By RENEE STOVSKY
Dr. Hesham Elgouhari, 44, and his wife, Lobna Elgemili, 38, left Egypt for the United States in 1999, after he completed his medical studies at Mansoura University there.
Dr. Hesham Elgouhari, right, who is originally from Egypt, speaks to Zahur Ahmed, an engineer originally from India, at the Muslims Community Center of South Dakota. Avera McKennan Hospital and University Health Center leaders helped Elgouhari and two of his physician colleagues find a location for the center, which has become a social and religious nexus in Sioux Falls.
Their journey took them first to Texas, where Elgouhari did a residency at Texas Tech University in Odessa. From there they moved to Albuquerque, N.M., where Elgouhari did a fellowship in infectious disease at the University of New Mexico School of Medicine, and then to Cleveland, where Elgouhari did another fellowship in hepatology/transplant hepatology at the Cleveland Clinic.
By the time they arrived in Sioux Falls, S.D., in 2008, where Elgouhari joined a practice affiliated with Avera McKennan Hospital and University Health Center, the couple had three children — a girl and two boys, ages 5, 3 and 1.
"We loved Sioux Falls; it's such a nice, small city — a great place to raise kids," says Elgemili. "And at the time, there were two small mosques in town, which helped us make connections with other Muslim families."
However, as their family grew, with the addition of a third son, and started to grow up, the Elgouharis became increasingly concerned that there was no place in Sioux Falls to help their children learn about their heritage, study the Quran and practice Arabic.
"In Cleveland, our older two children, who were only in kindergarten and preschool at the time, had already been enrolled in a Muslim day school," says Elgemili. "We started to realize that to benefit our kids' educations, we might have to move again, to a bigger city."
The Elgouharis were not alone when it came to those concerns; another Muslim doctor had already left Sioux Falls because he felt the community could not provide what his family needed. So in 2010, Elgouhari, along with two other Avera McKennan physicians — Dr. Jawad Nazir and Dr. Imran Khan — approached Sr. Mary Thomas, PBVM, senior vice president of mission for Avera McKennan Hospital, hoping they could partner in establishing a community center in town that could serve Muslims in the greater Sioux Falls area. (The city's population — about 170,000 — includes an estimated 3,500 Muslims.)
Welcoming the stranger
"The doctors told me they knew it was an unusual request to ask a Catholic hospital to help build a center to promote Muslim traditions, but they understood that Christianity was about love and helping others," says Sr. Thomas. "I told them it fit right into our mission of welcoming and respecting people of all faiths so that we can learn to live side by side in reverence and understanding."
Sr. Thomas quickly brought into the conversation Fred Slunecka, the hospital's then-chief executive; Dr. David Kapaska, then-chief medical officer and now chief executive; and Richard Molseed, executive vice president of strategy and governance.
"There was never a minute's thought that this wasn't the right thing to do," recalls Molseed. "It was simply a matter of having an honest discussion about the size and type of space needed, the scope of activities to be offered, and the affordability of the project."
As it turned out, Avera held a lease on a 15,000-square-foot building in a nearby strip mall that was not in use. The hospital offered to remodel half of it — 7,500 square feet — and provide financial help for five years to help establish the Muslims Community Center of South Dakota.
Within a year, the center opened, complete with a prayer room directed to Mecca, classrooms for weekday study of the Quran and Arabic and Sunday school, a library, a kitchen to prepare Ramadan meals and monthly potlucks, and community spaces for everything from blood drives to birthday parties, lectures and interfaith meetings.
Despite the fact that there are no membership fees for the center (Sunday school tuition is $50 a month), the Muslim community in Sioux Falls was able to raise $1.2 million to buy the entire building in 2015 — just four years after its opening. Now, they rent the other 7,500 square feet of space back to Avera. Elgouhari estimates that about 200 people regularly use the center, which is staffed by volunteers. Mohammed Elhewizy, a University of Cairo-trained imam, is its only official employee.
"I consider the center my second home—our family is there three, four, sometimes five days a week for classes, potlucks and so on," says Elgemili. "There is such a sense of community there, despite the fact that our Muslim community actually represents so many countries—Egypt, Sudan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Somalia, Ethiopia, Syria, Iraq and more. Though our religion is the same, our traditions are different. So we not only learn Quran — we learn about different cultures as well."
"Diversity is not a problem for us," adds Elgouhari. "I like to tell people that the most common nationality at the Muslims Community Center is American. Almost all the kids — and many of the adults — have American citizenship."
Dr. Hesham Elgouhari addresses men in the prayer room at the Muslims Community Center of South Dakota.
For Fatima Mohamed, 56, the center has been a lifeline. She and her husband were Sudanese refugees who came to Sioux Falls with the help of Lutheran Social Services 15 years ago. When her husband, who worked for Smithfield Foods/John Morrell — a meatpacking plant that is Sioux Falls' third largest employer — died of cancer five years ago, she started going to the newly opened community center with her three boys.
"I was so lonely and crying all the time," Mohamed recalls. "I found a social circle there. I have relatives in Minnesota and Missouri; if not for the center, and the friends I have met there, I probably would have moved away."
Gihan Ismael, a mother of four young children, ages 2 to 12, moved to Sioux Falls four years ago from Brookings, S.D., specifically because of the Muslims Community Center.
"My husband has worked for many years for Daktronics, which is headquartered in Brookings, about 45 minutes from Sioux Falls," says Ismael, who came to the United States from Egypt in 2007. "When the center opened, I asked him to transfer to the company's facility here. We have no extended family here, but the people we have met through the center now feel like one big family to us."
According to Molseed, the center has been a "win/win" for Avera. "The center provides social support for the Muslim community, and in turn enriches the greater Sioux Falls community," he says. "And it not only helps us fulfill our mission, but it also helps us with recruiting and retaining the specialty physicians we need."
Equally important, he adds, is that the center's presence is a positive deterrent to the undercurrent of Islamaphobia currently running through American society.
"The center has fostered a good understanding of the true nature of Islam, as opposed to the horrible, false picture portrayed by ISIS and other terrorist groups," he says. "There have been a number of interfaith meetings hosted there, and when something happens like the shootings in San Bernardino, the media know that this is where they can get a balanced local perspective."
Last but not least, Molseed adds, is the baklava he's been lucky enough to sample there on official visits. "Simply the best," he says.
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