- Associated Press - Friday, May 6, 2016

LOGAN, Utah (AP) - As a Ph.D. student in civil and environmental engineering at Utah State University in 2001, Palestinian native and Muslim Said Ghabayen became a local voice for peace following the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

“This is not my Islam,” Ghabayen tearfully said at a memorial service at the Ellen Eccles Theatre the week after the attacks, effectively becoming one of Cache Valley’s most prominent Muslim representatives.

Now, after eight years of undergoing the legal processes, Ghabayen has earned his American citizenship, the Herald Journal reported (http://bit.ly/1UoeHui).

“It’s a big achievement, especially coming from unstable and crowded places like those in the Middle East,” Ghabayen said. “Here in America, the opportunities are great. I’ve wanted a good future for my family, for my children. For that future, it is great to have this.”

Ghabayen, a married father of six, first came to Cache Valley to study at Utah State University under a Fulbright Scholarship. In his time at the university as a doctoral student, Ghabayen served as leader of the Arab Student Association and president of the Logan Islamic Center.

His involvement on campus as a voice for Islamic individuals in the valley led to his involvement in the formation of the Cache Community Connections, a group of interfaith religious and civic leaders, following the 9/11 attacks in an effort to bring greater understanding to the community about Islam during a time of confusion. CCC is still operating today.

“At that time, people’s first impression of Islam was what was seen in the news, which does not always convey an accurate picture of our faith,” Ghabayen explained. “People put a label on a certain religion based on one individual they know who practices it, and then they generalize it. The CCC started at a critical time where people were in a state of confusion, but the CCC helped us to understand one another and reduce this confusion.”

Former Logan mayor Doug Thompson, who helped to form the CCC alongside Ghabayen, called Ghabayen an excellent source of comfort in the times following the attacks. In 2004, Thompson declared April 26 to be “Said Ghabayen Day” in recognition for his contributions to the valley during a farewell reception, as Ghabayen returned to Palestine for three years as part of his scholarship.

“Said is just a great guy,” Thompson said. “He’s humble, he’s kind, and he’s a perfect example of what I feel Islam represents. When he was approached to speak at our memorial service, he was more than happy to participate. He felt bad about the men who had done this in his religion’s name and shared in all of our grief.”

Former Logan Municipal Council member Dean Quayle echoed Thompson’s sentiments, noting Ghabayen frequently shared his culture and traditions with anyone wishing to learn more.

“He’s soft-spoken, but he’s truly a very faithful man,” Quayle said. “He’s an absolutely wonderful man, and we’ve enjoyed having him as a member of our community.”

Ghabayen’s return to Logan in 2007 started his path to citizenship. Sponsored by USU, Ghabayen received an immigrant visa and then became a permanent resident, receiving his green card. Following a five-year naturalization process, a year-long background check through the Department of Homeland Security and a final interview and civics exam, Ghabayen received his citizenship Monday, April 18.

The rest of Ghabayen’s family received their citizenship last October through a similar process, although Ghabayen’s youngest children received their citizenship automatically after Ghabayen’s wife earned her own.

Ghabayen said although his youngest children have now spent more of their lives in the United States instead of Palestine, he still retains his Palestinian roots and hopes to maintain some of the traditions of his homeland.

“There were difficult parts to living in Palestine, but there are still many things I would like to keep,” Ghabayen said. “Keeping extended family close is still important to me, and I’ll miss the food and the perfect Mediterranean weather we used to have in Palestine. For my wife and I, we may miss those things more than our children who have grown up here, but I would like to not lose those things for them.”

Ghabayen noted it was also easier to practice his faith as a Muslim in Palestine but said Logan’s community has been nothing but welcoming to Muslims.

“Logan is truly a very good place,” Ghabayen said. “We Muslims are not that many, but we feel through the years that we have been safe and welcomed here. Here in America, there is a good freedom to practice your religion. At its center, this is what the United States is about.”

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Information from: The Herald Journal, http://www.hjnews.com

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