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It’s not easy to be a Muslim in America. After 9-11 Muslims have been a target of discrimination and suspicion and have been painted as “anti-American”. As recently as last month there was an armed anti-Islam demonstration at an Arizona mosque. Continued violence perpetrated by extremists around the world has put Muslims in America, who themselves have nothing to do with that violence, in a position of constantly having to defend themselves and their religion.

I was raised as a Muslim, but no longer practice. But my family still does and I very much still feel connected to the religion and culture through them. When I heard that Depave was doing a project at the new Muslim Community Center location, I was stoked. This was an opportunity to bring my environmental activism and my cultural background together in a very concrete way (no pun intended). Little did I know how transcendent the actual event would turn out to be.

Depave is a nonprofit organization based here in Portland that facilitates the removal of unnecessary pavement from urban areas to make room for community green spaces. The groupĀ brings volunteer labor, tools, and organization to help remove paving from schools, religious institutions, businesses, and other community-based organizations in underserved neighborhoods.

In 2013 the Muslim Community Center, the oldest Muslim center in Portland, was displaced when a fire burned down their mosque. Ever since, they’ve been hosting services at the Matt Dishman Community Center and have been planning to rebuild at a new site in North Portland near Killingsworth and Vancouver. Last Saturday’s Depave project was to tear up existing asphalt on this site to make room for a temporary building that will serve as a new prayer hall for the community. The temporary building will sit on permeable pavers instead of on asphalt, promoting healthy storm water drainage and decreasing the urban heat island. The long term goal of the center is to build a permanent facility on site once enough funds are raised.

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The reason this event was transcendent is because it brought two communities who tend to be suspicious of each other – the Muslim community and the western mostly white Americans of various beliefs together in a single cause that will not only help stage the site for a new mosque but is good for the environment as well. As we tore up each little square of asphalt, you could feel the cultural barriers between the two communities break down as well and make room for mutual respect and understanding in their place.

As a person who considers herself connected to both worlds, – the mostly white environmentalist world and the Muslim world – it was a wonderful sight to see the two camps that don’t normally interact come together in such a beautiful way. Members of the Muslim community provided snacks, drinks, a delicious home-cooked lunch and a big hearty welcome to the Depavers. And the Depavers provided their hard work, smiles, and curiosity and in that way returned the embrace to the Muslim community. The most wonderful part of the event was how members of each community came together in the work of depaving, which is very hard work that requires a team effort. In fact, the only way to depave is to do it as a team, there is no way it can be done alone. The resounding message of the event was – the way to make this world better is to work together.

One thing that is consistent about environmentally-focused “community” events that I have attended in Portland is that they are pretty homogenous. They are made up of people of a similar outlook characterized by being socially liberal and culturally white. And so the sense of community is a narrow one, because only one group of people is represented. But at this Depave event, there was a truer sense of community, where people of very different backgrounds and world views came together as one community for a Saturday morning. One Depaver commented that this was the most ethnically diverse community event he’s ever attended in Portland.

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Depave is always looking for volunteers for their events. I highly recommend participating in a Depave event as you will see how the power of community can literally move the immovable. You can sign up for upcoming events here.

The Muslim Community Center is getting ready to celebrate the holy month of Ramadan and will be hosting nightly break fast dinners and holding prayer services at a tent on their new site. All are welcome to join the break fast festivities. Contact the Muslim Community Center here for more information.

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