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In South Texas, fire-ravaged mosque seen as symbol of unity

Victoria's Muslim community is getting a lot of help picking up the pieces of its burned-down mosque, which has emerged as a symbol of unity amid a time of national fear and discord.

An American flag flies in front of a fire-ravaged mosque in Victoria on Feb. 1, 2017.

VICTORIA — Fog gave way to sunshine as more than 150 students and faculty of St. Joseph’s High School — many clad in Flyer blue — rounded one last corner on a Wednesday morning walk from campus.

Their destination: the charred carcass of a golden-domed mosque. 

Some of the students clutched homemade posters — In UNION there is STRENGTH, Love your neighbor — as they squinted at the destruction. They brought gifts: a sapling grown from the branch of an oak tree on school grounds will soon take root here.

"There is death here," said Abe Ajrami, a board member of the Victoria Islamic Center, as he gestured toward the rubble and ashes cordoned off behind him. "And there is life here,” he continued, fixing his gaze back on the young faces. 

Students at St. Joseph's High School in Victoria, Texas, gathered near the town's fire-ravaged mosque to show support for the local Muslim community during a Feb. 1, 2017 ceremony.Jim Malewitz

Flames mysteriously devoured the 16-year-old mosque early Saturday morning, just hours after President Donald Trump signed his executive order barring refugees from entering the country and restricting travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. The cause of the fire remains under investigation amid a swirl of outsiders' theories.

In the days since, it seems that almost everyone in Victoria wants to help its roughly 40 Muslim families rebuild their spiritual home. Even as some leaders in Austin and Washington seek to cast Islam as something to fear, folks in this politically conservative southern Texas town of 65,000 people shrug off such rhetoric, viewing the Muslim congregation just as any other neighbors.

"It's a powerful symbol of our unity at a time when our world is so divided," said Father Gary Janak, who joined the St. Joseph's crew in its visit. 

Just hours after the fire, Victoria’s Temple B'Nai Israel offered its synagogue for local Muslims’ five-times daily prayer needs. Similar proposals followed from three Christian churches and the owner of an empty building in town. After initially accepting some of those offers, the Islamic Center is preparing an adjacent building on its property — cramped, but unburned — for prayer. That move delays plans to open a free weekend medical clinic in that structure.

“We can’t keep up with all the help,” Ajrami joked on Tuesday. Around him, congregation leaders scurried about the mosque’s grounds, talking logistics — demolition, design and construction — occasionally straining to be heard over a whistling train. A “UNITED WE STAND” banner stretched across the mosque’s front entrance.

A dome from the Victoria Islamic Center's burned mosque lies on the grass on Jan. 31, 2017.Jim Malewitz

At least five architecture firms have offered to design a new mosque for free, and a demolition company says it will clear the wreckage at cost, Ajrami said.

And Wednesday’s gathering outside the mosque wasn’t close to the biggest since the fire. On Sunday, organizers estimated that roughly 400 people attended a prayer service there. And locals who weren’t able to attend say they can't get the images of the flames out of their minds. 

“I couldn’t believe it when I was looking at the TV," said Jesse Simms, a 74-year-old retired autoworker who moved here with his wife about a decade ago. “I never thought anything like this would happen in Victoria.”

The fire has drawn headlines and messages of support from around the world, and more than $1 million in donations are still pouring into the congregation’s GoFundMe account.

“I really knew that that community would support us — no doubt,” Dr. Shahid Hashmi, president of the Islamic Center, said Tuesday, his phone buzzing almost nonstop.

Supporters placed messages of support at the entrance of Victoria Islamic Center after a fire destroyed its mosque in late January 2017.Jim Malewitz

A surgeon, Hashmi moved here in 1984, joining just one other Muslim family in town. Since establishing the mosque in 2000, he and others say they’ve had remarkably little trouble: someone broke in about a week before the fire and stole some electronics equipment, and a local youth was caught vandalizing the mosque in 2013, then later apologized and performed community service.

At the same time, the Center has been a hotspot for interfaith dinners, and its members have visited dozens of school and church groups around town to talk about their religion. 

The sudden international attention, however, has surprised its congregants. It's “shocking,” Hashmi said, but mostly in a positive way.

Even with that support, rebuilding won't be easy. The Islamic Center's staff largely consists of volunteers who also work day jobs. And the fire roared through more than just the walls and roof. 

“All the records we had for all these years," Hashmi said. “Financial records and legal records. Everything – it’s all gone."

The Victoria Islamic Center was destroyed by fire on Jan. 27, 2017.Jim Malewitz

The international spotlight has also thrust the community into politically fraught discussions that its members want no part of.  

Trump's executive order, which spurred chaos and distress at airports around the country, followed his campaign promise calling for a "complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States."

Though it may take investigators months to determine whether an arsonist or accident sparked the fire, that hasn’t stopped many from speculating on the cause, depending on their politics. Nor has it stopped journalists from asking about that speculation.

“No political issues. No, really,” Hashmi said after a Texas Tribune reporter did just that. “I hope and pray that it’s an accident. ... I hope it’s not a hate crime.”

Ajrami, the board member, said some of his Trump-supporter friends were among the first to offer their condolences and help after the fire. And he spotted Trump bumper stickers on a few cars parked outside the mosque for Sunday’s big gathering.

“This really crosses the boundaries," he said. "Just like we tell people: Please do not paint all Muslims with the broad brush of terrorism and violence. We have to be fair not to do the same thing to other people.”

In close-knit Victoria, dual support for the new president and a growing local Muslim community isn't a contradiction, said local attorney Joyce Leita. 

“We’re for Trump, but we love our Muslims,” she said. “It’s not mutually exclusive.”

Leaders of the Victoria Islamic Center said they are thankful to firefighters who gathered these charred Quran texts following a late January 2017 fire at their mosque. Some texts may be preserved, while others will be disposed of according to Islamic customs.Jim Malewitz

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