabor thinks the Muslim population has tripled in the past five years. Other mosque leaders say the Muslim community in Lincoln sits between 6,000-10,000. Jabor’s estimate of 2,000 people attending services marks the people who gather for big mosque events – like the end of Ramadan or other Muslim holidays.
That growth means that space is tight in the old mosque.
“They will just kind of squeeze each other to fit here,” said Rabia Rashidi while standing in the mosque’s biggest worship room. “This place is very small.”
Rashidi, a former Afghan refugee who was forced to leave her country in the early 2000s, has been a mosque member long enough to see all the growth. It’s very apparent how little space they have on Fridays, the traditional day of worship in Islam, Rashidi said.
The exact change in Nebraska’s population is tough to nail down because the U.S. Census doesn’t track religion. Researchers sometimes use country of origin as a way to guess, but no country is homogenous. For example, not everyone from Iraq is Muslim. The Yazidis refugees who live in Lincoln would fall into this category. ISIS persecuted the religious minority whose faith combines elements from several religions including Christianity and Islam.
The Pew Research Center estimates the Muslim population nationally increased by 63% percentage points from 2.4 million in 2007 to 3.9 million 2020.
Mosques, on the other hand, can be tracked. Nebraska gained three mosques over the last decade, bringing the total to 11, according to a report from Institute for Social Policy and Understanding.
“The Muslim population and the number of mosques is growing at a very healthy pace,” said Ihsan Bagby, a University of Kentucky Islamic studies professor, who helped write the report. “In 2020, the growth in the number of mosques was close to 30% from 10 years ago, and the number of attendees continues to grow.”
Bigger cities and college towns tend to attract the most Muslims, Bagby said. Rural areas, however, are losing mosques.
Lincoln’s Muslim population grew even more over the past year as 1,222 Afghan refugees resettled in Nebraska, according Nebraska’s Department of Health and Human Services.
Afghans, of course, aren’t the only Muslims in Lincoln. Leaders at the Islamic Foundation of Lincoln said there’s at least 43 nationalities attending the mosque. In any given week, there will be Indians, Middle Easterners and North Africans.
“Undoubtedly, the primary driving force for the increase of mosques is the steady expansion of the population of Muslims in America due to immigration and birth rate,” according to Bagby’s report.
Lincoln’s Muslim community started seeing the boom more than a decade ago. That’s when people realized the original mosque wasn’t going to be big enough much longer.
“This project for the new mosque started like 10 years ago,” said the mosque’s Imam, Brahim Salem, who spoke in Arabic while his wife translated to English. “Because of a shortness in funding, that's why it's taking too long.”
Many of the mosque goers are immigrants or refugees, and they generally don’t have deep pockets. That’s led to slow fundraising, said Fayaz Ahmed, a former board member. As a result, the new mosque’s construction has been staggered. The pandemic didn’t help either.
The good news for the Sunni community is that the new mosque is coming along – but it’s not done quite yet.
The Islamic Foundation raised $12,000 at their August fundraiser, and leaders said they hope to be in the building sometime next year. They still need more than $250,000 to finish the parking lot and the interior.
The new mosque is located just a few blocks south of the current building. Jabor, the former board member who’s also an engineer, helped design the new building. He said it’s quite an upgrade for the congregation.
“The other one was a church, and we converted that to a mosque,” he said.
The new building looks more like a typical mosque would. It has a domed roof which is crowned by a crescent moon, which signifies the beginning and end of Ramadan. Jabor said they’ve built the new mosque with the expectation that the Muslim community will continue to grow.
“We designed this building to where it could expand if we need to,” he said “Over there, in the existing facilities, we just were stuck.”
The North American Islamic Trust will watch over the old building after the congregation moves out. The community plans to use the building possibly for a school or extra events, Jabor said.
If all goes according to plan, the Sunni congregation anticipates moving into the new mosque next year.