In this series of articles, we focus on a diverse set of individuals who are making their faith count.
It’s About The Individual
By Nicole Giacomini
February 21, 2015
Meet Safiya Samman. A daughter of Palestine. Devout American Muslim. Wife. Mother. Scientist. A strong woman who makes her faith count.
She smiles warmly- and welcomes me into her home with a gentle embrace. She retrieves two sets of house slippers for my friend Lindsay and me to wear and gracefully leads us to the formal dining table -set beautifully with delicious fresh food and comforting herbal beverages. It is obvious to me how much thoughtful care and kindness were infused into every detail. A labor of love- for practical strangers.
Safiya is wearing a golden-yellow hijab (a veil or headscarf worn by Muslim women to symbolize modesty and devotion to God) and a forest- green velvet dress. Her face radiates with joy as she invites us to sit at her table to visit. She is soft spoken, yet confident – and her manner is peaceful.
When she smiles, the lines on her face etch a rich tapestry- telling silent tales…fond memories of her distant homeland, tragedy, survival and triumph. A life that must have required a great deal of faith.
She carries a large, framed map into the dining room and props it on a chair. She looks fondly, pointing to the place of her birth in Akre, Northern Palestine. Her grandfather was the Mayor of the city many decades ago. She tells us that her family’s house still stands there today- although it has been made into an Israeli museum.
As successful farmers and merchants, her family had enjoyed a beautiful life overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. Her ancestors tell a magical story of Sultans, prosperity, hard work, bountiful harvests and the love of family. Through mastery of age-old methods, her grandfather had brought water to a dry and desolate region- transforming the land into an oasis of harvests, bustling merchant trades and a home rich with faith. From her childhood, she has carried a deep connection to the land and an insatiable curiosity for the sciences and horticulture.
Her Palestinian family was well respected, well-educated and active in their community. Safiya’s older cousins were sent to Jerusalem to study at very reputable schools to learn French, English and core subjects. Safiya was only a toddler during this time.
She and her family experienced genuine challenges as the region went through significant change and they became refugees in 1948. Safiya says, “I am so proud of my parents.” She adds of that time that her father “never taught us to hate.”
Her family was welcomed into Lebanese homes as refugees. She says, “we brought oranges, bananas…and our education and knowledge. That was our treasure…People thought we had gold.” She added, “My dad was a doctor going around giving shots and caring for the sick. He did not have a medical education but became the doctor of the town.”
Her family adapted quickly to their new surroundings. ”We established wells, and my dad planted.” She loved her father and he taught her the great wisdom of growing crops. “My dad taught me to graft”. He gave her her own small plot and she would compete with her cousins to see who could grow the best crops. “I competed with the boys.”
They had finally rebuilt their lives amongst the groves of fruit trees- in a new land. Safiya had to walk 5 miles every day to attend school in the Rashidiya refugee camp- South of Tyre, Lebanon. She was determined to learn.
Eventually, another challenging period in her family’s life came when they were forced to move to Beirut, Lebanon. No matter what occurred, her family held fast to the principles of their faith- to love others, to work hard and to have hope.
In Beirut, Safiya was sent to an Evangelical, American school for girls and her mother encouraged her to build her education. “My mother was a very patient woman- amazing… She would absorb everything…and was very well educated from just listening, but at 70 years old, she finally learned to read and write.” In school, Safiya excelled in math and sciences.
Then a path opened for her to move to the United States where she became the scientist she had always dreamed she could become. She loves this country and this land. “I had been a field scientist in Oregon, Washington, California as well. It was the right thing for me at the right time.”
She was eventually promoted from the field work of forestry to the position as Director of Conservation of Education for the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C. She championed this position for 10 years. “I was doing something for the future generation- for the kids, for the schools- building their connection to nature and to the land. Helping them to understand the stewardship concept of the land.”
In applying this work to her faith, she says, “We are born here. It’s part of our religion. God says, ‘We created humans to be stewards of earth.’ This [job] just gave me a chance to apply this and teach others without telling them ‘I am a Muslim’. It was a wonderful application of my faith without raising any flags. That was the beauty.”
“I loved my career because of that. I did grow. Even when I was working as a scientist learning the DNA and organization and….it is all done by God! It is such a beautiful thing. Humans cannot do the complexity that God can.” She says that her career affirmed her beliefs in the existence of God every day. “When I was young, my mom would say, ‘When God loves someone, God shows them His creation. You will see and then you will understand…’ And through my profession I did- in the forest, the Willamette, the Olympics, The Sierra Nevadas…the mountains in the East- every place. You see the majestic creation and realize how small we are.”
She quotes from the Q’uran saying, “In the creation of the heavens and earth and everything-there are lessons for those who have a living heart and mind. They are connected.”
Safiya says that she was fortunate to be on a task force at the White House to set up the rules governing the production and implementation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO’s). “Anytime we play a little bit with the systems, we do not know the far-reaching consequences…In some instances I agree and others- No…God has given us knowledge- a brain and heart… to be stewards. But we have to be smart, sustainable.”
Safiya is not just a very influential scientist, but she is an active Muslim and serves her faith in Islam through her local Mosque. She is the Chair for Sisters Affairs.
“We are a part of this community. We work with the shelters, assist many families in need, we check on the sick and help them…people know they can come to my door. It is between me and God. The sisters contribute to this effort. In the Mosque, we have many on our roster that we assist on a consistent basis so they will not have to be on welfare or be homeless. The sisters and I want to make sure we help the orphans- the most in need financially, physically, emotionally and spiritually.”
The sisters at the Mosque host interfaith events, teach classes, educate and serve the members of the Mosque and the greater community. “Many of the sisters are scholars.”
‘If you come to me…and you are not a Muslim. And you are hungry…and a Muslim comes to me hungry, and I only have one piece of bread, I will divide it for both of you. You are human. It [our religion] doesn’t say you have to be a Muslim person. It is about humanity. It is about serving God. The wife of the Prophet- when she would give someone a gift, she would clean it up very well and say, ‘I am putting this in the hands of God.’”
Safiya believes that when she is in the service of the poor, the sick, the orphans- that she is in the service of God. “My action speaks louder than my words. Can we visit a sick person who is not a Muslim? Please do! And you go and visit sick Muslims as well.”
She expresses her feelings on her faith, “The Prophet, peace be upon him, came as a mercy to humanity…not just Muslims- but to everybody…and if we know that, embody that, and live it…we can do no harm, but good.”
“When you sense the love of God, then you cannot be on the defensive. It is the opportunity to teach- an opportunity to tell about your true faith and what it means to you.”
“I always talk to our sisters in our religious studies. That this is the spirit of our religion- that we need to embody it- so that we can truly live it.”
“When somebody comes up to me or my daughters and pulls my scarf and says cruel things…I am never upset. I smile at them. I have never been upset with anyone because I feel it would serve their agenda and that doesn’t serve me… It doesn’t serve God. And that is the most important. I live here to serve God… and I smile and talk to them about it- even well educated people.”
She tells us about a man who was in line at the grocery store next to her. “He angrily stated, ‘This is America. Go back to the end of the line!’ I smiled and said, ‘I am American as Apple Pie.’”
“The Prophet, peace be upon him, said to smile at people. It softens people. I take this opportunity. I hope others that are not of my faith can have an open heart- for me and my children.”
“People always ask, ‘why do you wear this?’ [the hijab] I tell them, ‘because (a woman) is a like a diamond, a precious gem…The more I know that I am precious- as this is part of the more scholarly level as humans- the more I want to dress modestly.’” She speaks of covering the body as “a devotion to God – a reverence for Him- because we are cherished by Him and He desires to protect our sacred value. Men also have responsibilities and there are rules for them just as we have rules…to dress with modesty as well.”
“I do not feel Islam is making me less. I am a professional- a scientist. I am proud of what I have done as a scientist and I have a good reputation. I do not feel Islam has set me backward or behind, but has helped me go forward and to be strong- to be me.”
Safiya expresses this view on faith when counseling Muslim youth in the community who may feel they are discriminated against because of their religion or because they are dressing modestly. She encourages them to be peaceful, to smile and to be themselves.
“I have to thank my friend who is a Christian,” she says recalling a story when she was a young woman working in the field out in the forests. “At the beginning when I started this journey of knowing more and covering my head, it was not easy. It is never easy. I was a forester, and had to work when it was hot. My friend said, ‘If you put it on, just leave it on.’” She felt her friend was not judging her, but made Safiya feel respected in her desire to follow her own beliefs.
“Everyone has value. Everyone has something to teach us and I am open. I am going to be 69 years old soon and I still feel like I can learn a lot from the young!”
Safiya expresses her desire for the youth of today to exemplify their religious leaders- rather than popular entertainers for example- and learn their heritage and to learn the principles of their faith correctly so that we can live peacefully as good citizens.
“Before you make up your mind who we are…ask. Learn. We are willing to share. Talk to us. We are all children of God. We are.”
Nicole Giacomini is the Interfaith Outreach Specialist on the Woodbridge Virginia Stake Public Affairs Council for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints