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Chicago area mosque guides local Muslim community through multiple tragedies

Chicago area mosque helps provides guidance to Muslim community after tragedies
Chicago area mosque helps provides guidance to Muslim community after tragedies 05:40

BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. (CBS) -- Over the last eight months, local Arab American and Muslim communities have suffered after the stabbing death of a 6-year-old Palestinian American boy and the shooting deaths of four women in the same family.

The Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview had the tall task of laying these loved ones to rest and guiding the community through grief. Eight months later they're still processing it.

"Sometimes you're just supposed to listen, sometimes you're just supposed to give encouragement, sometimes you're supposed to learn," said Shiekh Ali Masshour, an imam at the Mosque Foundation.

Those are the things Masshour has learned as an imam over the last 20 years. But when he first began practicing, he didn't know the gift could become a challenge.

"At first, it's kind of a shock to the system, but after a while, you'll learn to not try to fix everything. Not be the hero in everything. You just have to be present. Provide what you can," he said.

He learned to be present as a servant of Allah, the term used for "God" in Islam, while also learning how to provide funerals for families who have suffered a loss.

"This is certainly the mosque that has the most funerals that I've ever seen because the community is so clustered together," Masshour said.

Two funerals in the last year left the community scarred.

"The heaviest burdens are usually the lightest in physical weight," he said, referring to the death of 6-year-old Wadee Al-Fayoumi.

Wadea Al-Fayoume
Wadee Al-Fayoume turned 6 shortly before he was killed, his family said. Provided to CBS

"Tragedy compounded upon another tragedy"

Masshour said the boy's death "was certainly probably the most emotionally charged "because of the story and how it happened and the victim."

On October 14, 2023, the little boy was allegedly stabbed 26 times by his landlord Joseph Czuba at his apartment in Plainfield Township. His mother was left injured. In his confession, Czuba told police he attacked them because they were Muslim.

"I think really situating this incident in the larger narrative of racism, this is what it is at its heart. Anti-Palestinian hatred is a form of racism," said Deanna Othman, a teacher at the Universal School on the same campus as the Mosque Foundation.

For months, she has served as a sounding board while still trying to heal from paralyzing deaths in the community, especially as a mother.

"It really was tragedy compounded upon another tragedy, compounded once again, and it continues to compound," Othman said.

The tragedy kept building. Three months later, on the morning of January 21, Maher Kassem of Tinley Park called the police.

Police say Kassem fired 16 shots inside his home. He allegedly shot his wife Majeda seven times, his daughters Halema, Zahia, and Hanaan were shot more than once.

His 19-year-old son heard the screams but was not harmed.

"Just imagining that everyone woke up on a regular Sunday morning disagreeing on where they should go have breakfast turns into a bloodbath," Masshour said. "It makes you think a lot about what led to that, what was going on through a person's mind."

Court documents revealed what Maher Kassem told police. He blamed his wife for her own murder.

"'She treats me like [expletive] dog. I worked 40 years,' end quote, and quote 'I worked all my life to give my family a better home and they treat me like [expletive],'" said Cook County Assistant State's Attorney Scott Clark, quoting Kassem.

Masshour said he remembered the murders "weighing heavy on my mind for a few days. Which doesn't happen to me very often because I've been so exposed to these things over the year," Masshour said.

Coming together in grief

It still weighs heavy to this day. But what gives the imam solace is the life that comes after death.

"There is another life after this life where a lot of those injustices are going to be righted. As a Muslim, we believe in that," Masshour said.

That knowledge gave the community strength as they entered the holy month of Ramadan, hoping to heal and find peace.

"It was heartwarming to come together as a community every single night in prayer, in remembrance, and charity," Othman said.

There were somber nights in solidarity as a community, but separately, the families of these victims continued to mourn in silence.

"The real slew of emotion happens after everybody goes home. Right? You got to go and clean out the bedroom or cancel doctors' appointments and put pictures away or whatever it is. That's when people really need the most support, and that's usually often the most overlooked," said Masshour.

Solemn moments brought emotion and strength to those who follow the sacred call to prayer. It's a sound that often serves as a cry for help as well as a beautiful, yet painful reminder that the first pillar in Islam is acceptance.

"Acceptance of what's passed, acceptance of what occurs," said Masshour.

Maher Kassem, the man accused of killing his wife and daughters, faces four first-degree murder counts and is due in court next month.

Czuba, the landlord charged with a hate crime, first-degree murder, and attempted murder is scheduled for a motion hearing on Friday.

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