Danette Zaghari-Mask becomes CAIR-Orlando’s executive director today. In that role, she’ll oversee an office that has seen heavy turnover. Two directors have left since the Parramore Avenue office opened in February 2006.
“I’m definitely going to bring stability,” Zaghari-Mask said.
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Her main focus will be continuing the agency’s community outreach. Last year, CAIR had a forum in Brevard County after a Muslim man was shot at when he stepped out of a mosque to use his cell phone. Five shots were fired, one just missing the man’s head.
Zaghari-Mask said that in Central Florida, Muslims’ most common complaint is not that they have been victims of hate crimes but, instead, of employment discrimination.
Masuma Virji, president of the United Muslim Foundation, a community organization based in Lake Mary, said Zaghari-Mask “will be able to fight for civil rights of Muslims here in Central Florida.”
Zaghari-Mask, who is moving from Gainesville, is no stranger to the area. She was born and raised in Winter Garden.
“When I asked my dad our heritage, he would say, ‘We are from the South; that’s all you need to know,’ ” Zaghari-Mask said.
While at the University of Florida, she converted to Islam after researching the religion and reading the Quran. The transition took years.
“I grew up a white, Protestant girl in a white, Protestant town,” said Zaghari-Mask, who wears hijab, the Muslim headscarf. “I suddenly became a minority.”
Zaghari-Mask graduated in 2004 from the University of Florida’s law school, with an emphasis in international law. She was a staff attorney for the 8th Judicial Circuit in Gainesville for two years, leaving to become a stay-at-home mom.
She became involved in CAIR during college after attending a talk on activism by Parvez Ahmed, now national chairman of CAIR.
Zaghari-Mask has done pro bono work for the organization, mostly on employment-discrimination cases. She has also worked with law enforcement to call attention to suspected hate crimes. Zaghari-Mask was a CAIR-Florida board member from 2004 to 2006.
Established in 1994, CAIR — the Council on American-Islamic Relations — has raised its profile since 9-11, advocating when, for example, six imams were asked to leave a U.S. Airways flight and when Keith Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, wanted to say the inaugural oath on a Quran.
The group has been criticized for having ties to extremists, which Zaghari-Mask says is “completely baseless.”
“We have our critics because we are so vocal,” she said.
Based in Washington, D.C., the organization has 32 offices nationwide, including three in Florida.
Chris Cusano, also a Muslim convert, was Orlando’s first director. He left to travel and pursue educational opportunities. Sabiha Khan, who became executive director last fall, left recently to have a baby.
An estimated 40,000 Muslims live in Central Florida. The area has 15 mosques.
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