By MALLORY GRUBEN and DON McINTOSH
If Abdi Mohamed needs to pray while on shift at Portland International Airport, he looks for an out-of-the-way corner, usually in the less crowded international arrivals area of the airport.
It’s not the way he prefers to practice his Muslim faith, which requires him to pray five times a day facing Mecca. But without a designated prayer space at the airport, it’s the only option.
“I’ve got to pray with people walking by,” said Mohamed, who works as a wheelchair attendant with airport contractor Bags, Inc. “Some people, when you’re praying, they will ask you questions like, ‘Where’s the baggage claim for Alaska?’ It’s like, I cannot talk. I’m talking to God!”
Mohamed started a petition asking his managers and airport executives to designate a prayer space for Muslim workers like him. SEIU Local 49 represents Bags, Inc. attendants who help Alaska Airlines passengers, and Mohamed is pushing to extend that to those like him who serve United Airlines passengers. Local 49 took up the cause.
On March 2, a delegation of seven Muslim airport workers, two non-Muslim coworkers, three staff members of SEIU Local 49, and five supporters from the Portland Jobs With Justice Faith Labor Committee presented copies of the petition with more than 250 signatures supporting their request to Bags, Inc. and to airport executive Chris Czarnecki.
Their immediate reaction was deflating. The Bags Inc. manager said she’d pass the request onto her higher-ups, but urged them to take their requests to the Port of Portland, which governs the airport and allocates spaces. Czarnecki, the director of PDX business, properties, and airline affairs, told them to approach their employers.
Czarnecki offered to listen to the group’s concerns on the spot however. He got an earful, polite but persistent.
Praying can be hard to do while at work without a place to get away from the noise and crowding, they said. Some of the workers feel forced to skip the mandatory prayers, making up for them at home — but feeling guilty for it.
“I want to make sure that a space is clean for me to pray on. And a lot of times, I don’t pray at the airport just because every place is somewhere people walk on, and nothing is clean,” said Maryam Noor, a baggage service employee working with airport contractor Prospect. Noor’s workplace is represented by SEIU Local 49.
“I work for eight, nine hours a day, meaning that I’m missing two to three prayers I need to pray. I come home and I do all those prayers, which is not how it’s supposed to be, but I have no choice,” she said.
The workers are asking for clean, quiet space within the building to practice their faith in the place they spend half their waking lives. And they want the space to be available for passengers, too, not just airport workers.
“With Ramadan coming up, we need a quiet place to pray so we can be close to God,” Mohamed told Czarnecki.
Czarnecki told the delegation that airport space is at a premium, especially during the multi-year remodel it’s currently undergoing. And as a federal facility, any space for that purpose would need to be open to all, not just to people of one faith. None of the delegation had any objection to that.
Workers turned out the following week to speak to the Port of Portland Commission and got a swift response.
Port spokesperson Melanni Rosales told the Labor Press by email March 8 that officials are “exploring the possibility” of dedicating a temporary space for prayer in time for Ramadan, a month of fasting that starts March 22. They are also looking into long-term solutions.
“We’re seeking input from PDX employees to ensure that we’re meeting the need, and are looking at examples in other airports as models for what can be done,” Rosales wrote.
A 2015 report by the Pew Research Center found that 18 of the 30 busiest U.S. airports had a dedicated chapel at that time. That number has likely grown in the last half-decade. For example, Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which was listed as a “no” in the report, opened a special Interfaith Prayer and Meditation Room in April 2021.
“We are not only fighting for Muslim people. Anybody who has a faith, any religion … they deserve to have a small prayer area to pray in a quiet place, so they can focus on their religion before their flight comes,” Mohamed said.
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