After her arranged marriage, Sophia Said’s conservative Pakistani family expected her to settle down and raise children, but she had other ideas. “I grew up dreaming of going to America, to get higher education,” she says.
Said got her chance in 1994, when her husband entered a PhD program in economics at the University of Utah. Said earned an economics degree from the same school, and in 2007, the couple and their two U.S.-born children moved to Little Rock. There, Said received her master’s degree at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. By the time she graduated, the family had obtained green cards, and Said became an economic consultant with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and Winrock International.
After 9/11, Said was startled by the anti-Muslim rhetoric she heard and the bullying her children experienced in school. To address these tensions, she began holding interfaith events, solidarity vigils, and press conferences. “We need to work within our communities to bring different faiths together and raise awareness that being Christian, or Muslim, or Jewish doesn’t matter,” she says. “We’re all Americans.”
Said’s work drew national attention, and the local Episcopal diocese asked her to lead a new interfaith center, where she has worked since 2012. “It’s a huge privilege to be an American, this country gives you so much” she says. “Therefore, we must give back and protect the American dream.”
Under her leadership, scores of Little Rock school children engage in interfaith dialogue and service, sing in interfaith choirs, and each year, more than 50 local kids attend an interfaith summer camp. “We’re creating leaders for a new America, who know how to deal with diversity, while respecting their differences and their individual traditions,” Said says. These values have filtered throughout the community. When Said founded Madina Institute, a new mosque in 2016, it faced none of the blowback that new Islamic institutions have experienced in other cities.
That same year, Said was named Humanitarian of the Year by Just Communities of Arkansas, and Peacemaker of the Year by the Arkansas Coalition for Peace and Justice. Neither honors would have been possible in her home country. “In Pakistan, women face a lot more barriers,” she says. “America is a country where dreams do come true. You just need to be willing to work hard.”