Anatomy of an award winner

by Jeff Sykes

The more I think about what it took to report the story, the more I wonder just exactly how I was able to find the focus.

I traveled to Chapel Hill two weeks back to receive a second place award for news feature writing in the NC Press Association awards contest.

The award was for my story, “Greensboro Islamic Academy: A school like any other,” which we published in early January 2015. I knew instinctively when I wrote the story that it had potential. My hopes for the story were temporarily crushed when the Charlie Hebdo massacre took place in Paris a few hours before our issue hit the streets that week. Before I had a chance to put the story online, the news and my social media stream were overrun with tension and fear. What chance did my story about a simple school on the edge of a Greensboro highway have that day?

Not much, as it turns out. I decided not to promote the story that Wednesday, opting instead to share it on Friday and hope for the best over the weekend. The immediate response in the Greensboro area was positive. It even drowned out the one online comment that accused me of manufacturing the story to make up for the violence in Paris.

There’s no way I could have manufactured that story in two days, even if I tried.

The chain of events and circumstances that led me to the Islamic Center of Greensboro on a cold Friday in December 2014 began months earlier. They don’t just let anyone off the streets come into the mosque with a camera, pen, paper and a digital audio recorder.

The chain of events began when I met the artist and photographer Todd Drake a few years back. Drake was teaching art at Rockingham Community College and I’d heard about his passion for diversity and equality. He’d held an exhibition at NC A&T State University of his photo collection, “Help: Hidden Work, Hidden Lives,” and I’d made a documentary video to support his work back in 2012. When I began working at YES! Weekly in early 2014, I turned to Drake for advice on story ideas and source cultivation.

Almost immediately, Drake turned me on to Faith Action International House, its director, David Fraccaro, and the coming Unity March for immigration reform. I spent an afternoon in May taking photos of the rally and I wrote a column about the experience, which resonated well with readers.

Because of that, I was invited to a Stranger to Neighbor dialogue in July, sponsored by Faith Action. The event focused on the topic of Ramadan, and was to include a meal to break the daily fast at sundown.

Presbyterian Church of the Covenant near UNCG and Faith Action partnered with the Divan Center to bring Christians, Muslims and others together to learn about the gifts of fasting, service and unity during the holiest of days for those of the Muslim faith.

It was there that I met a stranger who would go on to become a great friend. Wasif Qureshi, then president of the Islamic Center of Greensboro, spoke about fasting during Ramadan. He talked of the endurance it takes and the thrill of anticipation each evening as the thought of water and nourishment grows closer. Qureshi said he would get chill bumps on his arm thinking about that first drop of water. He said the first few hints of flavor to hit his tongue were a delight.

Before he spoke, if it had been my desire, I could have easily prejudged him based on his looks. His long hair and flowing robe, his brown skin and sharp Arabic facial features all could have combined in a closed mind to equal other. But I’m a seeker devoid of dogma. I found his perspectives interesting; his commitment to faith inspirational.

After he spoke I approached Qureshi to tell him how his words had moved me. Making small talk, I mentioned the word “tongue” and how I consider it one of the strangest words in the English language. I mentioned how it’s such a guttural, ugly word yet represents so many aspects of human experience, including taste, texture and sensuality.

Months later when Qureshi reached out to me in late October after a left-leaning website unfairly tarnished the Islamic Center’s school, he mentioned that our discussion of the word “tongue” stood out to him. He could tell I was thoughtful and considerate, Qureshi said, and he wanted to tell me about a story opportunity.

It took a few weeks to arrange. I can only imagine the discussions in Arabic, French or English that took place among the mosque leadership. Why should they let a reporter in to observe Friday prayers and examine the school operations? What benefit would it bring about?

Ultimately, I believe, they decided that I was trustworthy and would be honest and pass their story on to the world at large with as little subjective filter as possible. It was arranged that I would come to the mosque for Friday prayers, known as jumah. I was nervous. I’m only human, after all, and live with fears and anxieties like most other people. But as a reporter you have to put that aside. I drove to the mosque just off of 16th Street near US 29 in Greensboro. I got out of the car and put on my press identification. I fidgeted with my camera at the edge of the parking lot, taking hard stares from black men in flowing robes, until Qureshi answered my text and came across the blacktop to greet me.

Inside, Qureshi led me to an office where I met the treasurer, Musa Sulayman. He was not happy with the story that had been put out about the school’s finances and use of state vouchers for private education. They were the top in the state, he said, because so many parents were desperate to get their Muslim children out of public schools.

The time for jumah approached and a tall man in a flowing white robe trimmed with gold came in the office door. Everyone stood. Qureshi moved out of a chair and offered it to the man, who I surmised was the imam. I was led to the back of the mosque and took a seat on a bench next to the wall. Men and boys began to file into the empty room, which quickly filled to capacity. I estimated several hundred, perhaps as many as 500. There was no room to move. Boys squirmed to sit still and fathers instructed them to show respect.

Imam Yaser Ahmed spoke on the prophet’s views of gift giving and charity. The crowd absorbed the instruction, rapt. The call to prayer mesmerized me, as did the frequent Arabic during the prayers. Afterward, I toured the school, met with teachers, most of which were African American women from Greensboro who asked me not to use their names because they feared the reaction of their Christian friends.

After attending a meeting of the school leadership council, I was led to the kitchen where the imam came in and sat in a chair two feet across from me. I was nervous. He was an impressive man, clearly a leader and full of wisdom. I began just by asking him to recount the school’s origins and path to growth.

Qureshi later led me outside, to a courtyard full of children, with boys playing soccer and girls gathered in groups, giggling and some eating cupcakes. The children flocked to me as I worked the camera, catching their American sports shirts, Angry Birds book bags and huge smiles with each press of the shutter. The girls, dressed in a variety of clothes from modern to fulllength traditional Islamic, also posed for the camera. Children are children. They were happy and full of energy and thrilled to be done with school for the day.

As I left and pulled on to US 29 to drive home, I knew I was a changed person. But how would I write this story? A straight news chronology or a first-person essay of experience?

In the end I took the straightforward approach. There was too much policy at stake to get lost in the mist of experience. I did use the wide-angle approach to begin the story, which I’m sure is what caught the judge’s attention. It’s not easy competing with the Indy Week in Raleigh and I was humbled to receive the professional acknowledgment.

But I remain a changed person because of the few hours I spent at the Islamic Center of Greensboro. It reminds me to keep a thirst for knowledge and a curiosity about the world. It also proved once again that I’m much better off with a closed mouth and an open mind. !