CHAMPAIGN — As a native Egyptian who came to America 23 years ago in search of a better life, Ahmed Taha has a story that allows him to “connect to the immigrants in our community — to understand their needs, challenges and offer them opportunity.”
So when the chance came up to join Champaign’s Human Relations Commission — the body tasked with promoting equal rights and opportunities in the city — Taha couldn’t resist.
Never mind that the married father of four was already juggling a full-time job — technical program manager at the UI’s National Center for Supercomputing Applications — with his duties as founding president of the Champaign-Urbana Muslim American Society.
“When I knew about the vacancies in the commission, despite the busy schedule I have, I told myself: ‘I have to take it; I have to do my duty and obligation to my city,’” Taha said. “Although our city is very peaceful, we have been troubled that the rhetoric of xenophobia has risen in the past two years.”
Taha’s appointment last week made headlines after Mayor Deb Feinen chose him to take Kenton Elmore’s spot on the commission.
The move came as a surprise to some, including Elmore.
It was nothing against him, Feinen stressed, but rather a “really important” opportunity to diversify the commission.
Taha said the rise in anti-Muslim sentiment, as well as the threat to Muslims internationally, encouraged him to get involved.
Islam has taught him not only to lead a just life, he said, but to stand for justice, as well. He said he can’t stand by when he observes any kind of injustice; he has to be actively involved in preventing it.
Taha moved to Champaign in 2005 from Chicago, where he was president of the Muslim-American Society chapter. The first project he took on when he moved to C-U was to found a chapter here, to “serve the Muslim community and connect them with society at large.”
“We have activities to empower, develop and educate our Muslim community,” Taha said. “We manage projects for civic engagement, general outreach, community service — and always with a focus on social justice.”
But most important to the MAS’s mission is educating people about Islam and Muslims.
“We started ‘Get to Know Your Muslim Neighbor,’ where we talked about ourselves in the public libraries in Champaign and Urbana,” Taha said. “In the last few months, we did another event expanding our services to Decatur in connection with the Muslim community there. The goal is to tell people about Islam and counteract the divisive rhetoric about American Muslims.”
Taha said being a member of a religious minority helps him “to know what it’s really like to be discriminated against” because “I lived it.”
He believes his record of activism — and understanding of “the need to stand for justice, support social justice causes and investigate against every kind of discrimination” — matches the tenets of the HRC’s mission.
“All this experience will add to the wealth of knowledge the commission can take from,” Taha said. “My goal is to increase awareness, promote the peaceful co-existence between groups and reduce tensions when they’re high.
“Those are also, I believe, the core values of this commission.”