It can be hard to understand what we’ve never seen. That is the essence of faith, believing without seeing.
In the Quran, there is a verse that captures the spirit of understanding and Maha Ayesh of Lombard recites it regularly.
“Uplift my heart for me and make my task easy. Remove the impediment from my tongue so people may understand my speech.”
Ayesh has quite the story to tell.
“My religion is a catalyst to who I am today. It has created an identity of compassion, kindness and respect and allowed me 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, pursuing the American dream for his children.
“He’s such a hard worker and he was so passionate about providing us a foundation to be successful. 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 school at the Islamic Foundation in Villa Park, graduating from Willowbrook High School, Elmhurst College, and Adler University, where she earned a Master’s degree in forensic psychology.
When she entered the workforce, 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. It was there that her dream became clear, 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,” 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 tell myself ‘Me being a police officer? A woman that wears a hijab? Probably not.'”
It’s something she had never seen before, but a conversation with a former mentor inspired her.
“She said ‘Maha break that.’ Break that stereotype, break that image. Just because they haven’t seen it before, doesn’t mean that you can’t be the one to begin.’”
Ayesh is now the first Muslim female police officer in Illinois to wear the hijab, or headscarf, on duty.
The department updated its standards of appearance to include the hijab as part of her uniform. During the Illinois State Police Training Academy, she also pushed to be allowed to wear sleeves under her polo t-shirt.
“I could do everything, it just required some sort of modesty and accommodation,” explained Ayesh.
“She does an excellent job of being able to break down barriers.,” said Chief Geoffrey Pretkelis with Bartlett Police. “She’s just a positive role model, especially for women and young children, and because of her background and how personable she is. She has this uncanny ability to connect with our community.”
There have been some scary moments, like when Ayesh was injured by a suspect resisting arrest. She has also faced negative stereotypes, with some in the community yelling phrases at her on the street.
But with those moments of challenge, she has found time to connect, surprising a boy who wants to become a police officer on his birthday, and stopping by a neighborhood lemonade stand.
“She is 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 always wanted to be a police officer and enjoys seeing his dream play out through his daughter. She’s keeping the peace while keeping her faith, stripping away stereotypes, hoping her story will help us all understand what we’ve never seen a little better.
“You can break barriers and achieve the goals your faith has set out for you,” said Imam Hisham Alqaisi of the Islamic Foundation of Villa Park.
Ayesh often serves as a mentor and public speaker to young Muslim girls to inspire them to pursue their dreams and not let anything get in their way.