Invitations were delivered to every neighbor along Old Orchard Road in Harvard. But when the day arrived to meet the likely new owners of the brick church at the end of their street, no one showed up.
Hamid and Mazher Ahmed sat for hours inside the vacant church on a recent Saturday. The buffet of home-cooked Indian food grew cold, and they grew weary of trying to make an impression.
It was a sign, they said, that the plan to convert the former Episcopal church into an Islamic boarding school would face high hurdles. The neighbors hired an attorney to block the plan, and last week the city's Planning and Zoning Commission denied their request for a permit to open the school.
"We even went knocking door to door, but no one came out to talk with us," Mazher Ahmed said a few days after the commission's decision. "Maybe they weren't home."
As more Muslims make the suburbs their home--an estimated 400,000 in the Chicago area--they are clashing with their new neighbors over where to build mosques and schools. In Morton Grove, residents dragged out approval of a mosque for more than a year, leaving bruised feelings that have yet to heal. In Orland Park, some residents said they would not re-elect the mayor if he supported building a mosque.
Though the objections take the form of zoning concerns, some Muslim groups say such arguments are not merely not-in-my-back-yard sentiments but also the residue of Sept. 11, 2001, and the fear that mosques are sanctuaries for terrorists.
"I think more often than not, opposition to the construction of schools or mosques is Islamophobia, even though obviously no one will say that that is their reason," said Ahmed Rehab, a spokesman for the Chicago chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
"Where do we go? This is our country, our community, our town and we're not allowed to have schools or mosques, the places that build communities? The reason is because of the fear that we are destroyers."
In Harvard, Joann Seyller said neighbors feel awful about being painted as fearing Muslims. She said residents had already hired an attorney by the time the Ahmeds invited them for a meeting at the church, and he advised them not to discuss the school issue.
They simply don't want the church and its adjacent five-bedroom parsonage to be converted into a boarding school, she said. About 70 residents showed up at last week's Planning Commission meeting.
Old Orchard Road is a winding street with well-kept, two-story homes and manicured lawns. It's home to Mayor-elect Jay Nolan, who lives across the street from the church.
Traffic woes cited
Schools and churches are allowed in residential areas but first must be approved by the City Council. Officials said granting the permit could set a precedent for apartments and cause traffic woes. "They can be there, and we would welcome them," said Seyller, who lives next door to the church. "It's really about them putting in a boarding school."
The school proposed by the Ibrahim Educational Foundation for the 3.2-acre site would house about 20 pupils, ages 8 to 13, who would live there Sunday evening through Friday. About 15 other children would attend classes but go home afterward.
The Ahmeds, who live in Batavia, are on the foundation's board. The church's purchase is contingent upon City Council approval of the school, they said.
The foundation has a school in Chicago, but it wants more room for the children to play.
"This is a quiet residential neighborhood, not a place that the neighbors want 30-some teens and preteens running around all day long," said Scott Logan, a zoning commissioner and council member-elect. "I would love to see them come up with a different plan in a better-suited neighborhood here."
The proposal could go before the Harvard City Council next month. "Maybe the [council] will have a different idea on it," said Hamid Ahmed who, along with his wife, works for Kane County. "But if the neighbors are not happy, it's no use."
Other towns face issue
In Morton Grove, village officials imposed 32 conditions on the Muslim Community Center last year before approving its mosque in a residential area.
In Orland Park, a 22,700-square-foot-mosque is nearly complete. But the project, which brought about 800 residents to a meeting last year, remains a sensitive subject.
Opponents expressed fears that the mosque would foster terrorism, and some threatened Mayor Dan McLaughlin with his job if he backed the project.
Muslims had constitutional rights, and their plan was in line with ordinances, McLaughlin said. "It was also a moral issue of what's right and wrong" that led to the approval of the mosque, he said.
"They did everything we asked them to do and more," he said last week. "It was still a tough time. You see a lot of objectors out there, some of them your neighbors, and some with legitimate concerns about traffic or other issues."
The Ahmeds said they are hopeful that Harvard City Council members will see that the school could be an asset for a town known for its diversity.
"We like to create schools that produce young generations that will be an asset to the community, to learn the good morals that we are raised upon," said Mazher Ahmed. "But it is like a slap in the face when you are confronted by an attorney when you go to talk about such simple things."