To maintain peace while maintaining her faith, Muslim officer breaks barriers

It can be hard to understand what we have never seen. It is the essence of faith, to believe without seeing.

In the Qur’an, there is a verse that captures the spirit of understanding, and Maha Ayesh of Lombard recites it regularly.

“Lift my heart for me and make my task easy. Remove the obstacle from my tongue so that people can understand my speech.”

Ayesh has a great story to tell.

“My religion is a catalyst for who I am today. It has created an identity of compassion, kindness and respect and given me the opportunity to be the authentic self that I am.”

The 31-year-old is the eldest daughter of five, born to Palestinian immigrants who came to the United States in the early 1980s. Her father, Ayesh Ayesh, started a trucking business in Elgin to pursue the American dream for her children.

Maha Ayesh

“He’s such a hard worker and he was so passionate about giving us a foundation to succeed. He and my mother never had that opportunity,” Maya Ayesh said.

From a young age, Maha was a star student, and her parents told her to shoot for the moon. She attended Islamic Foundation School in Villa Park, graduating from Bolingbrook High School, Elmhurst College and Adler University, where she earned a master’s degree in forensic psychology.

When she entered the job market, her background was an asset. Ayesh served as a translator for Iraqi refugees and then as a juvenile justice liaison for the Kane County Sheriff’s Department. That was where her dream came true, but she wondered if her background could also be a barrier?

“I knew there was something I was looking for that I was exploring and searching for,” Ayesh said. “I knew it was going to be different and it required me to be uncomfortable.”

In October 2020, Ayesh joined the Bartlett Police Department, where she works on patrol.

“It’s an unspoken fear. I used to say to myself, ‘Am I a police officer? A woman wearing a hijab? Certainly not.'”

It’s something she had never seen before, but a conversation with a former mentor inspired her.

“She said ‘Maha break it.’ “Break that stereotype, break that image. Just because they’ve not seen it before, does not mean you can not be the one to start.”

Ayesh is now the first Muslim female police officer in Illinois to wear the hijab or headscarf on duty.

The department updated its appearance standards to include the hijab as part of her uniform. During the Illinois State Police Training Academy, she also pressed for permission to wear sleeves under her polo t-shirt.

“I knew everything, it just required a kind of modesty and accommodation,” Ayesh explained.

“She’s doing an excellent job of being able to break down barriers,” said Chief Geoffrey Pretkelis of Bartlett Police. “She’s just a positive role model, especially for women and young children, and because of her background and how personal she is. She has this eerie ability to connect with our society.”

There have been some frightening moments, like when Ayesh was hurt by a suspect who opposed arrest. She has also faced negative stereotypes where some in the community shout phrases at her in the street.

But with those moments of challenge, she has found time to connect, surprise a boy who wants to be a police officer on his birthday, and look past a lemonade stand in the neighborhood.

“She’s definitely a role model here in the community, and in the police department, our logo is to serve with care and protect with confidence, and that’s what Officer Ayesh exemplifies,” Pretkelis said.

Ayesh’s father has always wanted to be a police officer and enjoys watching his dream unfold through his daughter. She maintains peace while maintaining her faith, removing stereotypes and hoping that her story will help all of us understand what we have never seen, a little better.

“You can break barriers and achieve the goals your faith has set for you,” said Imam Hisham Alqaisi of the Islamic Foundation in Villa Park.

Ayesh often acts as a mentor and public speaker for young Muslim girls to inspire them to pursue their dreams and not let anything get in the way.

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