by Jeff Sykes

You could drive past it everyday on U.S. 29 near Sixteenth Street in Greensboro and not know it’s there. There is no minaret to dominate the skyline above the Wal-Mart nearby. The nondescript building sits well back from the street, shielded by a stand of trees from the noise of the highway.

But inside the faithful gather. The call to prayer goes up, rising in succinct tonal steps as men gather early on a Friday afternoon in December. One by one they remove their shoes, enter the worship space and face the Imam, robed in white and standing at the front of what is soon to be 500 practicing Muslims at the Islamic Center of Greensboro.

The room is populated at first before quickly becoming crowded. By the end of Imam Yaser Ahmed’s discussion on the Prophet Mohammed’s views on gift giving there isn’t an inch of open floor space. But at the appropriate time toward the end of the gathering each man present rises and forms lines of perfect symmetry before bowing in prayer.

It’s an impressive display of commitment, a dedication to faith in an increasingly faithless world. The hallway leading to the courtyard is crowded with worshippers. Outside, the overflow crowd spread carpets across the concrete walkway in order that they might pray. It’s clear that the diverse crowd of practicing Muslims in Greensboro is growing steadily.

Groups of school-aged boys were mixed in with the faithful during prayer, shifting about, restless, as school-aged boys are from time to time. Once the Friday prayers, known as jumah, are over with, schoolchildren play soccer in the courtyard or otherwise delight in the unseasonably warm December sun. Girls in a variety of clothing “” from modern American to traditional Islamic fashion “” try to avoid the soccer ball flying about, each donning a colorful headscarf and carrying a stack of books.

It’s the school that brought me here. (View the photo gallery) Greensboro Islamic Academy made headlines across North Carolina when it was the most requested school under the state’s new Opportunity Scholarship Program. GIA was requested by 170 voucher applicants, with the school initially approved for 43. As two lawsuits have worked their way through the court system, 14 more voucher applications have been approved for the school.

That brought a level of scrutiny the leaders of the Islamic Center of Greensboro admit they were not prepared to deal with. The scrutiny reached a crescendo last fall when the left-leaning website, NC Policy Watch, seized on an ill-conceived fundraising plan school leaders made public via an online video and a crowd-funding website.

The online fundraising plan was a failure, and NC Policy Watch used those statistics, and the content of the school’s fundraising pitch, to paint the Greensboro Islamic Academy in a desperate light.

With scrutiny of Muslims, and immigrants, at an all-time high in the United States, it was an unfair, and mostly unnecessary, attack on the rationale for the school, its leaders felt, and undermined the success and growth of the school that so many Muslim families have come to depend on.

GIA began back in 2003 when a group of parents wanted their children schooled in a different environment, one in which they could learn about their faith while still completing the state’s core curriculum. Imam Yaser Ahmed said GIA began with three students from two families. With each successive year the school added students, and grades, until leveling out in recent years at about 100 students.

“Parents realized that academically their children were achieving in the school,” Ahmed said. “The school had a very peaceful and friendly environment, no abusive language used in the school. It’s a friendly school with small class sizes. All those factors together convinced many parents to join the school.

Some in the beginning had a kind of hesitation … but it became very good along the way.”

GIA enrolled eight students in the eighth grade last school year, the first in which eighth grade was offered. Five of those graduating eighth graders were accepted to Guilford County School’s Early College, a point officials believe weighs in favor of the school’s academic rigor.

Musa Sulayman serves as treasurer for both the Islamic Center of Greensboro and GIA. A no nonsense straight talker, Sulayman holds an MBA from High Point University, where he concentrated in accounting. In discussing the school’s finances, and its curriculum, Sulayman stressed that the goal is to give students a superior education. Students at the school need to be taught citizenship and how to become successful, middle-class Americans, he said, since most of them are first-generation Americans and immigrants.

Rumors about the school’s finances and curriculum abound, Sulayman said.

“That brings a lot of pain to us because our curriculum here in the school is the same as Guilford County curriculum,” Sulayman said. “We teach math, science, reading, just about all the other subjects taught. In addition to that we also teach Islamic studies and Koran. That is the added benefit that we bring to the table that some parents find appealing.”

According to the number of voucher applications, many parents do find GIA appealing. The school added a total of 61 students for the current school year, 57 of which are using the state’s Opportunity Scholarship Program.

“There are some parents who could not afford to bring their kids here before and they refused to take handouts,” Sulayman said. “The would rather send them to public school. When the voucher came up, parents applied. As a minority group, we are not that rich, so most who applied were approved for the voucher criteria.”

Imam Yaser Ahmed said the voucher program was a blessing to many families.

“A lot of the parents have interest in sending their children here but because they are low income families they cannot afford it,” Ahmed said. “When the voucher program came it was a big opportunity for them. It was a big relief. They rushed to apply.”

The Opportunity Scholarship also allowed parents with more than one student to enroll them all at GIA.

“We believe in the message of the school 100 percent, but you cannot convince the larger community because of their financial resources. Some have more than one child and to enroll them all would be difficult,” Ahmed said. “So when the vouchers came, it gave them opportunity to bring their children here. We wish more will come in the next year if the program stays.”

A Sudanese mother of two students at the school explained in detail how important GIA is to her family. Siddiga Ahmed, speaking as did most of those interviewed for this story in broken, or heavily accented English, said the most important thing for her was to have a safe environment for her children, ages 12 and 9.

She immigrated to the US with her husband after winning a diversity lottery in 1998. After having children, she moved back to Sudan for a few years.

“Because we are Muslim, we speak Arabic, I wanted them to learn the language and the religion and the tradition and to know the family over there,” Siddiga said.

GIA struggled early on with finances and was relatively small, Siddiga said, but she has been pleased with the progress in recent years. It’s a welcome respite for her family, and many others.

“Because this school, most of the children are from immigrants and refugees, and most of us live in not good area, not good district, not good schools,” Siddiga said. “I have a lot of my neighbors, they send their children to the schools in our districts but they face a lot of things. My neighbor went to court with her children three times because they try to bully him. When they grow up, they want to fight them because they don’t like the way they treat them. They bully them from the beginning, saying names to them, I don’t want to put my children in this situation.”

Siddiga said it was also important to her for her children to learn traditional Islam, and Arabic.

“If I let my children learn the religion from the Internet, they get confused,” Siddiga said. “They will take a lot of bad things, maybe they become radical. They take the bad things from the Internet. But over here they taught them the original Islam. The right way. If they learn Islam the right way they are not going to be thinking of doing bad things. They will be good for their country, for America, for themselves.”

Siddiga said that the state’s voucher program was very important to her family.

“The school, in order for them to be around, they need teachers, they need books, they need a lot of stuff, ” she said. “I know there are a lot of parents like me, they want to bring their children over here, but because of the money, the school cannot afford to pay for them all or to accept them without paying. So me and other parents, the voucher helped us a lot.”

When the voucher application process opened, Siddiga applied via the Internet. The state sent her a letter of approval, but the voucher process was halted in August when a judge ruled the Opportunity Scholarship unconstitutional.

“I became very sad when they said no,” Siddiga said. “I was with my family and we were talking. The minute that I hear that they stop it I became very, very sad. Like somebody died from my family. Because it’s the future of my children.”

The families remained in limbo, uncertain about the status of their voucher, for more than a month. But GIA’s leadership decided to enroll the students and worry about the money down the road.

“We said that people who came in on a voucher, if they don’t have the money, we are going to cover it until there is a decision that is going to be made,” said Wasif Qureshi, president of the Islamic Center of Greensboro. “This voucher program was a lifeboat for so many people, and when it was taken away we said we’ve put our trust in God and he will cover it. If it doesn’t go through, we will raise the money some other way.”

GIA provided an email sent by school staff in August to the North Carolina State Educational Assistance Authority, the entity tasked with overseeing the distribution of funds.

“This is to inform you that the management of Greensboro Islamic Academy has decided to keep the students who have been awarded and accepted the Opportunity Scholarship from your office until the issue is resolved,” wrote GIA’s treasurer, Musa Sulayman. “We are making this disclosure to you, so that in your regular meetings, it should be noted that schools such as ours are keeping the students and we would like that when the funding is released, our school would be reimbursed retroactively to cover these early months of the school period; and not just the future months. We understand that your office cannot make any predictions as to the outcome of the court case; this is a risk the school is taking on its own. We pray that the court’s decision will ultimately come out in our favor.”

An appeals court judged ruled in September that the state should release voucher funds for students already approved while the cases wind their way through the court system.

It was an emotional roller coaster for many of the families who were awarded vouchers to attend GIA, Musa Sulayman said. When the law passed, many of the families did not know about the program until the state sent an informational postcard. With so much talk about the possibility of winning vouchers to attend GIA swirling about the center, they held a community meeting to discuss the details and to set up communication to keep interested families updated.

“When the day came, some of them they couldn’t even go to sleep that night,” Sulayman said. “They were up at 12 o’clock midnight when it was open for enrollment and they started sending in the application. They didn’t want what happened to Obamacare to happen to the application. That was very fresh in their memory. They stayed up all night to make sure the application went through.”

Families who needed assistance with the computer came to the center for help.

“The parents came to us for guidance and we provided whatever services we could as a center to them,” Sulayman said.

When the news broke that GIA was the most requested school in the state, Sulayman knew they needed a plan. GIA purchased an additional mobile classroom and added five classroom spaces in their main building once the numbers began to take shape.

In December, with the first semester with expanded enrollment winding down, school leaders met with faculty for an update on how students were performing. Teachers and school officials discussed a variety of issues “” from typical academic struggles and follow-up with parents, to transportation and communication issues “” with school board members emphasizing the moral obligation to ensure voucher students earn their spot at GIA.

The group discussed how to measure student improvements, and again held up the students placed in the county’s early college program as their standard. The discussion covered the need for teacher assistants to help with reading, and the idea of hiring an exceptional children’s teacher to work with students coming from public schools with an individual education plan (IEP).

One of the biggest obstacles GIA leaders hope to overcome is the misconception that they aren’t accountable for their curriculum, or that they only teach children about Islam.

A middle school Social Studies teacher explained that she does not imbue her curriculum with religion.

“I’m not a Muslim, so I’m doing it from a teacher’s perspective, not a religious perspective,” said the African-American woman who asked not to be identified. The woman had taught in local public schools before coming to GIA three years ago. A graduate of Smith High School in Greensboro, she holds a state teacher’s license and degrees from Guilford College and Greensboro College. “Actually, the curriculum is the same because they follow the state standards. Everything is based on North Carolina curriculum.”

There were no religious symbols in her classroom.

No copies of the Koran. The students used regular Pearson social studies textbooks. A picture of President Obama smiled out from a spot on the wall.

“I’m teaching social studies. This is not based on my religion,” the woman said. “This school is about teaching academics in addition to religion. So I’m looking at it from a perspective of coming in to teach social studies.”

Qureshi, the president of the Islamic Center of Greensboro, pointed out that they do not alter textbooks or the curriculum to conform to religious belief.

“We don’t do any of that,” Qureshi said. “We don’t tear out pages. We teach North Carolina core standards. We teach the essentials. We try to accomodate the current time as much as we can.”!