Friday, February 26, 2021
Feb. 26, 2021

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Islamic community finds home sweet home

County’s most visible Muslim figure helped found area’s only mosque, serves on interfaith, diversity boards

By , Columbian Arts & Features Reporter
13 Photos
Dr. Khalid Khan at home in Felida. Born in India, Khan likes to joke that he's been moving west his whole life -- to Pakistan, then to North Carolina and then settling in Clark County. "We chose the right place to live," he said.
Dr. Khalid Khan at home in Felida. Born in India, Khan likes to joke that he's been moving west his whole life -- to Pakistan, then to North Carolina and then settling in Clark County. "We chose the right place to live," he said. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Khalid Khan feels endlessly optimistic about his adopted country.

“This is still the United States of America,” he said. “There are always people on the fringes, but I have faith in the great majority. The greatest strength of this country is the system. The way the founding fathers set it up, it’s all going to work out.”

Khan is one of the founders of the Islamic Society of Southwest Washington, Clark County’s only mosque. It’s located on a tucked-away dead-end street near the bottom of Hazel Dell, and Khan said he’s grateful for its low profile. But he added that the mosque did receive some unsolicited attention from neighbors — around Election Day and again after President Donald Trump issued an executive order limiting international travel from mostly Muslim countries.

First came a voicemail from a concerned couple, offering to escort local Muslims to the polls. Khan called them to thank them and point out that vote-by-mail means a generally harassment-free election experience. After the victory of Donald Trump, somebody else sent a general “letter of support” and friendliness to the mosque, Khan said. Khan thanked them, too.

The Sunday after the executive order was issued, worried Muslims showed up at their mosque to discover that Valentine’s Day had arrived early: their front doors had been anonymously decorated with construction-paper hearts by neighbors promising their love and support:

“We love our Muslim neighbors.”

“Thank you for bringing us light.”

“Our hearts are open to refugees.”

“Large-hearted, honest, fair and kind” is how Khan has found Americans in his nearly 50 years here, he said. That’s a vast generalization, of course, but for the most part, this immigrant said his experience of America and Americans has been nothing short of “fantastic.”

Portrait 2017

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Khan was born into wealth and luxury in a small city in northeast India called Nanpara, which is in the orbit of Lucknow, “the Paris of India — city of perfume and poetry,” Khan said with a smile. His mother was a groundbreaking female figure as far back as the 1930s, when she was a respected intellectual and the editor of a culture magazine. His father was an important military officer and adviser to the local raja (king).

But in 1947, British India was essentially split into religious units, with Hindus retaining most of the country and Muslims gaining small homelands in West and East Pakistan. Many millions of people crossed new borders and resettled, but the process was chaotic and hateful, and there was widespread slaughter on both sides.

Khan was a child then — the youngest of eight siblings — and memories of his youth amount to a safe, sheltered family that “took a nosedive” into deprivation and fear, he said. But his parents taught the whole family that education would be the key to their future, and that has proved true.

Khan attended an “English medium” school — where lessons were in the English language — and then studied mechanical engineering at university. He went to work in a coal mine, where he oversaw systems, equipment and materials handling. It was tough work, he said; one year, he was on the scene for two different accidents that easily could have killed him.

“It was a good experience, because it taught me how hard life can be,” he said. And, it taught him to treat everyone — even the lowliest coal miner — with “compassion and love.”

East to West

Khan likes to say that he’s been moving east to west his entire life. First from East India to West Pakistan. Then, at the behest of an older brother who was already here, he started applying to graduate schools in the United States and wound up attending North Carolina State University at Raleigh. When he arrived in the U.S., his brother’s first advice to him was to relax and stop talking so quickly, or nobody would understand his English.

Khan relaxed. Things kept working out for him. “There’s this thing called destiny, or karma, or kismet,” he said with a laugh. When he was in Raleigh, N.C., his brother introduced him to another immigrant family from Pakistan, “wonderful, loving, accommodating” people with more relatives back there; Khan had never even seen the girl, Munawar, when he started getting asked about his intentions toward her. Back in Pakistan, his parents checked her out and assured him it would be a good match, he said.

“It was an arranged marriage,” Khan said, “but it was arranged by me.” Khalid and Munawar Khan — who never met before they married — now have a 37-year-old son, Waseen, a radiologist who works in Chicago, and two grandchildren.

Fresh out of graduate school, Khan was hired to run a microscopy lab at a short-lived research university called the Oregon Graduate Institute. Never mind that the place had no electron microscopes, and that it wasn’t Khan’s real area of expertise anyway. He figured out a way to establish relationships with nearby schools and industries that had equipment he could use.

Khan always thought he was headed back to the industry, but he was asked to teach some classes at the University of Portland, and never looked back. He’s now a professor there; he also spent 30 years as associate dean of the engineering school.

Khan, who stands about 5 feet 6 inches tall, joked: “I used to be 6-foot-2, but being associate dean is very hard labor.”

The right place

When Khan arrived in Oregon in the mid-1970s, he said, you could count local Muslim families on two hands. Khan said he never was all that devout compared with some, but cultural gatherings were increasingly important to him, and he enjoyed getting together with others for do-it-yourself prayer services in private homes.

“Islam is very community-based, just like all religions,” he said. Eventually the Islamic Society of Greater Portland was born; Khan said he’s proud that the group has had three women presidents.

Meanwhile, Khan and his family moved to Cascade Park and then Felida. Like the Portland group, the Islamic Society of Southwest Washington started up slowly, but in 1997 it bought its own real estate, that out-of-the-way former church on Northeast 66th Street. There are only about 70 member families, and approximately 2,000 Muslims in Clark County overall. For years, Khan served as de facto imam, or prayer leader, which was a funny fit for man of science; nowadays the mosque has a full-time prayer leader, “and thank God,” Khan chuckled.

Khan remains a board member at the Islamic Society, and he’s probably Clark County’s most visible Muslim figure: sitting on a city diversity task force and a monthly interfaith roundtable, helping organize the county’s annual interfaith Thanksgiving Eve service as well as special bridge-building events. He has helped with events such as “A Conversation with Your Muslim Neighbors” and this month’s “Call to Beloved Community” — a gathering and pledge by many faith leaders in Clark County to “work together to keep the Pacific Northwest a place of peace, a sanctuary where everyone is welcomed, accepted and respected.”

Khan and his wife frequently visit extended family all over the country and around the world. But they’re happy with Clark County and the Pacific Northwest, he said — because Northwesterners are bright and broad-minded. Khan and his wife like the region’s people because they care about the natural world, healthy living and, he summed up, they’re just plain nice.

“I just love this city,” Khan said of Vancouver. “We chose the right place to live.”