Before moving to the United States, Naseem Badat left Zambia with her husband and three sons for Long Island. A year had passed, and the family then shuffled to Cherry Hill, soon calling Voorhees home for good in 1982.
Badat had worked as a pharmacist, but took up Islamic studies at the university level once she relocated to the United States.
Badat welcomed a daughter later in life — and said she was motivated to pass on what she gleaned from her studies to her own children.
She served as principal of the Palmyra Mosque, working with her colleagues to revamp the school’s curriculum.
Much of her time there was spent encouraging students to harness their communication skills by developing a speech competition, which challenged them to speak publicly and take hold of their leadership abilities.
She said the 11th- and 12th-grade students would research relevant and timely topics before delivering a speech to peers. Sometimes, students would choose to speak about the challenges their generation faced.
Badat was enjoying teaching and sharing what she knew with students.
And then, on Sept. 11, 2001, something happened that changed the world as everyone knew it.
“Especially after 9/11, the demand for churches and synagogues … they wanted to know more about the culture and community,” Badat said. “Islam was nothing as portrayed. I knew there must be something done to educate about the tension around Islam.”
Badat became more involved with giving lectures to synagogues and churches and hosting interfaith dialogues to promote peace and diversity.
“Not violence, but peace. We tried to convey that message,” Badat said.
Over the years, Badat has strived to bridge relationships among all members of her community.
“We want to bring people closer together and stand shoulder to shoulder. (My work) is designed to clear misconceptions about religion and our community,” Badat said. “Muslim people came from a variety of parts of the world … Pakistan, Egypt, Sudan and Saudi Arabia. We’re different, but we all pray to the same God.”
For her work in promoting diversity, Badat was recently honored by Camden County for her community efforts.
Last month, Badat, along with 13 other county residents, were awarded the Camden County Freedom Medal during a ceremony at the Camden County Boathouse.
The award was created in 2001, and is presented to community leaders who exhibit the ideals of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“This was a very special year for the freedom medal because it marks the 10th anniversary of presenting these awards,” said Freeholder Director Louis Cappelli Jr. “I am constantly amazed and humbled by the people who don’t seek the spotlight, but serve their fellow residents so well and so selflessly.”
Badat said in her 20-plus years of community service, she never expected to be honored for her work.
“I never once thought someone would recognize me. As a Muslim, it is my duty to spread the correct image of our community, to breed love and affection for everyone,” Badat said. “I was surprised, but pleasantly surprised.”