A chaplain who believes that students thrive when they’re acknowledged, accepted and supported for who they are
By Sarah H. Griffin
It’s Friday afternoon, and Syracuse University’s Hendricks Chapel rings with conversation and laughter. Jumuah prayers have just ended. Some students linger in the main chapel; others head downstairs, chatting, for beverages from People’s Place Cafe.
This community spirit is representative of the culture fostered by the university’s Muslim chaplain and imam, Amir Durić. Since joining Syracuse University five years ago, Durić has led initiatives to support the Muslims on campus and cultivate greater engagement with the broader campus community.
Durić believes that students thrive when they’re acknowledged, accepted and supported for who they are. “God created us each in the most perfect shape, the most perfect image. So, the more you feel comfortable and confident to be who you are, the more you can accomplish,” he explains.
This perspective underlies Durić’s efforts to ensure support for Muslim students who contend with specific challenges in the practice of their faith. For example, observance of the five daily prayers can lead to schedule conflicts with other requirements and opportunities.
When Durić started his work as the University chaplain, he realized there was a dearth of research on Muslim students’ experiences in higher education. There was very little data about how accommodations addressing the needs of practicing Muslim students affected their academic and extracurricular engagement. Without data, it was difficult to establish benchmarks or envision a path forward.
Looking for a way to build that body of knowledge, Durić discovered the interdisciplinary social science doctoral program offered by the University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. The self-directed and flexible program has allowed him to combine study of spirituality, counseling, education and administrative leadership, and to explore the work he has long known as a practitioner as a source of data.
“Education has always helped me understand my purpose and envision how I can use what I know and what I have learned to help those around me,” Durić says. His research informs his collaborations with partners around the University to ensure Muslim students are not disadvantaged by the practice of their faith. And he hopes it will also provide insight to other chaplains and administrators looking to accommodate the Islamic community on their campuses. “Like all other students, Muslim students are at universities to seek knowledge and grow to their potential,” Durić says. “If we do our part to meet their needs, we set them up for success.”
Answering the Community’s Call
Durić grew up in a small town in Bosnia and knew from a young age that he wanted to become an imam. “Even as a child, I recognized that it meant more than leading prayers—that an imam carried the responsibility and the honor of being a leader and model for the community,” he says.
Just out of college and newly married, Durić and his wife moved to the U.S. in 2010. Durić served as an imam for a Bosnian community in New Jersey and volunteered in hospitals and prisons. He earned a master’s degree and his chaplaincy degree from Hartford International University for Religion and Peace, where he focused particularly on gaining an understanding of Islam in the U.S. and Christian-Muslim relations.
When Syracuse University reached out to Durić, he was drawn by what he saw as the unprecedented opportunities young people had at the university to take on leadership roles, build on their creativity, chase dreams, and question and explore. “I realized that at Syracuse University I would be able to contribute and also to grow,” he says.
Leading by Example
Syracuse University has long been a leader in its support for Muslim students, Durić says. Among some recently secured accommodations are more halal options in the dining centers, spaces in dormitories and Bird Library that can be used for religious observance, renovation of the Muslim prayer room in Hendricks Chapel, and the replacement of six rows of pews in the main chapel with chairs, which can be removed to create more open space. This allows the main chapel to better support a variety of worship styles, including Muslim prayer.
Durić says that over the past several years he has seen a near doubling of attendance at weekly prayers and Muslim Student Life programs, as well as greater Muslim student engagement in the broader campus community. He counts the Understanding Islam series, which launched in 2018, as one of the most rewarding developments. The series invited non-Muslims and Muslims — among whom there is tremendous ethnic and cultural diversity — together to discuss Islam, ask questions and engage in open dialogue. “Some really beautiful and meaningful discussions happened, and the series became a platform where non-Muslims and Muslims were truly learning from one another,” Durić explains.
Reflecting on his Syracuse University experiences, Durić emphasizes the gratitude he feels to be contributing to its tradition of student support. “Being a university chaplain is one of the biggest blessings that happened to me. It has made me better through observation, through listening to others, through my own learning,” he says. “And I am most grateful that I’ve been able to observe the potential of so many young people come to fruition. I am thankful to God every day for that honor.”
Sarah H. Griffin is content specialist and writer at Syracuse University
[Editor’s note: Republished and slightly edited with permission. Originally published in Syracuse University Magazine, Fall 2022]