SALT LAKE CITY (News4Utah) – A local nonprofit organization co-founded by three Muslim women aims to combat Islamophobia in Utah.

Faeiza Javed, Nora Abu-Dan, and Satin Tashnizi met three years ago while competing in the Miss United Nations USA pageant. Although they come from different backgrounds, they discovered they shared the same adversities.

“It was the very first time we met someone who shared our narrative,” said Tashnizi. “Having three young women coming from different backgrounds who share a common identity and a common story in a place where we felt isolated growing up was very powerful”

Tashnizi said growing up as an Iranian-American, she struggled with embracing her identity and culture.

“I remember in 2002 when President George Bush made the State of the Union address, he referred to Iran as the ‘access of evil,” said Tashnizi. “It’s difficult when the media paints all Middle Easterners as terrorists or the ‘other.'”

Javed is Pakistani-American and said she began feeling isolated and detached from her community after 9-11.

“I was in the 4th grade and I remember having to defend Islam, my family, and my culture because I was being attacked,” said Javed. “I would be called Al-Qaida or a terrorist.”

She said the misrepresentations of Muslim people affected her in her career as well.

“I used to wear a hijab and I feel like I internalized a lot of that oppression. I’m a mental health therapist and when I was working at the Huntsman Cancer Hospital, I would be scared to go into white patients’ rooms because I thought, ‘I look very Muslim and I don’t know what this interaction’s going to be like. I want it to be a healing environment for them,” said Javed.

Wanting to change their community’s perspective of Islam and the Muslim culture, Javed, Abu-Dan, Tashnizi formed a non-profit organization called the Emerald Project in 2017. Since then, they’ve hosted a three-part panel discussion series as well as discussions with law enforcement, the Utah Transit Authority, and the FBI.

“We were so shocked by the amount of traction we got. People were so hungry for the knowledge because there’s so much misinformation out about Islam,” said Javed.

Tashnizi said their discussions are also dedicated to combating the misrepresentation of Islam internally within the Muslim community.

“A major, unfortunate characteristic of the Muslim community is that we are one of the most divided communities in the world. We come different backgrounds, we speak different languages, have different customs, identity with different cultures and have a lot of barriers that I think we have not overcome yet,” said Tashnizi.

“We don’t talk about the domestic violence, the rape, the sexual assault, the child abuse that occurs in our communities and I think we really need to own up and talk about our communities. I think often times, Muslims are so scared to turn the microscope inwards because we’re trying so hard to look good to non-Muslim communities,” said Javed.

Tashnizi said through their panels, they want to foster a safe space and platform for both Muslims and non-Muslim participants to address the hard questions about Islamophobia.

“None of this existed when we were kids, there wasn’t a forum where people could go talk and share stories,” said Tashnizi. “In order to combat the misrepresentations of Islam, we must talk about it.”

“If you’re willing to sit through the confrontation with your own biases and prejudices and privilege, then you can see some shifts happening in your paradigm,” said Javed. “But if we don’t have these hard conversations, then it’s just going to be a feel-good event and at the end of the day, you’re going to go home, I’m going to go home and nothing’s changed,” said Javed.

For more information about the Emerald Project, visit them on Facebook.