Salaam: Saying farewell to the ‘grandfather’ of Stanford’s Muslim community

The Havana Room of the Graduate Community Center is filled with friends and family sitting around dinner tables covered in red tablecloths. An expanse of food is laid out in the back of the room, with everything from chicken masala, to kebabs, to korma, to naan.

Friends reunite after a summer away from campus, and little girls in sundresses are playing with balloons that have fallen on the floor. Outside of the doorway, young Muslim women wearing saris pull out high heels from their handbags and change out of their flats before entering the room. It is the annual Eid celebration at Stanford, one of the largest gatherings co-organized by the Muslim Student Awareness Network (MSAN) and the Islamic Society of Stanford University (ISSU), in celebration of the end of Ramadan.

Boisterous conversation dies down as students make speeches at the podium. Next in line is a first-year Stanford Law student, Omar Shakir ’07, who takes the floor to bid farewell to Ibrahim Almojel, a recent graduate of Stanford’s Ph.D. program in Management Science and Engineering (MS&E), who made nothing short of a tremendous impact on the Stanford Muslim community.

“He helped people detained in airports,” Shakir said of Almojel, a soft-spoken 31-year-old sitting near the front of the room with his wife, Sara, and one-year-old son, Saad. “His car was the community car…He was the big brother I never had.”

Shakir announced that in honor of Almojel’s contributions, the community’s Muslim-American Scholarship Award will be named in Almojel’s honor.

When Shakir handed Almojel the microphone at the front of the room, Almojel was speechless for a few moments, moved to tears.

“The beautiful thing about this community,” Almojel finally said, “is that I feel I know everyone here—this is our family.”

Omar Shakir '07 (front row, left) and Ibrahim Almojel '09 (front row, right) pose at a Muslim community event. (Courtesy of Omar Shakir)

For the past six and a half years, Almojel, known among Muslims on campus as “grandfather,” has been working tirelessly behind the scenes to build a cohesive Muslim family that is engaged with the rest of campus, a challenge without a community center or a full-time staff member.

“When I first came, it was a place to pray and say Salaam,” Almojel said of joining the community. “After being involved, it became my life.”

Some of Almojel’s contributions could only be noticed at the micro level, like ensuring that a room on the third floor of Old Union is reserved every quarter for Friday Jumu’ah prayer.

Other efforts were more noticeable, like working to preserve the independence of MSAN, whose emphasis lies in engaging both Muslim and non-Muslim students in exploring social and political issues, from the ISSU, which focuses on students’ personal religious lives.

Other structural changes included creating the Muslim Board, a discussion forum comprised of leaders of MSAN and ISSU, which enables the two groups to remain in open, constructive dialogue.

“The Muslim Board helped make sure they had an aligned, long-term vision for the community,” Almojel said.

Although a Muslim community center is still hypothetical, Almojel worked extensively with the University to establish a center on campus where events could be held, students could go to relax and visitors could be welcomed.

“I think that the University is in a time of defining what the community center means,” Almojel said. “We’re not an Asian organization or a religious organization. And I don’t think the administration is comfortable with that.”

Almojel was ISSU president from 2005 to 2006 and Chair of the Muslim Board from 2004 to 2006. Yet, whether or not he was in an official leadership position, he was a mentor for students and a problem-solver when unexpected situations arose.

For example, when another male Muslim Stanford graduate student was detained after postponing graduation plans, it was Almojel who collaborated with the Bechtel International Center to release the student from prison. He also had to deal with the FBI when he received a letter from the bureau at his residence upon becoming ISSU president in 2005.

Helping students deal with prejudice was one of the more complex tasks Almojel took on. He counseled students grappling with anti-Islamic sentiments expressed in the news or at some campus events, like one widely advertised lecture, “The Trouble with Islam,” which was upsetting to some students.

“Sometimes people think that you can stand up to terrorism and Muslims by standing up to Islam,” Almojel said. “But if you attack an identity, you never really get anywhere.”

And to raise Islamic awareness, he pushed to expand Islamic studies on campus and developed the community’s relationship with administrators.

“This country has a very Islamophobic environment, and Ibrahim was the guy you’d always know would have your back and advocate that things would be done and done correctly,” Shakir said. “How do you build a community that’s inclusive and open to everyone? He was able to uniquely do that.”

Almojel said Muslim students at Stanford are confronted by the same issues that Muslims have to cope with anywhere in the United States: defining what their faith means to them, which can translate into abstaining from drinking, avoiding wearing tight or immodest clothing and not dating, difficult standards to adhere to if peers hold different values.

For example, last summer, MSAN distributed a survey titled, “What does Stanford know about Islam?”

“About 100 people across campus filled it out,” said MSAN president Mai El-Sadany ‘11. “When asked what people thought about when they saw the hijab, or headscarf, the most common responses were: ‘She’s probably oppressed; I wonder if she’s forced to wear it; I wonder if she’s hot.’”

Almojel said his passion to help the community was inspired by a peer who helped him when he studied at Vanderbilt as an international student from Saudi Arabia and by the value he places in his faith.

To Almojel, being Muslim is about a “feeling that you are connected directly to God, and no one has power over you except God—it gives me a lot of freedom. It helps me make sure I’m on the right path.”

Although Almojel returned to his home country to work for the company that funded his Stanford studies, he is sad to leave the University and the people he has become so close to.

“Stanford grows on you, and it’s very difficult to leave this place,” Almojel said.

He has only one wish for the community that has been such an important part of his time at Stanford: that it will “have the wisdom to remain cohesive and discuss the things that matter most.”

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