Mosque school’s kindergarten teacher talks of her grief over fire’s damage

Faculty member, on staff since start, reveals she ID’d suspect to police

Kindergarten teacher Manal El-Sheikh looks for items that she can save from her classroom at the center.
Kindergarten teacher Manal El-Sheikh looks for items that she can save from her classroom at the center.

When reporters toured the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo Thursday to see and report on the damage that an arsonist did to the mosque, kindergarten teacher Manal El-Sheikh was in her classroom, wearing protective gloves and trying to salvage the 12 years’ worth of materials that she had brought, bought, or made for her students. Classes at the Islamic School of Greater Toledo, a prekindergarten through fifth-grade school, will resume Monday in Maumee at the Arrowhead Park Learning Center at Owens Community College.

Ms. El-Sheikh is the only teacher who has been with the Islamic School since its start.

As she was cleaning up, she spoke about the physical loss and the challenge of the school’s move to temporary quarters.

She revealed that she identified the alleged arsonist, Randy Linn, to police and that she had seen him at the mosque over several months, including at the Islamic Center’s International Festival in September.

And she spoke of her own religion. Ms. El-Sheikh shows that the damage a fire causes extends beyond the physical.

Here are words from her conversation:

Teaching and loss

When I came [to the classroom], I thought I could take some things, such as materials that I did by my hand, especially in the Arabic language, that you can’t replace. It’s my work of many, many hours, and everything is said to be contaminated. I don’t know what to do on Monday, just try to get something to start with. They said anything that's contaminated will affect the kids. They said you can't even wash it. ... All this work of many, many years ...

I spend a lot of time because I love when I teach them. I want to do the same thing, the same technique in Arabic [as in English]. Because when you usually get the Arabic materials it doesn’t suit the kids in America, so you have to go with the same technique, like in language arts the sound, the letter, the beginning and the end, so I created my own thing that I was going to publish, the same technique in both, so we will get it quickly. But now everything is destroyed.

You can say, oh, oh, the insurance company will do it, just write the inventory.

The inventory for what?

I did it by my hand. I illuminated. I’d draw, I made my kids draw, calligraphy. What would I write in the inventory? The fire didn’t make all the rooms to get burned, but it’'s basically the same because we lost everything. Everything for the kids. All the pictures that I had from the kids from 12 years, it’s gone. I can’t describe it. Sad is not the word, really.

Even if it’s contaminated, I just want to try to save it or take pictures of it.

For example, at the first day of the school year, I took the footprints for the kids and the handprints, and very soon we have a celebration. So I [was going to] frame it and give it to them. It stays with them forever, that they are in the first day of kindergarten.

Now it’s — I can't do it.

Just from the little that I know [about the Arrowhead site], they said that you can't put anything [on the walls] because of [Owens] classes at night. So we have to take materials day by day. Then we have to store it again.

Then we come in the morning, get the stuff out and finish, then put it back in one room. It’s not going to be the same. It’s a community school, we are a family, and that's very difficult. How can you personalize the classroom, especially for the little kids?

Encountering a stranger

I am the only one in the mosque that talked with this man. When I went to the police station, they showed me the picture. I said, “I know, I know this person,” because I stayed late on one of the Sundays. I was going out of the Islamic Center and he was in front of the door. He was walking, like, kind of confused, or maybe waiting for someone.

I said, “Are you waiting for someone?” He said, “No.” I said, “May I help you?” He said that he wanted to come in.

I said, “But unfortunately, now everybody left. You can call the secretary tomorrow and ask her for a tour” and I said that because I have an appointment now, if I have time, I will take you inside — which I did a lot. Some people come and I give them a tour. So I know him. But when I saw him, really, honestly, he was like, kind of angry.

He was big and I was scared of him. I don’t know why I had this feeling, and he looked mad or angry. Then I tried to be more nice with him, tried to comfort him more.

I met a lot of people from all of these years, hundreds of Americans. Every day they come for the tour. I take them for a tour, but specifically with this one I have these goose bumps for no reason, and I say, “Well, why am I like that?”

When I saw him in the pictures I said, “This is the guy.” And I saw him in the festival. I saw he was taking tours. I recognized him immediately. I talked with him in March or April. He wanted to come in, but it was late. Everybody was leaving. They finished the service and everybody left already except a very few people. I recognized him and even I talked with him — he had, like, a deep voice kind of, and when he was talking, he was talking very strange, as if he was chewing something or had something inside his mouth.

Religious practice

The Qur’an, if it’s wet, it’s not going to be used anymore. We have to bury it — usually if you have an old old one or destroyed one, you can't put it in the garbage — that's the rule. You bury it or you throw it in the river. Even for the Bible, because I have some Bibles, when it’s getting old we can’t throw it away, because it’s holy words and God’s words. We can't shred it or put it in fire.

We came [to Perrysburg] from South Carolina. We didn't have any mosque in South Carolina; we had to drive 90 minutes.

I wasn’t wearing a headcover when I was in the South. I became more religious really because I wasn’t believing in the headcover and all of that in the South.

One day two ladies, two old ladies knocked at my door and they wanted to talk with me about Jesus, and they had the Bibles. I was so happy that I let them in.

We kept discussing, and it was raining and they had umbrellas. I looked at them. In my mind I said, “Wow, why am I not like these ladies that they are very devoted to their religion? They take their time to come and ask.”

And even some of my neighbors, American, they said, “No, no, no, kick them out, don’t let them in.” I said, “They are talking about God. We believe in the same God.”

I said [to the ladies], “The word God in Arabic is Allah, and the Christian friends in Egypt, in the Bible in Arabic they use Allah. It's not like another being, it’s the same.” I said, “The same creator, who creates everybody. It's what we believe.” They said, “We will keep talking.”

After that, I decided to read more about their religion to know how to answer, and we became the best of friends. I consider them like my family, my grandparents. I visit them. They are very, very good people.

My feeling [about the mosque burning] is if this happened to the church, it would be the same feeling, to the synagogue, to the Buddhist temple.

I would feel so sad because when you are invaded like that with no remorse, that's terrible. A terrorist really doesn't belong to any religion. These people have their own image of their own religion, Christian with their own thinking, or Muslim with their own thinking, because nothing in any holy books is teaching the people to hate, to be violent, or to kill or anything like that. It's not going to be a religion.

Even the people who worship the tree or the fire, there’s nothing in their book to hate other people.