After decades and almost $2 million, faithful still are without a home

Work on the Islamic Center of Olympia nearly finished, but worshippers will continue to meet in temporary digs

ahobbs@theolympian.comMarch 8, 2014 

The local Islamic community is hopeful of finishing a mosque that’s been two decades in the making.

Located at 2045 Abernethy Road, across from Pleasant Glade Elementary School, the Islamic Center of Olympia’s new mosque will feature a community room with a kitchen and space to host activities such as weddings. Large windows and a translucent dome will bathe the main worship area with natural light.

As one of two houses of worship for Muslims in Thurston County, the Islamic Center has about 150 members who represent about 40 different ethnicities. For now, the center holds sermons and prayer services in a community building adjacent to the unused and unfinished mosque, which measures 10,500 square feet.

Mustafa Mohamedali has followed the new mosque’s progress from the beginning, and at one time led the construction committee.

The community needs $211,000 to finish the project, which has a total cost of about $2 million. If money were available, the mosque could be completed in six months or less, Mohamedali said. The remaining tasks include installation of flooring, ceiling tiles and accommodations for the disabled.

“We are about 95 percent complete,” he said, “but that last 5 percent is taking 95 percent of the time.”

In 1992, several Cham refugees from Cambodia purchased 10 acres off Abernethy Road and established a community of their own. The Cham people are an ethnic group from Southeast Asia that practices Islam. Nearly 100,000 Cham people were killed in the mid- to late 1970s during the Cambodian genocide, which was orchestrated by the ruling party Khmer Rouge. The 1984 film “The Killing Fields” is based on the regime’s atrocities.

The site off Abernethy Road includes a single loop road with 40 homes and a stormwater retention pond. A 2-acre patch was reserved for the new mosque, which received county approval in 1996.

To fund the project, the community had planned to solicit donations from the Middle East. However, the Patriot Act — a domestic security law passed in the wake of 9/11 — caused Middle Eastern donors to shy away from such projects in order to avoid suspicion, according to Mohamedali.

Most financial resources have been exhausted, he said. Many of the Islamic Center’s members are first-generation immigrants who lack money to donate, and Islamic law also forbids interest-based loans.

After more than 10 years of planning, construction officially started in 2007. Throughout its design, the mosque has undergone revisions for height and square footage, according to a county hearing examiner’s report. The revisions came in response to nearby residents who expressed concerns about off-street parking, traffic, pedestrian safety and the proposed mosque itself being “out of character” with the neighborhood.

Troy Ali, vice president of the Islamic Center, was 8 years old when his family fled Cambodia for a new life in the U.S. He belongs to one of three original families who founded the local Cham community and still live there. Ali’s father has often told the story of their family dodging bullets at night while trying to evade the Khmer Rouge.

Most of the Islamic Center’s members reside within walking distance, and Ali said older members hope to see the new mosque finished in their lifetime. For about four years, Ali tried living in a house outside the Olympia Cham community where he grew up. However, he missed the sense of safety provided by the community that raised him. He eventually returned to live just a stone’s throw away from the mosque.

“I didn’t feel the security when living outside the community,” Ali said. “My roots are here.”

Andy Hobbs: 360-704-6869

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