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Potomac Center Offers Prisoners Free Qurans

Arlene "Raheema" Pater-Rov wears the traditional hijab, a modesty scarf she wraps around her head to cover her hair, and a long-sleeved dark purple dress. The hijab is observed by many Muslim women and is the required dress code for walking through the Islamic Education Center of Maryland in Potomac. For this reason, Pater-Rov keeps spare scarves in the office for visitors.

Pater-Rov is the head of the IEC’s book distribution program, which sends free Qurans and other Islamic books to prisoners across the United States who request them, as well as to libraries and college students.

The purpose of the program is “to educate those that are in prison about Islamic knowledge,” Pater-Rov said.

According to Pater-Rov, many American inmates convert to Islam while in prison after learning about the religion from Muslim prison chaplains.

By one estimation, more than 30,000 U.S. prisoners convert to Islam each year, according to Ibrahim Abdurrahman Farajaje, a professor of Islamic studies at the Starr King School for the Ministry.

Although many of the prison converts are Sunnis, a branch of Islam, the EIC’s books are written by Shiites.

“But we try not to stress the differences,” Pater-Rov said.

Many of the requests come from Michigan because of its extensive Muslim population. Pater-Rov said Henry Ford brought hundreds of Arabs to Michigan in 1905 to work in his factories manufacturing cars, and this is the reason for its large Muslim community.

At the IEC, the book distribution program is run out of a small office within the building. Two bookcases line the walls, filled with English translations of the Quran, books about the prophet Mohammed and interpretations of different surahs, or chapters, of the Quran by learned scholars.

ON A LARGE desk sit little drawers filled with note cards of people who have requested books, sorted according to name, and a cardboard box filled with dozens of unanswered letters.

“I go there every day for two hours, just reading the letters,” said Sonreh Sedig, who was helping with the Muslim Community School’s Web site in a nearby office. Her mother is the school’s principal. “I’m looking for the one that tells me the story of how they got there.”

Unfortunately, Sedig said, almost all of the letters are short and to the point. But she still finds herself lost in them, even when she promises herself to visit the office for only five minutes.

Pater-Rov said the IEC receives two to 20 book requests a day, most of which go unanswered because the program, which is run on an all-volunteer basis, is short-staffed.

About Pater-Rov, Sedig said admiringly, “She’s there all day and does not get paid — not once.”

Maryam Badakhsh, 14, is spending the summer helping Pater-Rov with the mailings to fulfill her community service requirements at the Muslim Community School.

“I thought maybe I could help people and the community,” said Badakhsh, who will be entering 10th grade.

Qassim Almosawi, who has been in charge of replenishing the book supply for the past three years, helps out for the same reason.

"I like to help with the books because I like people to see the right path and to behave good," Almosawi said.

Almosawi said he hopes to promote peace by sending the Islamic books to prisoners who can then turn their lives around.

THE BOOK distribution program began as Quranic Account, run by Dr. A.S. Hashemi, in 1981, the year the IEC was established. In 1987 the Quranic Account moved to another address.

“But the letters (requesting Qurans) were still coming to IEC,” said Pater-Rov.

In that same year, the IEC began its own distribution program, Pater-Rov said. During its time in the IEC building, the Quranic Account gave out about 1,000 Qurans a year. Now, the IEC’s book distribution program sends some 6,000 books a year, which includes Qurans and other Islamic books.

The book distribution program is funded by the New York-based Alavi Foundation, which was established in 1973 by the Shah of Iran, Pater-Rov said.

“So, actually all the Qurans are bought by the Shah’s money,” Pater-Rov said.

After the Shah was overthrown in 1979, the Shah’s assets were transferred to the new regime. As one of the former Shah’s assets, the foundation is still under the Iranian government’s control, but the money cannot be used outside the United States, Pater-Rov said.

“They control it from Iran, but they can’t use it in Iran,” said Pater-Rov. “They have to use it here."

The foundation established the IEC of Maryland in 1981. It also promotes the spread of the Persian language, Farsi, and culture by supporting the cost of implementing a six-year Persian studies program at educational institutions and funding Farsi classes started by nonprofit organizations.

IN ADDITION to the Book Distribution Program, the IEC offers Farsi classes on Saturdays, Friday night classes in English and Sunday School. The special programs are usually conducted in Farsi, said Pater-Rov, but they are simultaneously translated into English “sentence by sentence."

Interfaith activities include the monthly Muslim, Christian and Jewish seminars and meetings of the social services organization Daughters of Abraham.

“We like to bridge the gap between Muslims, Christians and Jews,” Pater-Rov said.

The IEC is also the host of the Muslim Community School, which is a full-curriculum school, including Islamic Studies and Arabic classes, with classes five days a week for all grades from Sept. 6 to June 9. Pater-Rov, in addition to volunteering as head of book distribution, is also a third-grade teacher at the Muslim Community School.

Pater-Rov is following in the footsteps of her father, the owner of a plant nursery, who she said was always interested in helping prisoners.

“He would parole them out of prison so they could work for him,” Pater-Rov said.

Pater-Rov, who was raised a Methodist, converted to Islam three years after she married her husband. As a Muslim, she decided the best way she could help prisoners would be to help educate them about the religion.

Like her father, Pater-Rov also has a special love for plants and can be seen taking care of the plants and bushes around the IEC. She has even earned a special nickname at the center: “The Green Thumb,” Sedig said.

“We want to make (the center) a place where people want to get married,” said Pater-Rov, explaining her dedication to the plants' upkeep.