"I grew up in Tacoma, and I'd never seen a Muslim," Carlos Sandoval, a graduate of Mount Tahoma High School, told The Bellingham Herald."To me at the time Arab, Islam, Muslim it was all the same."
Seeing Bashair Alazadi, a 16-year-old Muslim who dons the traditional headscarf at a Washington camp in 2007, the then 17-year-old Catholic wanted to dig deep into her character to know about her beliefs.
Born in Iraq, Alazadi relocated with her family to Everett at age 4. She was used to questions about Islam, especially after the 9/11 events.
"He asked why I wore the scarf," Alazadi said.
"He wanted to see my hair."
As he kept to ask her out, Sandoval always got the answer no.
At this moment, Sandoval decided to go on a challenge to prove that she was brainwashed.
"Initially, I hated Islam. I tried to convince her she'd been brainwashed, that her religion was oppressive," he said.
"I bought a Qur'an so I could read it and stump her with questions. The more I read, the more I learned, the more I came to appreciate Islam."
A relationship that began as a challenge changed Sandoval's life.
"Bashair was smarter than me, more articulate. She was more assimilated to this country than I was," he said.
"I grew up a Mexican, and there was a stigma attached to that. She grew up Muslim, and there was a stigma for her, too."
Falling in love, Sandoval and Alazadi asked her father for permission to marry on Aug. 29, 2009.
"I converted to Islam just before the wedding. I didn't do it just to marry Bashair. I considered it the final step in my study of Islam," he said.
"It's not the right path for everyone. It was the right path for me."
Finding Islam with his wife, Sandoval is more likely to defend his new faith against misconceptions rather than her.
"If someone says something that isn't true about Islam, I might ignore them. Carlos will take them on," Alazadi said.
"I grew up Muslim, but he knows more about it now than I do.
Alazadi graduated in December and is working as an accountant in Seattle, studying for her certified public accountant credentials.
Sandoval graduates next weekend and wants to work in juvenile detention.
The happy couple appreciated the way their parents accepted their decisions.
"My father didn't like him when he first met him, but now he treats him like a son," Alazadi said.
As for Sandoval, his wife made an impression with his parents from their first meeting together.
"My parents love Bashair, too," he said.
"We're proud of the way both our parents accepted us and our decisions."
The United States is home to a Muslim community of between six to eight million.
According to a 2011 study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, about 20 percent of US Muslims are converts to the faith. Of those converts, about 54 percent were men and 46 percent were women.An earlier Gallup poll found that the majority of Americans Muslims are loyal to their country and optimistic about their future in the United States.
Reproduced with permission from OnIslam.net