Illustrations courtesy of PBS Wisconsin 

PBS Wisconsin unveiled an animated biography this week of Milwaukee Muslim community builder Mahmoud Atta.

The multi-faceted Wisconsin Muslim Project, a collaboration between PBS Wisconsin, Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition and We are Many—United Against Hate, launched this week with an animated biography of Mahmoud Othman Atta (1936-2016), a key figure in the Milwaukee Islamic community’s history. A Palestinian immigrant, Atta was instrumental in founding Milwaukee’s first mosque open to all Muslims.

A webinar Monday, March 13, 4 – 5 p.m., for upper elementary school educators and the general public, features an interview with MMWC president Janan Najeeb and daughter of the late Mahmoud Atta. It aims to provide background about Wisconsin Muslims, Islam, Palestinian-Americans, the immigrant experience and related topics. Register here for the free webinar.

“The animation, accompanying materials and webinar are meant to be particularly helpful to third-sixth grade students and teachers. These are the years students learn about Wisconsin’s history, immigration and the many people who have impacted our state,” Najeeb said. 

Other features of the project start in April. A Wisconsin Life special, Wisconsin Life: The Wisconsin Muslim Project premiers Thursday, April 20, sharing stories of Muslims from across the state. 

The project will also host a series of community-building events that feature artwork, food and entertainment, including a traveling photography show of the work of award-winning Milwaukee photographer Lila Aryan. The exhibition provides an intimate look into the contemporary lives of 16 Muslim Wisconsinites and their families. 

The kickoff event will be held April 29 in Madison. Full details about the events will be posted here as they are finalized.

Janan Najeeb, Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition president 

In addition, Najeeb will participate in an online Badger Talk, hosted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison, from 12 – 1 p.m., Tuesday, May 30. (MMWC will share the link when it is available.)

Wisconsin Muslim Project is funded by a Doris Duke Foundation Building Bridges grant, which “supports national efforts, working with U.S. Muslims, to increase mutual understanding and well-being among diverse populations for the benefit of building stronger, inclusive communities,” the Doris Duke Foundation website states. 

Wisconsin Muslim Project “aims to stimulate connections between Wisconsin’s Muslim and non-Muslim populations, and encourage us to obtain greater knowledge about, empathy for, and appreciation of one another,” a PBS Wisconsin press release relates.

Building bridges

Almost two years ago, PBS Wisconsin invited Najeeb and Masood Akhtar from Madison, founder of We are Many—United Against Hate, to discuss collaboration on a Doris Duke Foundation Building Bridges grant project. Together they met numerous times to brainstorm about projects they might do under the grant and how they could collaborate and share expertise.

“PBS Wisconsin, the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition and We Are Many-United Against Hate have had a long relationship supporting each other’s various work and projects,” explained Erik Ernst, PBS Wisconsin Communications Associate Director. “When this Building Bridges grant opportunity became available, the three partners agreed that together we could meet the goals of that grant and help connect communities throughout Wisconsin with the funds and the support from the Doris Duke Foundation. That collaboration has resulted in the work that we are all proud to be presenting this year as The Wisconsin Muslim Project.” 

After the PBS team wrote and submitted the grant, we waited some months to hear back,” Najeeb said. “We were all very excited to be among the national projects chosen and excited to work together.”

Since winning the grant, the partners have worked together to create the three branches of the project: educational materials, a television series featuring Muslims throughout the state and community-building events.

PBS Wisconsin Education Producer David Boffa and Early Learning Educational Engagement Specialist Mouna Algahaithi will interview Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition president Janan Najeeb Monday during an educational webinar. Register here.

“Our partner organizations have been critical to the project’s success,” said PBS Wisconsin Education Producer David Boffa. He worked closely with MMWC on the biography project.

“There is no way we could have done this work without them,” Boffa said of MMWC. “The translation of the script and book into Arabic is their work. They were amazing in reading it, correcting it, making sure we got it right.

“They hosted us early on. When we visited the Islamic Resource Center, they answered our questions and some of them were very challenging. 

“For example, we had to figure out how to portray the 1967 Six-Day War, which is an important part of the story. Janan helped us navigate that without falling into the trap of showing the Muslim American story as one of conflict and war, to help us get all the nuances. Janan and the Milwaukee Muslim Women’s Coalition were with us every step of the way.

“I felt the responsibility to make sure I’m doing the story justice,” Boffa continued, “to make sure Palestinians are seen and heard in a way that they would want to be seen and heard. They are often erased from contemporary stories or shown in stereotypical ways. They’re not given agency or control over how they are portrayed. I certainly felt a responsibility to tell a story informed by Palestinian Americans and by Mahmoud’s children.

“This is not finished history. This is a contemporary story with contemporary relevance and resonance. In some ways, it felt even more important to get it right, given the events of the past couple years, the events right now.”

The collaborative work continues.

“With other facets of the project still in the works, we continue to be deeply involved as a resource on Islam, Arab immigrants, Palestine, connections to people in Wisconsin’s Muslim community and even cultural nuances,” Najeeb said. 

MMWC’s members continue to meet with teachers from across the state to answer their questions, as Najeeb will in Monday’s webinar.

“This is an educational experience for the teachers as well, especially those who live in rural areas and never see Muslims or Arabs,” Najeeb said. 

“It was such an incredible honor to do this and it fits so well with the mission of the MMWC, promoting a better understanding of Islam and Muslims. It has been a wonderful experience. I am still in awe of the tremendous respect and cultural humility the entire PBS team showed during every aspect of this project and it was at every level.”   

Adding Muslims to Wisconsin’s history lessons

Atta’s story is the latest in Wisconsin Biographies, a cost-free collection of digital media created for grades 3-6 “to enrich social studies and literacy curriculum through stories of notable figures in Wisconsin history,” says a PBS Wisconsin press release.  The animated video comes with additional resources for educators, including an Educator Guide, a photo gallery and an e-book (text and audio) that provides a more detailed story, offered in both English and Arabic. (The video and resources are available on the PBS Wisconsin website, Mahmoud Othman Atta: A Mosque for Milwaukee page.)

A new Wisconsin Biography, Mahmoud Atta: A Mosque for Milwaukee shares the story of how Atta made Milwaukee his home and helped create a community for Milwaukee’s Muslims.

Boffa was tasked with leading the effort to select a story to tell for Wisconsin Biographies. “We had to find somebody who was a Muslim American with a strong Wisconsin connection,” he told Wisconsin Muslim Journal. “A big goal of this project is to provide a resource for Wisconsin students about a Muslim American in Wisconsin and to demonstrate that Muslim Americans have been in Wisconsin for over a century. We want to show students a part of Wisconsin’s history they’re probably not going to see in their standard history textbooks, to provide a more multicultural perspective on our state’s history.”

As Boffa did his own research for this project, he found just how difficult getting information on Muslims in Wisconsin can be, he said. With few printed sources available, he reached out to experts at UW-Milwaukee and Marquette, and to advisors from the Muslim community. 

Once he had a list of potential candidates for the biography, he and his team sought feedback from elementary school educators. “We want them to use these resources so we have to learn what they need,” he said.

Teachers wanted stories that could be used to tell the stories of immigrants more broadly, that had universal appeal, he said. They wanted the biography to be about someone who had clearly made a contribution to the community. They wanted a story that reached back to the early 20th century.

Mahmoud Othman Atta

“Mahmoud’s story really starts with his father’s story,” Boffa said. “That it is a multi-generational story was very appealing. Mahmoud’s story really checked like every box.”

What Boffa liked about Atta’s biography was that “I kept bumping into his generosity. That really stuck with me.” 

He also liked the fact that Atta had to make a home in a place he had not planned on. “He came to Milwaukee and by the end of the story, he really considered Milwaukee his home. I think that can resonate with a lot of people,” Boffa said.

“We are not done with the refugee crisis. In fact, we are experiencing more refugee crises in the world right now. Wisconsin in particular is seeing refugees come here. These are contemporary issues that are very important.

“I hope this story opens students up to a story they weren’t aware of, a faith many of them aren’t aware of. I hope for Muslim students, it gives them a sense of visibility. 

“I hope it shares the story of the Palestinian people and the fact that they are still struggling with the issues Mahmoud faced. I hope it alerts students to the problems going on in areas where refugees are coming from.

“If a student who is not Muslim learns a little about Islam, that’s great! If a student who is Muslim says, ‘Wow, there is Islamic representation in the media, that’s great! If they come away with awareness of the Palestinians and their continued struggle for self-determination, that’s great!”

Not only is this important to me personally because it is my father’s story, but this is important for every immigrant and refugee who left their country of birth, their relatives, neighbors and friends, and their culture, regardless of the reasons, and had to start from scratch and build a new home,” Najeeb said.

“It is especially important to Wisconsin’s Arab and Muslim community because we seldom ever see ourselves included in the American narrative. It is important particularly for children. There is growing awareness, in spite of push back by some groups, that the stories of people who did not come from Europe are just as important in understanding the full story of Wisconsin.”  

Sharing their father’s story

“I am over the moon, as are my mother, siblings and other family members” about sharing Mahmoud Atta’s story, Najeeb said. “But it’s not only important to us or to the Arab and Muslim communities here. It is important for all Wisconsinites because this is part of our rich history. Selective history is not beneficial to anyone.”

(Left:) New Road School, 4707 S. 13 St., in 1982, when two Muslim groups joined together to purchase it to establish a home for the Islamic Society of Milwaukee. (Right:) Islamic Society of Milwaukee – Main, at that same location, today.

Najeeb invited her siblings to give their input on the biography of their father’s life. “We spent some happy hours remembering stories about our father,” Najeeb said. And her brother, Othman Atta, had the opportunity to do the English narration for the animated video and e-book.

“He’s got this great voice,” said Boffa, who was responsible for everything from research to hiring an illustrator and voiceover talent. “I knew what he sounded like because I had spoken with him during the research phase. 

Having Atta read his father’s story was ideal, Boffa said. “We use an inclusive production model so we want to use people from the communities we are portraying. In this case, it meant working with a Muslim illustrator and finding someone with a connection to the story for the voiceover.”

“When he was reading it, he could also make corrections and suggestions. That’s another reason it was so nice to have him doing it. It could flag things we might not pick up otherwise.”

Najeeb hopes Wisconsin elementary students will “learn about one man who came to the United States as a teenager, lost his father, lived in a city where there are very few Arabs and Muslims, yet always made responsible and mature decisions. 

“He didn’t just build a family; he helped build a community and had a positive impact on many,” she said.