When Yasin Ahmed, Cornell’s first chaplain for Muslim students, was 11, his house in New Jersey was egged a few days after 9/11, vandals painted graffiti at his local mosque in New Jersey and people screamed “terrorist” at him at places where he never expected to feel in danger.
Ahmed said he has since grappled with his Muslim background as he studied at the Hartford Seminary, but ultimately, fear driven by false perceptions of what Islam is did not make him shelter his religious views from others, he said.
“The answers to these condemnations of extremism upon Muslims is to practice openly. People will see the examples of good imbued in Islam through that,” he said, adding, while faith was something that was going to be hard to hold onto, the solution was in fact to deal with environmental pressures using his faith.
Since his arrival on campus, Ahmed has worked with students experiencing “palpable fear” to acknowledge and overcome the pain caused by recent events — including a new federal attempt to ban travel from Muslim-majority countries for the third time this week.
His official reception event, originally planned on Friday by the student group, was postponed to an undetermined date, according to the MECA executive board. Multiple individuals who were involved in establishing the chaplaincy are away and unable to make it to the event, according to Ahmed.
However, Ahmed’s appointment in August was deemed long overdue and welcomed by leaders in other religious communities.
“It’s great news. I think it’s wonderful that the needs of Muslim students are being met at the University,” said Rabbi Ari Weiss, director of Cornell Hillel.
Weiss said that he and members of Cornell Hillel planned to attend Ahmed’s reception.
Taryn Mattice, chaplain of Cornell’s Protestant Cooperative Ministry, said she was delighted to welcome Ahmed to Cornell.
“He’s compassionate, kind and interested in everyone. He’s a great face of religious life in general — meaning, able to hold his identity, but gracious and welcoming of other people,” Mattice said.
As he served over a thousand students who identify as Muslim at Cornell, Yasin said, he has encountered many students who have sought help while they had mental health concerns, especially anxiety — a problem he called a “crisis.”
“There is an earnest and honest effort by the administration to get a head on this problem, and they’re doing what they can, but I think as chaplains we do provide something very unique,” he said.
While receiving clinical help at Cornell Health, many students also may seek help in their religious communities, according to students and chaplains at Cornell United Religious Work.
“Chaplains can help navigate through personal issues. They are counselors and a part of the support system — especially helpful for students dealing with Muslim-specific issues,” said Nabiha Qudsi ’18, a member of Cornell’s Muslim student group.
Ahmed said he has met with non-Muslim students experiencing anxiety and that helping them feel safe has been a priority.
“I’m a chaplain who’s Muslim, not a Muslim chaplain,” he said. “The goal is the common good.”
He also highlighted the recent #MeToo campaign — in which victims of sexual assault have written “me too” on their social media feeds to show the magnitude of the problem — as an expression of the sense of fear among people, especially women, who have experienced sexual assault.
“We see anxiety escalating at unbelievable rates,” he said. “It really does break my heart and making sure that people — men, women, transgender students — feel safe is the main thing.”
But as hate crimes increase nationwide and attacks and microaggressions targeting Muslims continue in many ways, Qudsi said, the chaplaincy has an important role in the lives of Muslim students.
Related to but different from anxiety, another common experience has been loneliness, Weiss said, but he also highlighted the importance of understanding the questions of identity and religion that are intertwined with mental health issues — a connection Weiss said has become increasingly dominant today.
“There have been swastikas in places across the country, neo-Nazi protests. There’s a sense that some of the tranquility people have about being ‘American’ is being questioned — and it’s frightening,” he said.
As conversations about religion and identity are in flux around the world and on campus, chaplains can play a critical role in helping the rest of the Cornell community understand and grapple with them, Mattice said.
“We’re all having conversations about identity. Most of us hold more than one identity: our race, religion, political affiliation, socioeconomic background. Being mindful and integrated seems to be a challenge for all of us right now,” she said.
“What I really hope is that the chaplaincies — with one another as well as with the rest of Cornell — are talking about things that matter.”