There is one stoplight in Topeka. It blinks red at the downtown crossroads, an indication that the 1,200 town residents are in no hurry to get from here to there.
Other than when workers are traveling to or from work at the recreational vehicle and auto parts factories in the industrial parks at the west edge of town, there’s rarely a need to pause long at the light unless an Amish buggy horse balks at continuing through the intersection.
The slow pace of life in this heavily Anabaptist community is embraced. The town’s slogan that appears on the town limit signs staked into the ground at the sides of the town’s two crossroads is “Life in the past lane.” That catchy tourism slogan is more than just words, it’s a way of life here. Horse-drawn Amish buggies are popular vehicles in town, and also bicycles. The Amish cyclists wear bright orange and yellow reflective vests for safety these days, but the mindset of leaving things as they are mostly remains.
Yet, a remarkable change has occurred in the town and goes unnoticed by many.
As Amish buggies trot by and bicyclists ride past on South Main Street at noon on Fridays, a large number of Muslim men gather to worship in a makeshift mosque they have created in a worn building that was once a restaurant. The mosque serves between 30 to 40 Muslim families.
It’s a great town
“I love it,” said Mohammad Al Rsheed as he waited on a crowd of hurried men shopping at his small grocery store next to the mosque after prayers on a recent Friday. “I love Topeka because it is a quiet place.”
Rsheed opens his tiny market for a couple of hours each Friday after prayers at the mosque. Before he becomes a part-time shopkeeper, he often leads prayers at the mosque, but only because he lives nearby and arrives early.
“Whoever gets here early can do it,” he said of being a prayer leader.
After a recent prayer service, the men gathered outside in the parking lot and exchanged greetings, embraced, shook hands and purchased some fresh fruit from other worshipers who brought the items to the service in their vans.
A variety of colorful garb and head coverings were worn by the men. There were also men dressed in clothes they wore to work in local factories that day. A few boys stood with their fathers. The chatter was in a mix of Arabic and English.
Al Rsheed said the mosque is open to all Muslims. He said worshipers include people with ties to Chad, Sudan, Pakistan, India and his native land, Yemen.
“It is the closest mosque to the people,” he said of the popularity of the mosque.
The worship center is still being discovered. Before the Friday service a man parked his car on the street in front of the mosque and inquired, “Is it alright to park here? It’s my first time here.”
Al Rsheed is married with three children and lived for a time in Sturgis, Michigan, before moving to Topeka in 2000 to work in a local factory. He believes most of the local Muslim families have lived in Topeka for 15 or 16 years.
His tiny store is packed with foods from across the Middle East. A recent shipment of sweet golden Barhi dates from Saudi Arabia was being snatched up by the shoppers hurrying to get back to work.
Al Rsheed is happy to be living with his family in the rural community that is surrounded by corn and bean fields and strips of whitewashed Amish homes along county roads.
“Some people have different ways,” he said. “But Topeka I think is the best place for me. Most of the people around here are honest people. It is a quiet place. It is a safe place. I feel like there is a big space. It is really nice.”
Work was the lure that brought Al Rsheed to Topeka. He said there were some Muslim people already working at the NISCO rubber extrusion and molding plant before The Great Recession hit and word was spread that jobs were available.
Al Rsheed has since left that line of work and now operates the store.
Safer than Chicago
Aziz Alshuga, a man with a broad, easy smile, makes his living at Tenneco in nearby Ligonier. And like Al Rsheed, he is a native of Yemen and went to high school in California. He is grateful to be living in Topeka.
“I come from Chicago,” Alshuga said while he stopped in at Topeka Pharmacy. “In Chicago if they find a quarter on the hatch in your car they are going to rip (out) the glass and take the quarter. When I stopped on the Amish road, I stopped to get some vegetables. I saw the cans that said ‘help yourself.’ I could not believe it. There is no other place in the world you can leave your money outside and you can go.”
The common honesty Alshuga found that day at a roadside vegetable stand was something that was often absent on 82nd Street in Chicago, where he had invested in a business.
“I used to have a business there in Chicago and I said that (Topeka) is the place I should live,” Alshuga said. “I went back to Chicago and sold the business (a grocery store) because I got robbed twice. They put that gun to my head. And then I came over here.”
He compared Topeka to parts of Arabia where the doors to businesses are closed with just a fabric during prayers and nobody enters them or steals from them.
“That is why I live in Topeka,” Alshuga said. “It is safe for me and for my kids.”
That commitment to the community is allowing Alshuga’s family to grow deep roots in the area. His oldest daughter, Ameera, a graduate of Westview High School, wants to be a doctor and earned a scholarship to Goshen College. She is a freshman this year. He said his daughter wanted to stay close to home to attend college.
The belief that the town offers a peaceful, quiet place where everyone gets along is universal when questions are asked around town.
“Everybody seems to get along well,” said Ron Eash, town manager. “Everybody seems to do their own thing.”
Eash said the Muslim men he has gotten to know relate to him that they came from the Detroit, Michigan area. “They are here for work. Most of them are here because they like the small town quietness that we offer here.”
And he added, “The ones we have here are good working, good people to have in the community.”
In the mosque
The mosque is open to all worshipers, according to Al Rsheed. The mosque is operated by the local Muslim community and replaced a space that was rented.
The plain main room has a thickly padded gray carpet covering the floor. A small, three-step wooden minbar is in one corner and is used by speakers for readings or speaking. To one side is the entrance to a smaller room where women worship.
“The Muslim should be in this mosque five times a day, “ Al Rsheed said. “Everybody should be coming here who is not working.”
Friday is a special day with speakers who offer religious guidance.
He said Muslims who are working during daily prayer times and can’t make it to the mosque take a break and worship where they are.
When Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump proposed building a wall across the country’s southern border with Mexico to stop illegal migration, the debate over the country’s immigration policy ratcheted up a few notches. Then he proposed stopping immigration from unnamed Muslim countries, claiming such immigration posed a terrorism risk for the United States. On Wednesday Trump added yet another stance on immigration, saying he wanted to reduce the numbers of yearly legal immigrants to protect jobs for existing citizens.
Many of Trump’s opponents have painted the candidate as a racist, nationalistic isolationist. But in Topeka, members of the immigrant Muslim community, now mostly naturalized Americans, have not become too concerned about Trump and his words because they put their trust in the Constitution and its protections.
Al Rsheed, an American citizen, said, “I am not focused a lot (on that) because I think this country has rules. It doesn’t matter who is going to be president ... “Everybody is the same, you know — white, black, Arab, Spanish. The rules, the laws here treat everybody the same, no matter what their color.”
And he has found the residents of the Topeka area to be accepting of him and his religion.
“I have lived here a long time, almost 20 years, nobody has bothered me,” he said.
Ali Warith was outside the mosque with his son Ali looking over the produce in the vans. Little Ali was dressed in traditional Yemeni clothing. His father proudly pointed out his son was wearing a handmade vest from Yemen.
Warith has been living in the United States since he was 17. His father was an American citizen and brought his family to the States.
Warith said he too has paid little attention to Trump’s immigration stance.
“We don’t even worry about it. Because we know of the U.S. Constitution. Nobody is above that,” he said. And he added, “America has freedom of religion.”
One man in town who has noticed Trump’s immigration rhetoric is Tom Miller. He’s the owner and pharmacist at Topeka Pharmacy. Just about everyone in town makes their way to his counter at one time or another.
He said he hasn’t heard anyone in town talking about Trump’s stance on immigration.
“My personal opinion is how could anybody not be disturbed by that, particularly if you are the target,” he said.
But the immigration debate has not caught on in town, he iterated.
It might be that similarities in the personalities and cultures of the Amish and Muslims don’t generate such debate, Miller speculated.
“... The interaction we have had so far has been nothing but positive. A lot of them go and work in the secondary auto supply business, like Nishikawa,” Miller said of Topeka’s Muslim residents. “... They came down here from Dearborn (Michigan) and they got down here and figured out we were a good place to live. A lot of our people have beards and dress in long garments and are gentle, and the ones that have been patients of our store have been of the same way. They stand beside each other and talk to each other and it seems to go good.”
Just north of the mosque along Main Street is Topeka Elementary School.
Inside, the student body is a mix of five cultures.
Divided up by the languages they speak, Principal Becky Siegel said Amish students who grow up speaking Pennsylvania Dutch at home dominate the numbers, comprising 50 percent of the 320 students. “English,” a common term for non-Amish, English-speaking white students, make up 38 percent of the student body. Arabic-speakers number 33, or about 10 percent of the population. Then there are five students with Burmese backgrounds and just one Hispanic student. The school has classrooms from kindergarten through fourth-grade.
Newly arrived students are inserted into their appropriate grade level, no matter what their English language skills are, according to Siegel.
“We do find that even through fourth grade they grow (their language skills) very rapidly,” Siegel said.
The diverse cultures at the school have not become an issue, according to Siegel, and the focus, as always, is on education. Students who need help learning English have tutors who help them.
“We are embracing the diversity, they come in, they fit in and they want to learn,” she said of immigrants.
The only noticeable change in the school’s daily routine might be that Muslim children are allowed to leave school to attend Friday prayers. She said while the school district allows boys and girls to attend prayers, it is just the boys who do so. The young worshipers must return after prayers and finish the school day.
Beyond the noon-hour release on Fridays, visitors would only notice cultural clothing for Muslim and Amish students as obvious indicators that different cultures were walking the hallways.
Things run so smoothly in the hallways and classrooms, teachers don’t spend any time on cultural issues, according to the principal.
“There is just not a need,” Siegel said. “You just wouldn’t know if you walk through here.”
Miller summed up what many in the community expressed, that local people embrace the mix of cultures and it’s no big deal for them.
“To me it is almost like the Amish,” he said. “It is a different culture but they understand they need to work with ours and we need to work with them. I think it is mutually advantageous to get stuff done. Whether it is work, or taking care of their health, or taking care of their children. I have personally noticed, the children don’t have a problem, they just play and are children.”