When Huda Zein-Sabatto was in the eighth grade, she started the first Muslim Student Association at her high school in Nashville. The child of immigrants from Syria, she says that the organization quickly felt like a family, where Muslim students could come to find community and protection against the hardships of being a religious minority.
“Since then I have loved being part of an organization that helped identify me and made me proud to be Muslim,” Zein-Sabatto said. “I no longer felt like I was the only Muslim or only hijabi or the only one that went and performed my prayers and regardless, it always feels good to know there’s someone else like you out there and that you have people to fall back on if anything were to happen.”
Now a senior studying biochemistry and neuroscience, Zein-Sabatto is the president of UT’s chapter of the MSA. After serving as secretary her sophomore year and vice president her junior year, she has the opportunity to lead the MSA through what is perhaps its most trying year to date.
Zein-Sabatto was elected to her position amid the initial outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in the spring. Like many other annual events, the association had to cancel its Showdown retreat in April, where several MSAs from the region were expecting to come together to compete and find community in the Smoky Mountains. Now, Showdown is just one of many events that will look different for the club.
In normal times, the MSA would put on celebrations of various Muslim holidays, share meals, pray together at a local mosque and host outreach events meant to educate the non-Muslim community on campus and in Knoxville. Now, it is uncertain if the organization will be able to host any in-person events.
Zein-Sabatto takes on an almost elegiac tone when describing the times before the pandemic.
“MSA forever has always been a family type of organization. We always would do practically everything and anything together,” Zein-Sabatto said. “All the nights we would meet up at the Annoor Masjid for our nightly prayer just a few minutes away from campus, then grab some dinner or dessert after, are now something we look back at and wish we did more of. Praying together between classes at Hodges in the silent room on the fifth floor does not happen anymore.”
As with any student organization, the MSA is critically concerned with how to welcome first-year students to a campus that feels completely different.
“I think the hardest thing this year because of COVID might have been having our annual welcome night for the incoming freshmen and a welcome back for the [upper] classmen online,” Zein-Sabatto said. “It just did not have the same vibe as when we did it on the HSS lawn and had a barbecue all together and connected through games and icebreakers and actually got to connect with everyone.”
Noah Osman, a junior studying chemistry who serves as secretary for the MSA, says that the organization was a crucial component in making UT feel like a home for him when he transferred from the University of Georgia two years ago.
He wants to use his position to make certain that first-year students get something approximating his experience.
“What’s really weighing heavily on my heart is being able to provide this authentic experience for new members to the MSA as well as new students to UTK,” Osman said. “When I came I was nervous about that, being able to find a community, and I was blessed enough that we weren’t going through a pandemic when it was going on.”
Since the start of the school year, the MSA has hosted an online Q&A for incoming freshmen, as well as a welcome meeting complete with Kahoot and other activities. Osman says that both of these events were well-attended, and he and the other leaders are optimistic about the year ahead, even though they are disappointed at the difficulty of connecting with students in a pandemic.
“Everyone is leaning in the direction of positivity,” Osman said.
In addition to creating what he calls a “network of support” for Muslim students, Osman says that his favorite part of working with the MSA is the chance to educate the wider non-Muslim community about his faith.
Last fall, the group hosted a “Hijab Panel” of female hijabi students who spoke and answered questions about what it means to wear a hijab, or a traditional head covering. The MSA also hosts an annual “Fast-a-Thon,” where they raise awareness about the importance of fasting rituals.
“It’s always nice to be able to meet other Muslims and support other Muslims and become friends,” Osman said. “But more than anything else, I would say that what excites me is whenever we have the opportunity to do outreach or whenever we’re able to communicate with people who are not Muslim and teach about Islam and what it means to be Muslim. That really excites me.”
Zein-Sabatto is also hopeful that the MSA will continue to create meaningful relationships between Muslim students this year, especially given its connection to the local Muslim Community of Knoxville, with whom the organization frequently partners for holidays and service to the community.
Though it may take creativity, the leaders of the MSA remain committed to their years-long purpose of making Muslim students feel less alone, whether through small-scale in-person events or online.
“There are so many people that will make amazing friends just through our events, and I think that is so lovely that we are able to create this safe comfortable space for people to connect and make a friendship of a lifetime,” Zein-Sabatto said. “I live to continue to offer these opportunities to people and just making them feel like they are not the only ones out there.”