It’s Friday, and Valerie Shirley brings two of her Christian friends along to Masjid An-Nur in north Minneapolis to experience a Muslim worship gathering.
As the Jummah service is getting started, Valerie’s son, Musab Drake is lingering in the hallway. Like other worshippers this afternoon, Drake, 20, is wearing a mask to protect himself from COVID-19. In sign language, his stepfather, Mujahid Nathim, checks to make sure Drake isn’t chewing candy beneath his mask before entering the service.
Inside, Shirley sets up a chair in the corner of the room facing her two Christian friends, Cheryl Moody and Pam Burry. Like Drake, both are deaf.
As Imam Matthew Ramadan begins to lead Jummah, Shirley interprets his words in American Sign Language. Shirley began interpreting mosque services for deaf Muslims close to a decade ago. In 2013, she founded the Minnesota Deaf Muslim Community, a nonprofit that serves deaf people of color with interpretation resources.
Last month, the St. Paul & Minnesota Foundation honored Shirley for her work bringing resources to the deaf BIPOC community with a Facing Race award, which honors local efforts to combat institutional racism.
Shirley said she founded Minnesota Deaf Muslim Community for people like her son Drake, who lost his hearing as an infant after suffering a stroke that hospitalized him.
“I have learned that you can’t fight the whole system and come out on top,” she said. “But you can start a small system of your own that gives opportunities and helps provide resources to those who are left out. Those who are most isolated have the least resources, and MDMC is here to uplift them.”
Helping deaf Muslims ‘understand the why of Islam’
Shirley, 54, first learned sign language out of necessity. Drake’s hospitalization came when he was just four months old. After suffering the stroke, Drake experienced seizures. He was placed on a respirator. Doctors diagnosed him with meningitis, an inflammation of the brain and spinal cord.
After the diagnosis, medical professionals tested Drake’s hearing and found him to be profoundly deaf.
Once he got out of the hospital, Shirley said her first thought was that she and the family had to learn sign language. She did so by taking classes at the University of Minnesota, on top of her work as a public school teacher (Shirley currently teaches a variety of subjects to deaf and hard of hearing students at Osseo Middle School). She remembers coming home each night and teaching her family the lessons she learned that day. Then, everyone would practice learning sign language together.
As Drake grew, Shirley and her family continued immersing themselves in sign language. By the time he was on the cusp of turning 6, the family took their efforts to their local mosque. Shirley’s oldest daughter, Mallerie, developed sign language skills surpassed her mother’s. Mallerie, who is now 34, became a certified ASL interpreter and started volunteer interpreting at Masjid An-Nur. Shirley soon followed her daughter’s example and also started interpreting at the mosque.
Shirely, who is not herself deaf, was raised Baptist and found Islam at 29 after a long personal spiritual journey. She knows the importance of clear communication to understanding the religion; Everything learned about Islam came from hearing from a teacher or from reading religious text.
Shirley said she and her daughter initially started interpreting at her mosque because they noticed many deaf congregants weren’t understanding “the why of Islam.” Too often, Shirley came across deaf Muslims who only knew their religion as a cultural way of life and not much more.
Shirley wanted to teach the deaf congregants the deeper spiritual connection of how these Islamic cultural practices connect Muslims directly to a higher power.
“They would pray, they would wear their hijab, they tried their best to do what their families had been ordering them to do for many years,” she said. “But they didn’t understand why. They didn’t know what Islam was.”
Fardowsa Ali was one of them. Fardowsa, who is 42 and deaf, came to the U.S. from Somalia in 2006. In her home country, neither she nor no one she knew understood sign language. During worship services at the mosque, she tried to follow along by reading lips. But this often left key context out.
“I would see the word ‘prophet’ and not understand what it meant,” Fardowsa said.
After arriving here, Fardowsa learned different forms of sign language, including ASL. She remembers first meeting Shirley at a school event for deaf people not too long after settling in Minnesota. At the time, Fardowsa said she felt isolated because she was used to being around other Somalis.
“I saw Valerie with her head wrap on and my eyes lit up,” Fardowsa said. “We had a bond.”
When Shirley and her daughter started interpreting at the mosque, both helped Fardowsa develop a deeper understanding of her religion. Through sign language interpreting at the mosque, she better understood the meaning of daylight fasting during the holy month of Ramadan and the roles of prophets in Islam.
“In sign language, you can expand on words, and Valerie would go out of her way and expand on what a prophet does,” Fardowsa said.
Interpreting the imam’s lecture
At one point during the khutbah, or sermon, at the Jummah gathering, Imam Ramadan lectures young congregants about two types of people in the world—”those that play games and become fools of the world and those that make games and run the world.”
“You have a choice to make,” Ramadan says. “You can sit there and play games all day and let the brain cells melt—”
(Valerie laughs at this aside she interprets for Moody and Burry, who both also chuckle.)
“—or, you can say, ‘Let me look behind the technology, let me understand what this is doing and how it affects me.’”
As Ramadan continues the lecture, he implores young Muslims to understand their heritage. He gives a brief history of Islamic rule from 700 AD until the time of Christopher Columbus. Muslim leadership during this period innovated in science and math, Ramadan explains, while also giving Jews and Christians freedom to practice their religions and hold important community positions.
“Muslims are obligated to protect other peoples’ religious rights,” Ramadan says. “The idea that we only take care of our own is not Islam.”
Moody and Burry nod affirmatively to this point while watching Shirley interpret these words. The point of Ramadan’s khutbah today is clear to Shirley: “If you want to make a positive future for yourself, you have to understand your history,” she says.
Helping deaf Muslims navigate bills and paperwork
Shirley estimates around 100 people in the Muslim deaf community in the Twin Cities have used her organization’s services. Most are immigrants.
The bulk of what Minnesota Deaf Muslim Community does is help translate important documents like tax returns, immigration forms, housing applications, and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program forms.
The organization is small. Along with a volunteer board of directors, Minnesota Deaf Muslim Community employs three part-time sign language interpreters. Shirley said the organization is edging toward employing a full-time interpreter.
Shirley is one of the part-time interpreters on staff. Each time she receives a paycheck, she said, she sends the entire pay back to the organization as a donation.