"After Sept. 11 it was like all of a sudden people knew who we were," said Laura Kirkpatrick-Dib, a Muslim who sits on the village commission. "They smiled at us, they waved at us. It was almost like we had some terrible disease and they wanted to make us feel better. One of my fellow commissioners called it 'positive harassment. Which I think is classic Oak Park."
For most Oak Parkers, the predictions of many political pundits last year that the events of Sept. 11 would forever change our lives may ring hollow a year later. But for local Arabs and Muslims, the events inspired both a heightened sense of community, and an increased sense of being foreign.
The local Muslim community is growing. The US Census Bureau estimates that the number of Arabs in Oak Park alone has more than doubled in the last 10 years, from 193 to 443. A mailing list for a local Muslim political action group contains over 1,000 families in the near west suburbs.
As their numbers have grown in the Oak Park area, local Muslims have felt a growing need to connect in town. After all, there are few worship options for Muslims within a 30-minute drive of Oak Park.
Motivated in part by the unifying and frightening experience of Sept. 11, a new group of Muslims called the United Muslim Association of Oak Park and River Forest this year began meeting weekly for Friday prayer services and a Wednesday Muslim women's group at Oak Park's Austin Boulevard Christian Church.
UMAOPRF have grown from 20 members in January to around 50.
"We had a community need to get together and express our emotions," said Kirkpatrick-Dib, one of the founders of the UMAOPRF. "To talk about how we're feeling, especially post-9/11, about how we respond to the attention we've all of a sudden attracted?"
All of the Oak Park Muslims interviewed for this story said villagers here have been supportive. But several of the members of UMAOPRF--many of whom come from suburbs surrounding Oak Park--have experienced negative attention as well. The Oak Park Community Relations Commission has not heard any complaints of hate crimes in Oak Park.
"I had a person shout 'Osama!' at me as they drove by on Lake Street in Oak Park," Kirkpatrick-Dib said.
Another female member of the group, who lives in Maywood, told Kirkpatrick-Dib that she and her daughters stopped wearing their Muslim headdress out of the house after a next-door neighbor seemingly tried to run them over with a car.
Another young Berwyn member of the group has heard playground taunts of "sheets are for beds, not for heads."
Oak Park Township Assessor Ali ElSaffar, whose father was Iraqi, was often asked "are you OK?" by friends. He was also asked to speak to students at his grade school alma mater, Grace Lutheran, about his family and his background. "Anytime you can combat a stereotype it's a good thing," he said. "It also gave me a strange feeling that my name would become an issue."
UMAOPRF wants to try to buy a building for a local mosque, should one of the more than 60 Oak Park churches ever become available for sale.
"I'd hope that the faith-based community in Oak Park would alert us if anything came on the market," Kirkpatrick-Dib said. "It may just be paranoia on our part, but there's a feeling that if we openly tried to buy a building we'd be met with resistance. As much as people say they welcome it and as much as they say 'we're open,' to see a church go from being a church to being a mosque is a difficult thing for people to watch."