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Life as a Muslim: Detroit Lakes native converts to Islam, moves to Michigan

Darla Abu-Shanab recalls many periods of her life, like when she played in bands in her early 20s and the nerve-wracking experience of wearing a hijab to work for the first time after converting from Christianity to Islam. Emily Driscoll / Tribune

Darla Abu-Shanab grew up in Detroit Lakes. She has pale skin, bright blue eyes, Scandinavian and German ancestry, and she practices Islam.

Growing up Christian, with a German name like Darla Schnitzer, Abu-Shanab didn't experience strange looks going about her daily life like she does now.

In the early '90s, she married a Muslim man and later converted to Islam. They now have four children ages 13, 14, 17 and 28.

Darla Abu Shanab chose to expose her new religion right before arguably the most tragic period in recent American history.

"I was just like everybody else and then all of a sudden I was going to come to work wearing a hijab," she recalls. "They (her coworkers) said they support me and love me and were very sweet about it."

On September 1, 2001, Darla Abu-Shanab came to work wearing a headscarf. It was an unfortunate coincidence she now considers a true test of faith.

For the week following her decision, she answered any questions people had about why she converted and how it was a positive choice for her.

But then ten days later, September 11 marked the day that ultimately sparked a new distrust for Muslims in and entering America, and Abu-Shanab immediately felt the brunt of it.

"I still cry when I think about it because my husband called, and at that time we were in Michigan, and my son was in daycare, a religious daycare at the mosque," she said. Her eyes began to well up.

There were rumors flying around that people were pulling Muslims out of their cars and beating them up. Whether or not it was true, she was flooded with fear.

"My husband said if you want to take your cover off, it's okay, you're allowed," she said. "It took me ten years to get this far, if this wasn't a test, I don't know what is."

She did not take her cover off. Shaking behind the wheel, she left work early to go pick up her daughter from daycare.

"When I think of my faith, I think that moment defined me," she said.

Her workplace, friends, and family supported her, but not the man with an American flag waving by the tail of his truck who pursued her for half a mile, yelling things out his window and making threats. She recalls multiple incidences similar to this one that occurred during the many years since converting, like getting the middle finger while driving around with her kids, or overhearing people talking about her at the table next to her at a restaurant.

"People talk over coffee, that's normal, and i have to be fair--when I talk with people from a certain country or with other Muslims, their misconceptions about Americans are very skewed sometimes too," she admitted. "I had a lady that said, 'when I first moved to America I wouldn't leave my house' and she said it was because of the drugs and the prostitutes on every corner, and I was like 'what?'"

But mostly, people just stare. She doesn't immediately interpret stares as a negative judgement, but as curiosity, or a simple lack of knowing.

"I try to tell my kids that it's a gift sometimes, because it makes you aware that religious freedom is such a gift," she said. "I think nobody is more deeply American than someone who lives it and sees it every day."

As a Muslim, she dresses more modestly, prays more often, gave up drinking completely, and fasts during Ramadan, but other than that she said that not much as changed. "I'm the same person I was before," she said.

She said fasting was challenging at first, but ultimately proved rewarding. During that month, Muslims participating in Ramadan cannot eat or drink anything from sunrise to sunset, and also refrain from getting angry with one another.

"The reason is we want to understand when people are thirsty in other parts of the world," she explained. "It's like having a child with cancer, you don't understand what it's like until you have that child."

Abu-Shanab went to school in Waubun and graduated there. She started at MSUM but left after a year to pursue music.

She was the vocalist for two bands, Jessica, a top-40 band, and then Kashmir, a rock n roll band.

They toured and made an OK living. "I did that for many, many years," she said. "We were doing six week circuits, playing hotels like the Holiday Inn."

She met her husband playing pool. "He was on spring break with the guys, and he said hey how ya doin,'" and the rest was history.

They got married in 1990. He was a Muslim and she was a Christian.

"He never pressured me about his religion, he said if you want to know anything, just ask me questions," she said. "He wasn't super practicing at the time, we were young."

After much discussion and deliberation, she and her husband agreed that the similarities between Christianity and Islam were astounding. She didn't see a reason not to convert, other than the stigma attached.

"I had preconceived notions about Muslims not being got to their wives, but then my husband told me that it was false and that in the Islam religion, if the wife makes any money, he isn't allowed to touch it," she said.

"Of course there are muslim people who find their lives oppressing," she said. "But if you find good people, you'll always be fine. That's what I tell my children."

One of her goals is to surround herself with people from all walks of life, and try to make a dent in reducing Islamophobia if possible.

"As humans we have to be kind to each other and reach out to each other," she said. "I don't care if you're right wing, I don't care if you're left wing, all I care about is that we're good to each other."

Now, in her spare time, she teaches refugees during the school year. Last year she sponsored a family of nine whose father had been shot in the leg by ISIS.

Her husband, who is Palestinian and was born in Kuwait, works in aerospace as a technical director.

They live with their family in a suburb of Detroit.