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Five months of Trump: Muslims fears were high but neighbors stood by them

Racial and religious tensions have been high in Northampton County following the US election. But Muslim leaders have also seen a surge in support

In the third week of the first Ramadan of the Donald Trump presidency, seven Muslim families gathered for an iftar dinner to conclude the days fast at a spacious home in a recently developed suburb of Easton, Pennsylvania.

Men and women congregated in separate rooms. Children with iPhones and fidget spinners ran down a hallway and through the kitchen, where sweet dates were piled on a plate and metal tubs of haleem, chicken biryani, crispy south Indian chicken 65, curry and rice sat warming. To drink, there was mango lassi and milk with rooh afsah and ice water and Coca-Cola.

After sunset, the group had a snack, and then a prayer in the basement, in a corner opposite a big TV and a deep couch. At the end of the night, Rizwan Butt, president of the Easton-Phillipsburg Muslim Association, shared a letter that had been sent to him at the mosque recently, following news reports of a petty cash theft by an unaffiliated maintenance worker.

The letter read:

Hello Neighbor,

I saw in the newspaper that a man stole from you and I want to help replace some of what was lost.

Be well,

[Signed]

She sent a check, Butt said. I could sit here and tell you a hundred stories like that.

The stories like that began to accumulate quickly in late January, Butt said, after Trump first announced his ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries, a restriction later revised to six.

The reaction in general, since the election the reaction has been unbelievable, in a positive way, Butt said.

It was ominous, he said of the travel ban. We all understood that this was just the beginning of a broader campaign with an ultimate goal that was defined very well in the [presidential] campaign, which was banning more Muslims until something was figured out, whatever figured out is.

Rizwan
Rizwan Butt at the Muslim Federation in Easton. Photograph: Mark Makela for the Guardian

Bracing for potential conflict, the Muslim community instead found new lines of communication opening, Butt said.

Everyone you can imagine came forward. I received letters at the mosque from neighbors, concerned people from the community, saying: Were here to stand by you, we dont agree with this, Butt said. Offers to come to the mosque to help with safety and security. One woman called me up and said she would be willing to drive the women in our community around so that they would feel safe. She would take time off work to do that.

When Butt first arrived in Easton 17 years ago, he said, there were perhaps five to 10 Muslim families that he knew of in the immediate area. Today there are about 100, and more than 1,000 Muslim families in the greater Lehigh Valley. More than 50% hail from south-east Asia, with additional contingents from Turkey and the Middle East, including refugees, and from the United States itself.