ITHACA, N.Y. — When Ahmed Ahmed moved to Ithaca in 1986, it was like he returned home.
He was born and raised in Alexandria, a diverse Egyptian metropolis that boasts many of North Africa’s most important mosques, churches and synagogues.
In Ithaca, he found people of all faiths living side by side and without division, just like the people of the city in which he grew up.
“When people are educated and come from different backgrounds, they come together and live in harmony,” Ahmed said. “And that’s why Ithaca is such a great place to live.”
Tompkins County is home to at least 750 Muslims, a number that will continue growing as Syrian refugees arrive in Ithaca under a federal resettlement program backed by Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick.
Since arriving in Ithaca to accept a research position at Cornell’s veterinary school, Ahmed has become a leader of the Al-Huda Islamic Center, a community organization that serves Muslims in Upstate New York.
For many American Muslims with immigrant backgrounds similar to Ahmed’s, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks ushered in an era of suspicion, harassment and even violence that persists to this very day.
But the greatest challenge facing Ithaca-area Muslims isn’t political or cultural, Ahmed insists—it’s financial.
For over 20 years, the community has been raising funds to build a fully operative Islamic center that contains a mosque and rooms for educational and cultural events. Tompkins County doesn’t have a conventional Islamic house of worship, leaving its Muslim residents to congregate at Cornell’s interfaith center and apartments in the downtown area.
In the summer of 2014, Al-Huda finally gathered enough funds to purchase a one acre tract of land at 112 Graham Rd. in Lansing, New York. Shortly thereafter, the Village of Lansing’s Planning Board approved the eventual construction of an Islamic center at that site.
Financially, the project hasn’t always enjoyed smooth sailing. Al-Huda’s original contractor asked for over $1 million to build the center with its initial design.
“We started to think there was no hope. There was no way we would get a million, because we are a community of mostly students and scientists,” said Ahmed.
For that reason, the proposed building for the Islamic center has been downsized and Al-Huda’s fundraising effort is ongoing. Local Muslims regularly donate money to the project, oftentimes during Friday prayers at Cornell’s Anabel Taylor Hall. Additionally, Al-Huda accept donations towards the construction of the mosque through PayPal.
Since the beginning of 2015, a national organization called the Islamic Center of North America has raised over $15,000 to contribute to the cause.
Rather than fretting the center’s downsizing, the local Muslim community falls back on the words of the Quran:
“The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) said: Whoever builds a mosque for the sake of God, like a sparrow’s nest or even smaller, God will build for him a house in Paradise.”