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Ideally, Emma Harver would have taken her group of K–12 teachers to the Middle East to immerse them in Muslim cultures. But she didn’t have the budget for an overseas trip. So she did the next best thing. She introduced them to Muslim communities in the Triangle.

“Connecting the Middle East to the Southeast” was a pilot program offered this summer to the state’s K–12 teachers by the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies.

“The program was designed as a meaningful immersion experience for teachers to deepen their understanding of Middle Eastern cultures and Islam and further their understanding of these communities in their own state,” said Harver, program/outreach coordinator at the Carolina Center for the Study of the Middle East at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (This center and the Duke University Middle East Studies Center comprise the Duke-UNC consortium.)

She sent a message about the program to the consortium’s listserv of K–12 teachers, accepting teachers who responded on a first-come, first-serve basis. The teachers began to immerse themselves in Middle East and Muslim cultures through the program’s website, which listed readings and provided links to videos or websites on related topics.

They sent Harver the goals they hoped to accomplish through the program:

“I seek understanding so that I can apply that understanding to my students and my teaching of history.”

“My goal is to better understand my students and myself.”

“To increase my knowledge and awareness of Islam so that I can effectively teach my students and help them rid themselves of stereotypes and the Islamophobia many of them have.”

All got involved to connect their communities to the wider world.

The highlight of the program was the day-long study tour. On Aug. 11, 19 teachers from nine North Carolina school districts – from Carteret County on the coast to Transylvania County in the mountains – came to the Duke campus for the first stage of the tour. Ellen McLarney, assistant professor in Duke’s Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, led a morning overview about Muslim beliefs and traditions.

As requested by Harver as a sign of respect for their hosts, teachers wore modest clothing and women brought scarves to cover their heads for the visits to the mosques.

McLarney told the group that, when she was living in Muslim-majority countries, she realized that some of their religious practices weren’t so different from the ones in her own non-Muslim family. “I grew up in a devout Catholic family in Kansas City, Missouri,” she said. “Some of my aunts are nuns, so head-coverings weren’t so weird to me. It was not such a clash of civilizations.”

After this introduction, the teachers piled into two vans for pre-arranged visits to the Institute of Islamic and Turkish Studies in Cary and the Islamic Center of Raleigh and Al-Iman School.

“The two local centers that we visited were very receptive to the idea of having a group of teachers visit,” Harver said. “I think that the two organizations were happy to have the chance to share their religion, cultures and community with a group of educators. They were extremely welcoming. ”

The group’s first stop was in a strip mall in Cary, home of the Institute for Islamic and Turkish Studies. After exiting the vans in a downpour, the teachers came into the center, tucked their shoes into a cubby and covered their heads with scarves before entering the center’s mosque.

The bright red and blue carpet inside stripes diagonally across the room so that the faithful face in the direction of Mecca when they pray. Blue and white tiles decorate the front corner, where the imam leads the prayers.

A speaker at the Cary mosque talked to the group about the history of Islam and the similarities among Islam, Judaism and Christianity, which all worship the same God, called Allah by Muslims.

Islam, he said, gives equal weight to spirituality and religious practices, such as fasting and observing a halal diet.

Afterward, while they munched on Turkish snacks, the teachers reflected on what they had learned so far or still hoped to learn.

High school social studies teacher Joseph Russo of Brevard in Transylvania County traveled farthest to get here. He had already started making connections to the topics of the tour. Not only had his son recently converted to Islam, Russo himself had just returned from a three-week stay in Turkey as part of a National Endowment for the Humanities summer institute. What he learned opened his eyes.

“I never thought of the history of Islam being linked to slavery,” he said, referring to the many West African Muslims who were enslaved and brought to America in the 17th through mid-19th centuries. “And I’ve taught American history for a long time.”

Lindsay Deuble, who teaches 9th and 10th grade in Wake County Schools, had a student who refused to read the popular graphic memoir Persepolis as assigned.

In it, author and cartoonist Marjane Satrapi tells the story of the Islamic Revolution in Iran as seen through her eyes from ages 6 to 14.

“He just wouldn’t do it, because it was about Muslims and the Middle East,” Deuble recalled. “He definitely missed out on a lot.”

The next stop on the tour was the Islamic Center of Raleigh and Al-Iman School, where the teachers spent most of the afternoon. Fiaz Fareed, director of outreach for the center and a nuclear medicine technician at Wake Med, guided the group on a tour of the center and the school.

Following lunch with community members, the teachers listened to the call to prayer and to presentations by the students. Fareed concluded the tour visit with talks on the topics “Islam: Beliefs and Practices,” “Who and Where are the Muslims?” and “The Hajj,” followed by a question and answer session.

After returning to Durham, the group gathered one last time for the wrap-up of the day with Imam Adeel Zeb, director of Muslim life at Duke University, who was there to answer any remaining questions.

“The day was a great success. The teachers remained engaged the entire day,” Harver said. “Feedback from the teachers on this tour will guide the planning process for future tours. We plan on making this an annual program.”

Completing the program earned each teacher continuing education units for professional development. And even though they only traveled to the middle of the state and not the Middle East, the teachers said they learned much about Islam.

“Talking to real people who practice the faith on a daily basis helped put Islam in perspective,” said Carla Ingram of South Caldwell High School. “I feel like I have a tiny more intimate look inside, which will help me dispel the myths my students have.”


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