Despite all the negative attention surrounding being Muslim in the world, especially in the United States, Nasra Wehelie finds strength within in Islam. Wehelie is actively involved with the community trying to better it for everyone, whether they be Muslim American youth or recently released inmates. She previously worked for United Way of Dane County, and is currently the Development Director for Madison-area Urban Ministries (MUM). She and also founded Muslim Youth of Madison.
Her journey starts 28 years ago when she came from Somalia to Wisconsin to attend UW-Madison, where she earned her MBA. Wehelie’s work for social justice started at the United Way of Dane County. While in training there she participated in an assimilation course, intended to show workers what it was really like for individuals who were trying to get back into the community after being released from prison. She realized that the society that previous felons were trying to come back in was harsh and unwelcoming. After working for United Way, she started to work for Madison Urban Ministry. An interfaith organization that helps the reentry process for those getting out of jail to become part of their community again. At MUM, “she provides the financial resources that the organization needs to fund its current programs,” she says She genuinely loves where she works, saying, “I like the mission and vision of MUM, being caring with compassion.”
In addition to working with MUM, Wehelie is actively involved with the community through her self-started group, “Muslim Youth of Madison.” After the tragedies that took place on September 11, 2001, she realized that being muslim in the United States was now a negative thing that people both younger and older were going to struggle and question their Muslim and American identities. That is something that she personally didn’t want for her four kids to do, so around seven years ago she started Muslim Youth of Madison as a place where muslim children can come together in a safe environment and learn how to balance their identities and not have to be ashamed of either one. Community leaders such as Mayor Paul Soglin and Madison Metropolitan School District Superintendent Jennifer Cheatham have come in as guest speakers to talk to the kids. Kids in this group are also taught about being engaged in the community through community services. The past years during Ramadan, people outside of the muslim community have been invited to join the group and learn what Ramadan is about. With everything going on lately this year’s Ramadan theme was, “Embracing our neighbors.”
While being black and muslim in America, Wehelie knows what it’s like to be a target by xenophobic people. With everything going on the past week there is clearly xenophobic behaviour towards people of a darker skin tone. When asked about how she feels about last week truly traumatic activities that took place between cops and civilians. She speaks very passionately.
“The notion of fear brings everyone to act differently,” she says. “I urge the police and the criminal justice system to act fairly. They need to learn to become human and self aware. They [law enforcement] need to stop and think of who that child can be. Instead of looking at [just] a ‘black’ child.”
She also believes the community is not to blame and there has to be institutional change. “We as a community can say teach our kids to be cooperative or not violent when they are engaging with the police,” she says. “No, the police are dealing with kids [and the] community. He’s dealing with his child whether he likes it or not because he was sworn on protecting that child. So, if we say that all we can do is teach our kids to be cooperative or not violent, we’re justifying what the police are doing.”
No matter what specific issues she confronts, she says it’s critical to remain true to oneself. “I think when you transform yourself within, and say this is who I am, I think no one can make you act different than who you are,” she says.