Omar Khan and Victor Sella-Villa first became friends when they were 4. At 7, they began playing soccer together. And at 22, they helped lead West Virginia University’s Hillel as student board members.
But there’s one quite unique part of this friendship story — Khan is a Muslim and Sella-Villa is a Jew. Together, they help run a major university’s biggest Jewish organization.
Khan, 22, is a senior biology major and currently Hillel’s student treasurer. He also serves as WVU’s Muslim Student Alliance’s public relations chair. Through his dual roles, Khan has effectively created a bridge between two organizations that previously had little to do with each other.
“Omar’s been the centerpiece in creating a liaison between both groups,” said Sella-Villa. “You’ll find in most organizations that, at the beginning, it really just takes one or two people taking on the responsibility to make a connection.”
Talking to Khan, it becomes clear that serving as a cultural ambassador wasn’t his initial intention. Rather, joining Hillel just made sense.
When Khan and Sella-Villa came to WVU together, both were used to life as minorities — growing up in the small Muslim and Jewish communities in Wheeling, W.Va., unified their families.
“In Wheeling, there were only dozens of Muslims. We had to drive up to Monroeville to go to a mosque,” said Khan. “That was the journey we made most Sundays for Sunday school.”
As freshman, Khan and Sella-Villa attended Hillel events together.
“He told me to come on down,” said Khan. “I went a few times and it was always a really chill atmosphere, but I felt a little awkward. But over the years I just got more and more comfortable.”
Now about to graduate, Khan spent his last year at WVU controlling Hillel’s funds as Sella-Villa, who was student president a year ago, served as co-vice president.
Though a Muslim serving on a Hillel board isn’t completely unique, it isn’t common. Hillel staff at the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania State University and the Cleveland Hillel Foundation couldn’t recall a Muslim student leader in their organizations. In that regard, WVU, with an estimated 900 Jews in an overall student population of about 27,000, has proven fertile ground for minority groups to band together.
WVU Hillel Co-director Heidi Solomon has watched Khan help disassemble misconceptions in Hillel and out.
“When you get to know someone like Omar and have a personal relationship with someone who is a Muslim, you see the more personal side. This is a person just like me who has a family,” said Solomon. “He brings a lot of thought into the students’ minds.”
With the aid of Khan’s leadership in both Hillel and MSA, the two organizations have held several mixers bringing students together to meet and socialize. The two groups hadn’t worked together for years.
Khan ran for treasurer at the urging of Sella-Villa; he recognized Khan as an involved leader who was fit for the spot.
“It was pretty funny; I wanted to make sure everyone understood I wasn’t Jewish. I gave a quick one or two minute speech. ‘For those of you who don’t know, I’m not Jewish,’ ” said Khan. “Everyone was laughing, because everyone knew.”
Nearing the end of his term — and college career — Khan looks back on his time at Hillel fondly, and understands how simply hanging out with Jews could affect the lives of both groups.
“There are misconceptions left over from 9/11 that Muslims are mainly terrorists, that Muslims don’t get along with Jews. It’s a perspective I disagree with entirely,” he said. “We’re putting ourselves out there to say ‘Hey, we get along. There’s no reason why we can’t co-exist here or anywhere.’”
(Justin Jacobs can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)