Four sisters from Yemen, all Grand Valley students, lead Islamic Awareness Week on campus
By Charley Honey
Sana'a- Feb 26, 2011- At a coffee shop in the Grand Valley State University student center, the four Alsoofy sisters are brewing up a little plan to save their homeland.
ALSOOFY1.JPGCory Olsen | The Grand Rapids PressAt left, Grand Valley State University student Bilquis Alsoofy, 23, sits with her sisters and fellow students, Saltana, 22, and Kaifa, 22, inside the GVSU Kirkhoff Center. The three women, and their sister, Petra, below, dream of fixing problems that trouble the Arab world.
“My sisters think I dream too much,” said Kaifa, 22, who intends to tackle poverty and women’s issues as a social worker. “But I’m hopeful one day I’ll go back to Yemen and fix every problem there is.”
“And I can be the financial officer,” said Saltana, 22, the accounting and management student, with a laugh. Going with the fantasy, she includes her older sisters.
“Petra can start the revolution,” she said, referring to the 24-year-old political science major.
“And you can talk about it and do the stress management,” she added, turning to Bilquis, 23, the sociology and psychology student.
It’s all very lighthearted, but at heart the young women are deadly serious about the revolutionary events sweeping Yemen and other Middle Eastern countries.
While their young counterparts back home were demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, the Alsoofy sisters were hard at work studying and leading an Islamic Awareness Week at GVSU. But they were emotionally caught up in the remarkable wave of Arab protests that have toppled authoritarian regimes in Tunisia and Egypt and threaten others.
“People are fed up,” said Petra, the most overtly political of the four. “Most of the people in government are extremely rich and the majority of people are very poor.”
The dramatic revolt in Egypt that forced Hosni Mubarak from power “opens the door to the rest of the region,” she said. “It’s extremely exciting for me.”
So is the prospect of being part of a youth movement that is using Facebook and Twitter to help bring down decades-old dictatorships, the sisters said.
“The youth, they finally have hope, motivation, purpose,” Bilquis said, noting the bleak job market for Yemen’s college graduates.
“The social media played a huge role, because it gave them the power to say, ‘I can say something. My words matter.’”
“The people in power underestimate the people that aren’t,” added Kaifa, speaking softly but firmly. “They’re able to defeat power without money, without weapons.”
Leaders at GVSU
Talking with these four highly focused sisters, it’s clear where their power comes from: education, passion and purpose.
They spearhead the GVSU Muslim Students Association, where Kaifa is president, Bilquis vice president, Saltana financial officer and Petra past president. They organized last week’s Islamic Awareness Week featuring several speakers. Petra also convened an interfaith conference that was to be held today at GVSU.
Adviser Sebastian Maisel called them “the core and perhaps heart of the MSA,” providing leadership, support and role models for its 15 to 20 other members.
It’s no accident the sisters have formed a kind of Fantastic Four on campus. They came to GVSU from Coldwater High School, where Bilquis and Petra were among the first six female graduates from that city’s large Yemeni population.
Heart for education
Education was in their blood since their births in Yemen (no, none of them are twins). Among 10 children of Abdule and Safiah Alsoofy, they grew up in a small village where girls were expected to go to elementary school, get married and have children. Their father had other ideas.
“He really pushed us for education,” Petra said. “He had a lot of issues with people who didn’t see the value of that.”
Their names reflect their parents’ high expectations: Bilquis after the Arab name for the queen of Sheba; Saltana after “kingdom”; Kaifa after a Yemeni tribe; and Petra after the fabled city in Jordan — “or the Christian rock band,” she jokes.
They took their educational advantage seriously.
“I felt I had to prove that girls could go through high school and still be Yemeni girls,” Saltana said. “We felt that what we were doing was not just for us, but to make a statement.”
Though they checked out other schools, they all came to GVSU for its programs, attractive campus, financial aid and all-women’s housing, which set their parents’ minds at ease.
Adjusting to college life
They say they have been mostly well-received at the Allendale campus. But they’ve been called “turban head” because of the head scarves they choose to wear as part of their Muslim faith, and say some students seem to avoid sitting close to them.
“There’s a lot of preaching on this campus about diversity and equality,” Bilquis said. “But there is still a huge space for actually doing it.”
Still, seeing Muslims from other cultures has taught her much about Islam. She realized she wears the hijab not to please her parents, but is “doing this for God.”
The Alsoofy sisters are well-liked and “wonderfully warm people,” said Gleaves Whitney, director of the Haunstein Center for Presidential Studies. He has worked most closely with Petra, who is vice president of the center’s Cook Leadership Academy.
“They show an admirable commitment to social justice, and making sure the debate in America about the Middle East is informed,” Whitney said.
Thirst for justice
The sisters want to see justice done throughout the Middle East, and they aim to do their part.
“People want change,” Saltana said. “They’re seeing what the rest of the world is doing. Their potential and what their government is offering is not matching.”
Although a U.S. citizen like her sisters, she said she feels as attached to Yemen as to America. She intends to return eventually.
“I love Yemen,” said Saltana, who has two brothers there. “I’m definitely going to live there. But I also want to see the opportunities (grow) to live a life that I’d be comfortable with.”
Opportunities are limited in Yemen, a poor country divided by tribal and political factions. Bilquis said it doesn’t have the same unified opposition as Egypt did, and she fears a bloody civil war.
“I hope they all come to their senses and realize there are lives being lost, and that change is needed,” she said.
Yet she and her sisters have great hopes for their country and their fellow young Arabs.
“It’s a revolution happening in our time,” Kaifa said. “Yes, people can do it.”
Source: The Grand Rapids Press