Blogs, Localist

Breaking Barriers While Breaking Fast

By Taylor Hawk
Photo courtesy of Jenny Wilson and The Emerald Project

The sun is completing its daily routine outside the window of Cedars of Lebanon, tucked in the middle of downtown Salt Lake. May 30 (the 14th day of the month-long celebration of Ramadan), at 8:51 pm, the official time of sunset, glasses of water and hefty plates with food of every color of the rainbow are set in front of the fifteen guests of the roundtable discussion. A prayer is said in Arabic then translated to English, promising God that our hunger will be satisfied, and we intend to fast for Ramadan the following day.

Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic calendar and it commemorates Muhammad’s first revelation of the Quran. Ramadan (May 16 – June 14 this year) runs thirty consecutive days, which is based on the lunar cycle. Muslims fast every day from sunrise to sunset.

All guests press their glass to their lips, taking a swig of water. The fast is officially broken for this day. Councilwoman Jenny Wilson, asks the members of the nonprofit organization The Emerald Project, an organization aimed at combating the misrepresentation of Islam, how Muslims abstain from water during Ramadan.

“So no water, which makes it hard to work out too, right?” she asks.

The members agree that this is a very common question that Muslims receive, and point out that Muslim athletes even do it while performing in high stake games. Wilson then asks the three co-founders of The Emerald project the significance of Ramadan and Iftar. Satin Tashnizi, Nora Abu-Dan, and Faeiza Javed take turns explaining. This evening’s event is centered around Iftar, which is breaking the fast for a day of Ramadan. Ramadan (May 16 – June 14 this year) runs thirty consecutive days, which is based on the lunar cycle. Muslims fast every day from sunrise to sunset. Contrary to my previous assumption, fasting is not just for food and water. Ramadan is about abstaining from gossiping, bad habits, and any other vices. The sacred month is about bettering one’s self, and participants are encouraged to keep up with breaking those habits even after the sunset of the last day. Muslims celebrate Ramadan in Ummah, which means the “bringing together” of the Islamic community.

In just the first fifteen minutes spent seated in the corner of the restaurant, I have learned so much already. Education, after all, is one of The Emerald Project’s objectives.

The Emerald Project was started in 2017 by best friends Tashnizi, Abu-Dan, and Javed when the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the Trump administration’s travel ban on citizens of Syria, Iran, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, which are Muslim majority. The three co-founders (Iranian-American, Palestinian-American, and Pakistani-American, respectively) decided to take action. As Nora explained, “Instead of talking about the issues in our community, we wanted to stand up and do something.”

And so they did. Since their start only a year and a half ago, The Emerald Project has carried their mission to combat the misrepresentation of Islam to Salt Lake City and beyond. They have partnered with The Middle Eastern Studies Department at the University of Utah and presented to organizations such as the FBI, Utah Transit Authority, and Association of Women Psychologists. The organization has an ambassador program aimed at giving young Muslims ages 16-21 a platform where they can express their ideas and thoughts on the current state of their community. They also hold roundtable events with community leaders and activists like Jenny Wilson to have honest and sometimes hard conversations. Emerald Project members—the co-founders and four high school ambassadors—discussed their specific goals and the issues at this evening’s event.

As Wilson comments, “This community, as these women have so eloquently stated, is a rich community that has gone through persecution recently, outright ridicule and now policy that affects their community. One reason I wanted to do this today was to let this community know that I think their role and presence lifts us.”

Wilson, the first woman elected to the Salt Lake County Council (in 2005), is the Democratic nominee for the U.S Senate. She will run against the Republican nominee (State Representative Mike Kennedy or the 2012 Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney) in November for the seat of 42-year veteran U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch.

Wilson and her team first crossed paths with The Emerald Project at one of the organization’s local events. Wilson immediately knew she wanted to collaborate with the organization. As Wilson’s press secretary Ali Vallarta states, “Jenny and I agreed that they were doing fantastic work in the community and we wanted to find a way to connect with them and work with them as well as support the work they are doing.” Vallarta also explains how they chose the setting of the meeting, “We wanted to be at a restaurant that is locally owned and Cedars is a stable in the Salt Lake Community, they’ve been here I think 35 years. Marlen, the owner, cooks every meal herself.” Vallarta ends our conversation by reflecting on the evening, “We had a great time meeting these young women around the state who are stepping up and saying we are uncomfortable by the way that issues are being treated, so we’re going to do the work and get out into the community and put forth solutions.”

Javed expressed her gratitude to have partnered with Councilwoman Wilson for this event: “To actually have a place to come and voice our concerns and what our community needs—it’s kind of unheard of.”

The gemstone emerald, according to Crystal Vaults’ website, signifies the importance of “inspiring an ongoing search for meaning, justice, compassion and harmony.” The Emerald Project is pushing for justice for the Islamic community. They encourage more conversations on mental health. The organization’s message to the Islamic community, as Abu-Dan states, is “You have a voice, let it be heard.” The group also promotes the notion to separate Islamic culture from religion. Islamic culture, diverse and colorful, is deeply rooted in tradition. The members of The Emerald Project believe their religion should be seen as separate from their culture. The Muslim community’s religion is an important part of their lives, but does not define them. The Emerald Project has three target markets to share their message and ideas with. The primary group is the non-Muslim community. Secondarily is the Muslim community, and third is immigrant Muslim women.

What can the Non-Muslim community do to support the Muslim community of Salt Lake and beyond? The key to this question, says Tashnizi, is action. “If you see something, say something. If you see a woman with a hijab being bullied, stand up.” She also expresses the importance of voting. “Vote against policies you believe are wrong.”

Begun in 2017, the Emerald Project has already created an impact in our Salt Lake Community. They attended the Girls Participation Summit, trained at the National Muslim Women’s Summit at Harvard Kennedy School, were featured on Park City TV, and their Ambassador Director Mishka Banuri was featured on CNN for her help on a climate bill that was passed in Utah’s state legislature. This organization is truly here to make a difference in how our world views and treats the Islamic community. The Emerald Project hopes to expand their engagement in the projects they have already established. As Tashnizi says, “We would love the the Emerald Project to build more bridges, have more conversations, have tough conversations that really shatter those social barriers that exist in our community.”

To learn more about the Emerald Project, visit their website or their Facebook page.


The author, Taylor Hawk, is a summer 2018 intern with CATALYST, and currently an English major at the University of Utah.


This article was originally published on June 14, 2018.