Hoang Long Le was only 10 years old when his family fled Vietnam for America in search of a better future. As he grew older in the states, he tried to escape the suppressed society that he had grown up in by expressing himself through religion. In Islam, he found comfort and companionship.
“I was on my way of finding a faith for myself,” Le said. “So I was always talking to a lot of religious people but I was still confused about certain things.”
Le grew up in an Atheist family. Though his family was not religious, he said he was always interested in different types of people. In college, he met many Christian students and decided to learn about their faith. After a few months of studying the religion, Le said he didn’t agree with some of Christianity’s main tenets and continued his spiritual journey.
In 2010, as Le was passing through the Philip Guthrie Hoffman Hall breezeway on campus, he noticed the Muslim Student Association’s information table. Curious, he paused to ask the organization’s members a few questions about the religion. After discussing Islam’s main tenets, Le decided that he wanted to research the religion more. He began reading the Quran and realized that Islam was more in line with his ideas.
“The Quran made sense to me,” he said. “I just have to believe in one God and not relate him to anyone else. I felt relieved after learning that. I knew if I accepted Islam that I would have to start thinking about living my life differently, but I felt really happy.”
Then in April 2010, Le converted to Islam — like 20,000 other Americans every year. UH MSA’s religion outreach manager Shuruq Gyagenda said that last year alone, six students converted to Islam. Many students who convert are often searching for a spiritual connection in their lives, she said.
“Because of what people see in the media today, Islam is the last religion people searching for a faith seek out,” Gyagenda said. “But with those who convert, I think they find what they need. They’re spiritually connecting with something that’s based in their heart.”
Though Le is satisfied with his decision, he said that telling his family wasn’t easy.
“(My mom) didn’t want to believe me,” he said. “She was very upset, and I was torn apart.”
He and his mother seldom discuss his new faith, making it difficult for him to openly pray. For Le, who works with his mother at a Houston barbershop, it’s hard to lead two lives inside and outside of home and work. He can only hope that she will accept him for who he is now, he said.
“No matter what, I’m always going to be (my mother’s) son,” he said. “Nothing has changed between us.”
At school, however, he’s allowed to pray and practice his faith more freely, finding comfort with his Muslim friends.
But with the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, he worries about how American Muslim students are viewed.
“Of course it’s hard being Muslim today,” Le said. “But the reward is that I believe it’s the right thing to do, and I did it for myself.”
Le said the only thing he can do now is pray to God to make his decision easier.
“It’s important to just be yourself and the person you want to be,” he said.
To provide a support system for student converts, MSA is in the process of setting up weekly sessions with religious speakers from the Muslim American Society that will focus on the importance of Muslim community and faith.
“It’s difficult because we don’t want to cause any friction at home if a student is going to an MSA event,” Gyagenda said. “But we want students to know that they have support at school. Students have a right to practice their faith.”