Thirty-five years ago, Wafaa Naggar’s husband was transferred to Stamford. As the couple searched for a home in Fairfield County, she got the impression that realtors in towns like Darien were taking them to less-desirable areas.
Their Westport real estate agent, by contrast, was “amazing.” She showed them great houses. Neighbors seemed very welcoming. The beach and shops were appealing. They bought here, and have never regretted it.
In many ways, the Naggars are typical Westporters. Their 3 children had great experiences; all graduated from Staples. Wafaa got involved in the community. Today she is director of finance and HR administration for the Westport Library.
In other ways, the Naggars are not at all typical. They’re part of Westport’s small — and often invisible — Muslim community.
Events in distant places — Paris, San Bernardino — have shined a light on Muslims living where other religions dominate.
That’s never been an issue here, Wafaa says. “We’ve always enjoyed Westport. Our kids were welcomed. We have good friends, and always felt supported. We’ve had zero issues.”
During Ramadan — when the Naggars fast — friends save food for later. If people feel uncomfortable eating around her, Wafaa puts them at ease. If they have questions about any aspect of her religion, they ask. And she answers.
Wafaa pauses. Once, it turns out, Staples friends called her son Taher’s car “The Camel.” She notes, “Everyone has nicknames and fun. It was not anything bad at all.”
The Naggars worship at mosques in Stamford. They choose which one depending upon who is conducting prayers or speaking that day. There are mosques in Bridgeport and Orange too. A Norwalk group has just purchased property, following lengthy negotiations and controversy.
Wafaa says the Stamford mosques draw Muslims from many different backgrounds. She adds that it’s hard to characterize the Muslims in Westport because there is no central meeting place in town. However, she believes that most are from non-Arab countries. (The Naggars are Egyptian.)
I told Wafaa that an “06880” reader had emailed me, wondering if there was a mosque in town. The woman said her fitness trainer — who works on Sylvan Road South — told her that a small group gathers for prayers every morning at 5, at a suite in the same office complex.
Wafaa has never heard of that. Neither has Dolores Paoli, Born in the Dominican Republic and raised in New York City, she married a Pakistani man and “accepted Islam.”
She’s lived in Westport for 24 years. In the last couple of years, she says, several more Muslims have moved in — some from Iran. She estimates the town’s Muslim population at 25 families or more.
Most Westport Muslims are affluent, she says — and “pretty secular.” Worship is done primarily in the home.
The Muslims who move here come for “the same reason everyone else does: good schools, a nice environment, the beach,” Dolores says. She has not heard of any overt prejudice.
“You see Muslims every day,” she notes. “A few businesses here are Muslim-owned, and there are Muslims who work in town. If they wear hijab they stand out. But if they don’t, you wouldn’t know.”
Dolores adds that not wearing head covering does not make anyone “less Muslim. It’s like a yarmulke — not wearing one doesn’t make you less Jewish.”
Like many Muslims in America, she says, those in Westport are “cautious and careful. We just want to live our lives. Like African American parents, we tell our kids to be careful.”
Dolores is a member of TEAM Westport — the town’s multicultural organization. (Wafaa Naggar is a former member.)
“We work at getting different groups together,” Dolores says. “It’s challenging. We do live in a bubble.” At a recent interfaith Thanksgiving service, 2 Muslim families gave readings. She says the town’s interfaith clergy organization is looking into sponsoring a Syrian family.
Dolores is not worried about Donald Trump — the loudest voice in the current wave of Islam-bashing. “America will come around and do the right thing,” she insists. “It’s important to have these conversations.”
Though Dolores’ background is different from Wafaa’s, she has a similar conclusion about her life in Westport, and other Muslims’ lives: “We’re here. But we’re just like everyone else.”