Pittsburgh and Mt. Lebanon are becoming increasingly diverse. In an effort to promote unity, the Mt. Lebanon Community Relations Board will tell stories throughout the year of minority residents who help our community thrive.
Lana Shami has lived in Washington D.C., Santa Monica, Austin, Tampa—and now Pittsburgh since moving to the United States from Syria in 1973. She admits to some apprehension about relocating to Mt. Lebanon in 2005 with her Jordanian husband and their children.
“Having come from the D.C. community, where there are a lot of Muslims and Arabs and all different nationalities, to come here and not see that [diversity] was a little bit scary for me initially,” she says. “I wasn’t used to sticking out and being so different.”
Raised as a Muslim since birth, there was a stretch where Shami wouldn’t ever wear a hijab (the traditional veil many Muslim women wear) for fear of being seen as an outsider. But everything changed once she got acclimated to her new community, and she now says Mt. Lebanon is the place in the U.S. where she’s felt most comfortable being herself.
“I have been very much embraced in Mt. Lebanon,” says Shami, who now has four children and lives in Mission Hills. “Everyone has gone out of their way to show me their kindness and open-mindedness. I belong to a couple of book clubs—a Mt. Lebanon one and an interfaith one—and they give the members opportunities to discuss such topics as diversity. And they give me an opportunity to know my neighbors more and learn how embracing they are.”
Because she found her religion accepted by her friends and neighbors, Shami went back to wearing her hijab. Her daughter, Aya, an 11th grader at Mt. Lebanon High School, wears one as well, one of the few local students who do so. Aya originally wanted to be a physician like her dad, Dr. Amer Abu-Obeid, but is now focusing more on international studies as she’s come to enjoy her unofficial role as a Muslim “ambassador” at the high school. “It’s a subject that’s become very interesting to her,” Shami says.
Shami is clearly proud that Aya is working to promote the Muslim religion in a positive light. Shami serves on the board of directors for the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, which is located in Oakland. The center conducts outreach programs, where they invite churches, synagogues and high-schoolers (including students from Mt. Lebanon) to tour their mosque and learn about Islam. She also spoke at the December Unity Rally at Mt. Lebanon Park. Shami says it’s important to help people understand that Muslims aren’t a threat, but rather, are productive members of society.
“That’s certainly a big reason why I have an obligation to wear the hijab,” she says, “To tell people that, yes, I am a Muslim, but you know me as a Girl Scout mom and a PTA participant and a book club member.”
Asked what advice she’d give other Muslims or Arab-Americans moving to the area, Shami says it’s important to remember that open-mindedness is a two-way street. “You can’t come in thinking everyone here is going to think the same. Everyone here is an independent thinker, and they’re often respectful and very kind. I’ve met the nicest people in Pittsburgh.”
The community relations board is an advisory board to the municipal commission. It serves as a resource for anyone who has experienced discrimination or whose civil rights have been violated. Residents are invited to observe or to speak at the board’s monthly meetings which are held at 6 p.m. the second Wednesday of each month in the municipal building. Residents also may speak confidentially with a board member, who can offer advice or arrange a mediation. To be put in touch with a board member, email firstname.lastname@example.org.