PBS show "The Great Muslim American Road Trip" stops in Joplin to talk with Muslim community

·6 min read

Jul. 2—A PBS show premiering this month features a stop in Joplin to visit with members of the Muslim community, tell their stories and showcase their hospitality.

"In the Joplin community, it was inspiring hearing about their stories and their resilience," said Sebastian Robins, part of the Muslim couple traveling on "The Great Muslim American Road Trip." "After the burning of their mosque in a hate crime and the tornado, they sprang into action and had such an ethos of service. For me, it was inspiring to see that even though they were in a way traumatized, they didn't let that stop them from serving folks when they needed it."

In "The Great Muslim American Road Trip," married Muslim American couple Mona Haydar and Robins travel west along Route 66, exploring the roots of Muslims in America and what it means to be Muslim today. Throughout their road trip, the couple also meet with people like Muhammad Ali's daughter, Maryam Ali, in Chicago, and Bosnian immigrants and restaurant owners Sulejman and Emmina Grbic in St. Louis.

The first episode of the three-part series will premiere at 9 p.m. Tuesday on PBS, pbs.org and the PBS Video app. Titled "Life is a Highway: Chicago to Joplin, Missouri." The episode includes footage of the couple's visit to Joplin.

Haydar is a Syrian American who has a master's degree in Christian ethics. She has gained success with her music, including her hip-hop anthem, "Hijabi (Wrap My Hijab)," that went viral in 2017. Her husband, Robins, who converted to Islam after meeting his wife, worked at the Lama Foundation, where he served as a coordinator and CEO. They have been married for eight years.

In 2015, Haydar and Robins gained international attention for their "Ask a Muslim" project, where they looked to replace some of the trauma and sorrow people were facing following the Paris and San Bernardino, California, extremist attacks. They set up a booth outside the library in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and gave away doughnuts, coffee, fruit and flowers while offering an opportunity to talk to a Muslim and promote fellowship with people.

Their travels on "The Great Muslim American Road Trip" started out as a chance to reconnect with each other, but it grew into a trip of self-discovery while finding the rich and diverse history of Muslims in America.

"We looked at it as a second honeymoon," Haydar said. "We were excited about spending some time together and getting to know each other again after eight years of marriage and having children. Along the way, we were receiving an education just by traveling while being Muslim, and that was a real gift. We didn't expect to learn as much as we did and encounter as many amazing people as we did. That was a beautiful silver lining."

For Sania Hammad, 17, who is featured in the Joplin visit, the first episode helped her consider the perspectives of Muslims in American history. She said she felt blindsided by how this history had been left out of her education.

"In an American history class, they never talk about it," Hammad said. "As they were showing mosques from early American history, I was dumbfounded. Obviously, I knew they existed, but I had to take a second because it made me realize how much I don't know. I have never been taught about a Muslim in history class, ever. I think it's really sad, I think it's pathetic."

Haydar said the couple was inspired to learn that Muslims in this land predate America as an independent nation. For example, in Springfield, Illinois, they learned that one-third of all enslaved Africans who were brought by the trans-Atlantic slave trade were Muslims. These lessons are a part of the story of America, and Haydar believes it's important to study them to understand where we are today.

At a screening at the Joplin Islamic Society on June 22, the public got to see the first episode that featured the Joplin Muslim community. After viewing the episode, Hammad said she hoped showing this history on a nationally televised show will contribute to improving the portrayal of Muslims in entertainment and media.

"This ignorance is holding us back as a country," Hammad said. "How is problem of Islamophobia going to get better if you don't teach children the basics of what Islam is? Now things are slowly starting to change, and I feel a huge relief. It's not just relief for me but for every Muslim, young and old."

The Joplin visit by "The Great Muslim American Road Trip" happened as a combination of needing a place to pray and stay the night, Robins said. While visiting the Joplin mosque for prayer, the couple was invited to a picnic at Mercy Park. Through this spontaneous meeting, Robins and Haydar got to talk with members of the Joplin Muslim community, many of whom were medical professionals.

"The overwhelming sentiment we had there was just the warmth of people and their generosity to welcome us in," Robins said. "I think it was all the more striking, and all the more beautiful, because this was a community that had experienced trauma."

At the picnic, Robins and Haydar heard about the tragedies of the 2011 Joplin tornado and the burning of the Joplin mosque, both within about a year of each other. Many of the physicians were first responders during the tornado, and they also remembered the scars of the mosque arson.

"But they weren't really interested in making that part of their story," Robins said. "We kind of had to draw that out of them. Nor were they interested in making themselves heroes; we had to draw that out of them, too. and that to me is a mark of their character, humility in service. When they told us those stories, their emphasis was on service and was on being a beautiful community."

Hammad was proud to see the hospitality of her community shown on the screen. Although she was young, she vividly remembers the 2011 tornado. She was huddled in a closet with her twin sister as the tornado tore through Joplin. After the tornado, she had friends who lost everything and remembers looking through her toys to find something to donate to them. What most stands out in her memory is the generosity of the Muslim community in the aftermath, as they contributed food and help to tornado victims.

"It was a defining moment for me," Hammad said. "It was a horrible time, but it also brought us together and solidified the community we had built."

Warda Morsy, 14, is another Joplin Muslim teen shown in "The Great Muslim American Road Trip." Like Hammad, she's proud to see the hospitality, which she considers a defining trait of the Joplin Muslim community, featured on the show. She said Joplin's appearance on the PBS show is inspiring for her and gives her hope for the future.

"Service is a big part of being here," Morsy said. "I've been a part of the mosque since I came to Joplin, and I've learned so many things here, like culture and religion. I feel like the services the mosque provides are something that couldn't be described or understood until a program like this came along to help people comprehend that better. I hope that someday I can be like that and do the things that they do here."