Mosque Thrives After Bumpy Beginning
It’s been about a year and a half since the Kennesaw City Council balked at allowing a mosque to open in a strip mall, and since that time, mosque leaders say everything is “going great.
“It is so convenient,” said Dr. Nayyer Islam, president of the mosque, the Masjid Suffah of Kennesaw.
“It’s a great place for everyone to come together and meet each other. There are some people I didn’t even know were in the area that are coming here now.”
In December of 2014, the Kennesaw City Council voted 4-1 to deny a permit that would have allowed worshippers to open a Muslim prayer center in a strip mall on Jiles Road behind a Publix grocery store.
Protestors attended numerous council meetings about the mosque, carrying signs saying “Ban Islam” and “No Mosque,” and voiced concerns about the mosque spreading Shariah law.
After Doug Dillard, the attorney representing mosque members, threatened to sue the council for violating the Religious Land Use and
Institutionalized Persons Act, council members reversed their decision and granted a 24-month permit.
Former Councilwoman Cris Eaton- Welsh was the only council member to approve the permit in the initial vote. She said she voted to approve the mosque because it was their “constitutional right to be there.
“The (mosque members) who came to that City Council meeting, they have been members of this community for 20, 30 years,” Eaton-Welsh said “They are your radiologists, your doctors, your dentists ... I’m glad they have a safe space to worship. I don’t think it’s any different than a synagogue or chapel.”
Former Councilwoman Debra Williams, who initially voted against the mosque, said her opposition was based on the location.
“It was going in a retail space that had active businesses, and a worship center takes away from that. We need to put in businesses that complement each other,” she said.
However, Islam said the shopping mall is now thriving.
“The (shopping) complex where the mosque is located had one or two businesses back then, and as I was promising the city atthe time, now the whole complex is flourishing,” Islam said.
Dream Body Inc, a personal training studio, moved into the strip-mall in May, and owner Seth Carver said that while parking had been an initial concern, business is good and the studio has about 150 sessions per week.
“They are very courteous, they come over and put cones in front of our space so that nobody parks in front of our business so that way there’s parking for our clients,” Carver said.
Before the mosque opened, many Muslims in the area had to travel to other communities to worship.
Mosque board member Naser Omer, of Kennesaw, said “we were going and coming 10 miles each way, so that’s 20 miles, and some of the prayers are only ten minutes.” He called the mosque a great facility.
Nayyer Islam’s daughter, 18-year old Maha Islam, said before the mosque opened, her family traveled to Canton to a different Muslim community.
“It’s so nice having the mosque here. I didn’t know all the Muslims in this area and now I do,” she said.
Another mosque on Barrett Parkway in west Cobb is scheduled to open in about four to six months.
The Masjid Suffah, which sees about 80 to 100 members on its busiest day, is collecting funds to move to a permanent location behind the Walgreen’s pharmacy and Bank of America on Pine Mountain Road near Cobb Parkway.
Nayyer Islam said an architect, who is a member of the mosque, has already drawn up the plans for an 8,500-square- foot space with a larger worship area and multi- purpose space for kids to play. The property, which was donated to the mosque by a member, is about 3.5 acres and the new development will include about 200 parking spaces.
Kennesaw resident Eileen Alberstadt, who opposed the mosque’s opening in 2014 citing traffic congestion, said she is still concerned about traffic when the Pine Mountain Road location opens.
“I live on Pine Mountain and it’s a nightmare to get out of the subdivision,” Alberstadt said. “The traffic will be hell; it’s already hell now.”
Alberstadt and Williams also said mosque members tried to demolish a house on the Pine Mountain Road property, but did not have the permit and were forced to stop.
Because the projectis privately-funded, it is difficult to pinpoint when it will be finished, Nayyer Islam said.
“If you wrote me a check today, I could start working tomorrow,” he said, laughing.
According to Nayyer Islam, the property already has the needed zoning and the final architectural designs will be submitted to the city for approval. The estimated cost for the Pine Mountain Road mosque is $1.4 million.
The mosque has a 24-month leasing period for the strip mall location which ends in about nine months.
“We told them at the time that this is a temporary thing and our permission is for two years, so we are going to obey our promise,” he said. “We are going to keep striving towards building the other mosque so it becomes a permanent thing where people can go.”
Nayyer Islam is hopeful to have more funds for the permanent mosque after Ramadan, a religious month for Muslims.
During Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk and practice self-restraint and self- reflection. Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and is celebrated as the month Muhammad received the revelations that became the Quran.
Each night during the holy month, the Masjid Suffah serves about 150 people with a four-course meal at sunset that is followed by prayer.
“Ramadan is about restricting ourselves from what is normally available. We restrict in everything, including lying and cussing,” Nayyer Islam said. “Those things happen from impulse and the purpose of Ramadan is to calm those impulsivities ... the training for this month allows us to remember these things
in the next 11 months. It trains us on how to be a good citizen.”
Food served varies night to night but often includes dates, meats, rice, bread and desserts.
“It’s a cool thing here because we have different Muslims from a lot of different countries. Everyone signs up to bring in food for Ramadan so we have a lot of different flavors,” said Maha Islam.
The end of Ramadan is called Eid and is a time for celebration. People dress up in colorful outfits and donate to the community.
Humaira Qhan, a member of the mosque who has lived in Kennesaw for 12 years, said. “We give alms to the poor and to the underserved so they can celebrate Eid with us.”
This year, funds donated to the mosque will be given to the community of Clarkesville, according to Nayyer Islam.
Also new this year for Eid, the Masjid Suffah gathered with other mosques in the area at Pine Mountain Middle School to pray and celebrate the end of Ramadan.
This article and photos were originally published in the Marietta Daily Journal in 2016.
Gotta Catch Em' All
Augmented Reality Game Sweeping The Nation...And the Square
People all over the United States are on a quest to “catch ’em all” with the new Pokemon Go app, and Cobb residents are no exception.
The mobile-phone game that requires players to walk around their community to play is the top grossing app on the iTunes store according to Apple, and players are out in full force in popular areas of the county.
In Marietta Square, there are at least a dozen landmarks and important gameplay locations — called Pokestops — that players can visit, including the Marietta Liberty Bell, the Strand Theatre and various art installations.
Derek Schatz of Marietta walked around the Square on Tuesday — his birthday — with friends, playing the game.
“It’s my birthday, so I thought I would just come out here and play and catch some Pokemon,” he said. “(The app) gets you to want to take a detour, and it forced me to go to places you normally wouldn’t. I had no idea there was a big lake close to where I work, and now I do.”
Alison Turner, also of Marietta, was playing with Schatz and said the app is “great because it’s interactive and really a community game.”
Another friend, Jordan Martin, said he had lost 10 pounds in the last week just from walking around playing Pokemon Go.
“It gets people out of the house and you interact with people you wouldn’t normally,” Martin said.
Gordon Howes, 23, of Kennesaw and 27-year-old Tung Mac of Marietta would agree, as the two met each other playing the game and were out catching Pokemon in the Square together.
“It’s the most social app ever invented,” said Howes. “It doesn’t put people behind a screen; it gives people a reason to get outside.”
REAL AND VIRTUAL COMBINE
The app, designed by Niantic Inc., features the fantasy, animal-like characters of the Pokemon phenomenon that debuted in the 1990s. Pokemon Go, available for free download on Android and Apple devices, uses augmented reality, combining the real and virtual world with the use of GPS and the phone’s built-in camera.
To play, players take on the role of Pokemon trainers and walk around their environment to find the creatures, which they can capture and add to their collection. They collect special items at the Pokestops that help them in the game.
There are also locations in the game called “gyms” where players have the opportunity to challenge each other to control the location.
Because of the augmented reality technology, players are catching Pokemon on their smart phones on the top of the Glover Park fountain, on the trails of Kennesaw Mountain and in front of the Big Chicken.
Based on the location of the player, different types of Pokemon can be found — water-type Pokemon can be found at Lake Allatoona and grass-type Pokemon can be found at Kennesaw National Battlefield.
The app is free to download, and since its U.S. release one week ago on July 6, there have been 7.5 million downloads in the country, according to Forbes magazine. Purchases within the app, called microtransactions, have led to an estimated $1.6 million in daily revenue just in the Apple store.
Studies conducted by Similar Web estimate that the number of users of Pokemon Go will soon surpass the number of Twitter users, according to Forbes.
Paul Walker, originally of Marietta, said he thinks the game’s popularity has to do with the content and the price.
“The big thing is it’s free, and everyone has a smartphone and everyone loves Pokemon,” he said.
Mac agreed and said the competitive and team aspects of the game also contribute to its success.
“Everyone wants to be better than their friends and wants to challenge them. And you don’t have to buy anything to improve, you get better just by playing the game,” he said.
Local businesses have noticed the game’s popularity: Tiny Bubbles on the Square has embraced the new Pokemon frenzy.
“Everyone was walking in with their phones in their face,” said Tiny Bubbles owner Brielle Gaines. “They were trying to catch Pokemon behind the counter.”
After Gaines and her staff downloaded the games themselves, they were hooked, and with a Pokestop just outside their door, they decided to embrace it with three new Pokemon- influenced drinks: the Pokeball, the Pikachu and the Boba-Saur, which consist of a green tea lemonade flavor.
“We wanted to have some fun with it. It’s really community driven and people in line are talking to each other,” Gaines said. “I can go out into the lounge and see someone playing it, and I have something fun to talk about with them.”
Gaines said after posting a photo of a popular Pokemon character, Ash, with a bubble tea in his hand on the social media platform Instagram, everyone was talking about it.
“It’s just a guess, but we’ve been busier because of it. I’ve noticed a higher flux during what is normally our slower hour,” she said.
Trying to be “the best that ever was” comes with challenges though, and local police are warning Pokemon players to be aware of their surroundings, especially while driving.
Kennesaw Police tweeted on Tuesday warning drivers, “Don’t catch and drive,” and players admitted the game can be a distraction while behind the wheel.
“I’ve noticed how easy it is to pick it up and look (at the phone),” said Schatz, but added that he has not played while driving.
Kayla Minnis, a friend of Schatz, said when with friends, it’s up to passengers to help out the driver with the app.
“The passenger has new responsibilities to control the driver’s phone while they’re driving,” she said, laughing.
One player on the Square, who wished to remain anonymous, said he was ticketed for driving too slow while catching Pokemon.
In addition to distracted trainers, as the app constantly tracks your location, it simultaneously drains your battery, with Forbes reporting that after ten minutes of game-play, a phone’s battery life decreased by 11 percent.
Many players on the Square walked around connected to portable chargers from their pockets and backpacks.
Despite these problems with gameplay, trainers are trekking on to catch Pokemon, and according to the “Pokemon Go Atlanta” Facebook page, players were on the Square until 1 a.m. Monday. The same page has a post for “Meet ‘N Greet” at 7 p.m. tonight on the Square for players to get together and try to “catch ‘em all.”
This article was originally published in the Marietta Daily Journal in July, 2016.
Spirit of Unity
Southern Christian Leadership Conference Hold Prayer Vigil for Peace
Local law enforcement, clergy and community members gathered for a prayer vigil hosted by the Cobb chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference at the House of Hope International Empowerment Center Wednesday afternoon.
With prayer, scripture and music, about 100 community members and officials came together to promote unity and community and pray for peace after the tragic shootings of African-American men in Minnesota and Louisiana and the police shooting in Texas.
Dr. Benjamin Williams, Cobb SCLC president, helped organize the event and said the idea for the vigil was brought to him in church because something needed to be done.
“If there is no juice applied (to faith), then what needs to happen doesn’t happen,” he said, comparing the event to a scripture that describes a small mustard seed, which he hopes will grow to become something larger.
“Part of the solution comes through the power of prayer,” he said.
The Rev. Dr. Cheryl Graves of Tabernacle Christian Church in Marietta, who is also chair of the Cobb SCLC, conducted the vigil and read scripture in between prayers from different community leaders.
“We are living in turbulent times,” she said. “Violence is not the answer. Prayer is a powerful force and we are praying for peace, for comfort, for hope, for reconciliation.”
Carlos Garcia, with the Cobb Immigration Alliance, agreed saying of several “R” words that people can choose from, including revenge, “we can choose reconciliation.”
Officers from the Cobb, Marietta and Smyrna police departments were in attendance. Members of the SCLC, Cobb Immigration Alliance and several other organizations have been meeting with the departments for about two years to discuss community issues.
“These men in blue are our partners,” Williams said, “... and we are trying to find our way to get it right.”
Cobb Police Chief John Houser said in a speech that building trust in the community has been important and it has been helpful to meet with the organizations to understand different perspectives.
“Putting on the uniform for the first time at 23 — police work is more complicated than it used to be,” Houser said.
Marietta Deputy Chief Marty Ferrell told attendees that when he woke up last Friday morning to a phone call from his police chief, he knew something bad had happened and was “heartbroken” after learning of the police shootings that occurred in Dallas.
“I have been sad since it happened and I don’t think I will ever forget that day,” Ferrell said. “But then I see this and I know together we are strong. Together, there is nothing we can’t accomplish.”
Singing “Bind Us Together,” those in attendance joined hands and asked that they be bound together in love. During another song they stood and hugged one another throughout the room.
Bishop Reginald Copeland, of the House of Hope International, opened his church for the vigil and during a prayer, said that people “need more love for each other.
“For there to be peace, there must be peace between nations, and for there to be peace in the nation, there must be peace between cities. For there to be peace in cities, there must be peace between neighbors, and for there to be peace between neighbors, there must be peace in the home, for that is where charity begins.”
Prayers for justice, reconciliation and comfort were given by various members of the community, and after concluding with a song, everyone joined for a photo surrounding the officers which Williams said was a symbolic “hug.”
Ferrell said attending the event showed him that “together, there is nothing we can’t do.
“People were here from all walks of life, and we all have the same goals and the same mission, to keep our community safe,” he said.
Graves said she was pleased with the event, and said “going forward, we want there to be a spirit of unity and togetherness.”
This article was originally published in the Marietta Daily Journal in July, 2016.
Officers Complete Active Shooter Training
MARIETTA - The gymnasium on the Kennesaw State University’s Marietta campus turned into a mock battleground Cobb Police hosted an active-shooter training for officers and emergency responders.
Local fire departments, paramedics, 911 dispatchers, civilians and police officers all participated in three active-shooter simulations to train responders.
The annual training runs for two weeks and exposes officers to different scenarios. Lt. Stan Bell, the chief’s adjutant with Cobb Police, said the training helps prepare officers as much as possible for an active shooter event.
“Active shooter(s) (are) becoming more prevalent in our nation,” he said. “Back in the 60s, it was just one guy with a grudge, and through the years it’s just progressed to Columbine, to Virginia Tech, to France … we can’t ignore it.”
An active shooter is described as an individual “who is actively killing,” according to Bell.
In Monday’s training, several officers acted as active shooters with air soft guns to simulate a real-world event. With each simulation, the number of active shooters increased, and Bell described the final simulation as a “bedlam-style takeover.”
About 30 officers from Precinct 1 arrived Monday for the training, which typically lasts for about nine hours.
Upon arrival, officers are briefed by officials at the staging area and then undergo a security check to make sure they have no active weapons such as tasers, guns or extra ammunition on their person during training.
“Our officers are double and triple checked before they go into training,” said Bell, adding that an officer has never been shot or seriously injured during their 15 years of training.
After clearing the security check, officers don their gear, which includes a helmet and 42-pound bullet-proof vest, and are given an air soft rifle or pistol.
Civilian volunteers, who have mock injuries and detailed instructions, take their places in the shooting location, and then the simulation begins.
Officers are dispatched at different times, to simulate a real-life scenario, to the scene where they proceed to engage the active shooter.
“Run to the sound of gunfire. That’s sort of the motto,” said Bell.
Lt. A.J. Leo, the Deputy Academy Director of the Cobb Public Safety Training, said the phrase “officer-safety first” is normally instilled into officers with other scenarios.
“In this case, officer safety is last,” he said, explaining that the primary goal is to save as many civilians as possible and bring calm to the scene.
During the training simulations, entrance points to the building can often be blocked by fake bombs, forcing officers to find a different means of entry to establish the strongpoint, where entry and exit to the building is controlled.
With each simulation, the accessible entrances are changed to keep officers on their toes and to keep the training more realistic.
Once the shooter is detained, then rescue teams can be sent in to search for and help civilians.
Sometimes, based on their given mock injuries, civilians have to be escorted or even carried out of the building, which Bell said only adds more reality to the scenario.
For Det. Hunter Llewellyn, after nearly 10 years of the training, going into a simulation is nothing new, but he said the complexity of the scenarios and the new variables each year requires more thinking.
“The training staff does a great job of mimicking real-life events,” he said. “The fact that the training has so much involved with it, it makes you think a lot and makes you more prepared.”
To check up on the officers, evaluators accompany each team into the training location and monitor their actions in the scenario, which they then report back to the range master. After the simulation is completed, the range master debriefs the officers based on the evaluator’s feedback to tell them how they did and where they can improve.
Bell, who has served several times as an evaluator during the training, said while it is important to tell the officers where they can improve, it is also important to compliment them on their successes.
“We criticize them, but we like to end with the positive,” he said.
Sgt. Wayne Delk, who is in charge of the weapons unit at the police academy, served as range master for the training simulations. Delk said new recruits go through active shooter training at the academy, but is also important to have this annual training.
“These training sessions allow us to assess our training at the academy and find the deficiencies in our training there,” he said.
By using increasingly different scenarios and a variety of variables in the simulations, Delk said the training is as close to reality as possible.
“We update our training based on what we see in the news at home and overseas. I think our training standards are better than the national standards,” he said.
Leo agreed and said that this training has proven useful and has shown in the real-life active shooter events at a Fed-Ex in Kennesaw in 2014 and at a Penske Truck Rental in Kennesaw last year.
“If you listen to the radio traffic from Fed-Ex and the radio traffic from training, they are exactly the same,” he said. “This is not something you can teach in a class, you have to actually do it.”
Llewellyn, who was involved in both of the shootings in Kennesaw, said by treating the simulations like real life, muscle memory kicks in when it is time for a real life scenario.
“How you practice is how you play,” he said.
Bell agreed saying, “when those officers hear those words, active shooter, it reverts back to training, they know what they have to do. It trains the brain for muscle memory.
It showed in Penske and it showed in Fed-Ex because the guys weren’t thinking about it, they were just doing it,” he said.