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A Muslim leader from South Jersey connects communities and builds bridges

Kevin Riordan, The Philadelphia Inquirer on

Published in Religious News

PHILADELPHIA — A word common to Arabic, Persian, and Urdu — three of the languages Muqqadas Ejaz uses in addition to English — aptly describes her mission. The word is muhsen, and it means “doing good.”

Muhsen also is the name of one of the half-dozen local and national American Muslim organizations to which Ejaz — an advocate, volunteer, and networker extraordinaire — devotes her time and her formidable people skills.

“In my head, I have a formula for life,” Ejaz, 37, said in an interview at GCLEA (Gracious Center for Learning and Enrichment), a mosque in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. She lives in the township with her husband, Umair Chaudhry, a software engineer, and their daughter, Anaya, 7.

“You create opportunities for others, and God creates opportunities for you,” said Ejaz.

From helping out with everything from vaccinations to voter registration, she said, “I grab any opportunity I can to benefit the community.”

Known as “Mookie” to friends and associates — 150 of whom attended a July 7 event to celebrate her election to the Camden County Democratic Committee — Ejaz “is a doer,” said Fozia Janjua, the first American Muslim to serve on the Mount Laurel township council.

“She was one of my biggest supporters when I was running,” said Janjua, one of 20 American Muslims elected to local political offices last year in the Garden State, according to the Muslim League of Voters of New Jersey.

Ejaz “encourages other women and people from the South Asian community to get involved,” Janjua said. “She wants everybody to succeed.”

Born in Lahore, Pakistan, in 1984, Ejaz grew up the eldest of four siblings in a middle-class household. Her family was politically active and believed girls as well as boys should be well-educated.

Her father, a successful businessman named Mohammad Tahir, “is my inspiration,” Ejaz said. She emigrated to the United States with her parents in 2002 — my father “is in love with America,” she said — and lived in Texas and Georgia before moving to South Jersey in 2007.

“Making friends in Houston, Atlanta, and Rome, Georgia, taught me the distinction between media and people,” said Ejaz. “This hyped-up divide we have really shouldn’t be there.”

It was also in the South, while an Atlanta high school student working as a summer volunteer with the AmeriCorps Vista program, that Ejaz had a formative experience.

She was assisting in classes provided to refugees from Sudan, where hundreds of thousands of people were uprooted by years of conflict between government and rebel forces in the Darfur region in the early 2000s.

“We were working with a brother and sister who were 5 and 7 and very scared when they got here,” Ejaz recalled.

“But after two months they were different kids. Their father would come in to the classroom early and sit in a chair in the corner just to watch them play with other kids. Just to watch them play. I realized that I was helping do something important.”

Ejaz became a U.S. citizen in 2008 and believes it is essential that Muslims and other Americans connect with each other as Americans across boundaries of race, ethnicity, geography, and faith. In recognition of her efforts, Camden County awarded her a MLK Freedom Medal in 2018. The medals are presented to county residents whose community service reflects the goals of the late Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Ejaz is herself a reminder that Muslims are a diverse and far from monolithic group; she is comfortable in traditional dress as well as Western attire, and is a woman of faith who knows how to navigate in the secular world. And her gregarious personality makes it difficult to imagine her as a shy Camden County College student who sat in the back of classrooms so as not to be noticed.

“I didn’t have the confidence to speak up,” said Ejaz, whose manner is as direct as her laugh is mellifluous. “But I had great professors. I learned a lot.”

 

Later, while earning a B.A. in history at Rowan University, Ejaz struggled to write papers (”my grammar was not good”) and asked history professor Corinne Blake for help.

“She worked very hard to master the conventions of writing, and she ended up doing quite well,” said Blake, now associate dean of Rowan’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences.

“Muqaddas was great to have in class. She was always respectful of other people’s views and she was really passionate about interfaith relations,” Blake said.

“She was a leader. She was someone who could make things happen.”

Indeed: Such was Ejaz’s dedication to help teach English and computer literacy classes to recent Muslim emigres that it inspired Blake to teach some of the classes herself.

The instruction took place at the Muslim American Community Association mosque and masjid in Voorhees. In the early 2000s, plans to build the facility sparked fierce opposition from some non-Muslims in the township.

But the controversy also gave rise to an interfaith coalition that was chronicled by filmmaker Alexander Kronemer in his documentary, "Talking Through Walls." In the years since, another half dozen mosques and religious schools have opened to serve a local American Muslim population estimated at 7,000, including many professionals and businesspeople. About 2% of New Jersey’s 8.8 million residents are Muslim.

The community’s increasing visibility, especially in politics, may be inspired in part by hostile statements and policies about Muslims during the Trump administration. “Our country took a turn in 2017,” said Ejaz said of what has been called “the Trump bump.”

But the rise in the community’s prominence surely stems from the work of grassroots leaders such as Ejaz. She serves as national director of outreach for Muslim Americans in Public Service, a national organization, as well as director of communications for The Muslim Network, which is based in New Jersey. Ejaz also helped establish local bridge-building programs such as Know Your Muslim Neighbor.

“She is probably at the forefront of building social capital within the community, and helping create relationships and networks outside the community,” said Imam John Starling, the spiritual leader of GCLEA and its 350 members.

“The kind of work Muqaddas and others in a similar position are doing is a testament to the fact that the American Muslim community is part of the fabric of this society, and is here to stay,” Starling said.

Eajaz Rawoof, a trustee and vice president of GCLEA board, said Ejaz “brings to the table a lot of enthusiasm, and charm. She’s always looking for opportunities to help. She’s an influencer, she’s one of the key people ... and she’s definitely somebody that everybody knows.”

Rawoof also noted that Ejaz is leading an effort for GCLEA to implement accessibility and other practices promulgated by Muhsen, which advocates on behalf of people with special needs.

“We need to do a lot of awareness in the American Muslim community about special needs, which overall are sometimes not approached in an ideal manner,” said Ejaz, whose daughter is on the autism spectrum.

“There needs to be information, education, and training,” she said. “We need to offer relief prayers for caregivers of people with special needs, and offer ease for their parents.

GCLEA “is like home to me,” said Ejaz.

That’s why she wants to make sure its programs are fully accessible, and welcoming.

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