Building Bridges, Connecting Communities

Building Bridges, Connecting Communities

Soumaya Khalifa and the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta are changing the narrative about Muslims 

Words by Javacia Harris Bowser

Growing up, Soumaya Khalifa felt she existed in fragments, never showing her whole identity to anyone. Being born in Egypt and raised in Texas, she felt she had to keep her identities of Egyptian, American, and Muslim, separate. 

“In middle school, I wanted to be the all-American girl, and I wanted to fit in,” says Khalifa, whose family moved to the United States when she was 12. “So, I would not bring up my background or my religion. I just wanted to be one of the regular people at school. At home my parents emphasized the Egyptian culture and the religion, so I would switch and be that at home.”

But as Khalifa grew older and more comfortable with who she was, she realized that when she accepted herself fully and projected confidence, others often would follow her lead. In 2001, this same line of thinking inspired Khalifa to start the Islamic Speakers Bureau (ISB) of Atlanta. 

For more than 20 years, ISB has been providing opportunities for people to learn about Islam, countering the negative stereotypes often associated with Muslims. Through educational panels, presentations, and outreach programs, ISB helps to elevate the voices of Muslims in Atlanta and across Georgia.

“There was an absolute need for ISB because Muslims were being spoken about versus Muslims speaking about themselves,” says Khalifa, who has lived in Atlanta since the late 1980s and serves as executive director of ISB.

The timing was critical. Just one month after the launch of ISB Atlanta, the attacks of September 11 devastated the nation. The members of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta were ready to teach their local community what Islam is truly about and dispel the myths running rampant at the time. 

While ISB speakers were trained on how to deal with and de-escalate encounters with anti-Muslim attitudes, Khalifa says these situations were rare. 

“The vast majority of people genuinely wanted to learn more about Islam,” she says. 

Since its founding, ISB has been committed to uniting the communities of Georgia. ISB speakers give talks at churches and synagogues, to civic groups and schools. Additionally, ISB offers cultural training to educators, to law enforcement, and to health care workers, so that they can work more effectively with Muslim residents. 

“ISB wouldn’t be where it is without Soumaya,” says Judy Marx, who serves as a development consultant for ISB. One thing that Marx says makes Khalifa such a strong leader is her devotion to community building.

“And her community building is not just within the Muslim community,” says Marx, who’s the former Atlanta director of the American Jewish Committee. “She knows that the Muslim community will be better if the greater community is better, and vice versa.”

The ISB, for example, prepares and delivers lunches to underprivileged children as part of the Fayette County Summer Food Service Program. ISB often hosts interfaith initiatives, bringing together various faith communities of Georgia. Khalifa says one thing she wants people to know is that Islam and other faith traditions are more alike than different. 

“A lot of times we’re driven to see the differences,” Khalifa says, “but when we look at the similarities—that’s the vast majority.”

More than anything, Khalifa and the ISB are seeking to rewrite the narrative about Muslims. That’s why the group started recognition programs, such as the 100 Influential Georgia Muslims, the 40 under 40 Georgia Muslims, and the 20 under 20 Georgia Muslims Initiatives.

“The biggest impact that ISB has is visibility,” Marx says. “Before Soumaya and the ISB came along, the greater community in Atlanta didn’t understand or even see the diversity in the Muslim world and the Muslim landscape in Atlanta,” Marx says.  “Soumaya opened up the windows and doors for everyone to see how multi-faceted and diverse the Muslim community is—not just in Atlanta, but in Georgia.”

Khalifa often thinks of the girl she used to be when doing the work that she does through the Islamic Speakers Bureau. Last year during Ramadan, Khalifa and the ISB asked elected officials and community leaders of all faith backgrounds to submit videos wishing the Muslims of Georgia a blessed Ramadan. 

“It’s a validation and celebration of the identity,” Khalifa says. “Growing up, if I had what we’re providing right now for the Muslim community, that would have been a game changer.”

With 20 years under her belt, Khalifa now wants to focus more on her family. She and her husband love traveling, exploring nature, and spending time with their three adult children and eight grandchildren. But that doesn’t mean her work is done. 

“If I had a theme to my life, it would be that of a bridge builder,” Khalifa says. “Whether it’s in my consulting helping leaders in organizations understand the different cultures they’re working in, or through the work of the ISB, it’s all about bringing people together and working together.”

And she sees the ISB getting ever stronger in the years to come. As more Muslims from other parts of the world settle in Georgia, the Islamic Speakers Bureau will be there to aid the transition. 

“I think the Speakers Bureau is going to continue to be great. Whenever there is an opportunity, we jump on it,” she says. “We’re a small organization, but we are flexible. We have great leadership in our board, and we do everything that we do with a passion. We love what we do.”