By Saadia H. Khan and Emma Bernstein
As a practicing Muslim born and raised in the United States, I fast during the holy month of Ramadan every year. Muslims across the world abstain from food and water from sunrise to sunset. The meal that is served at the end of the day when breaking the fast is called Iftar.
I have often encountered people who do not know what Ramadan is, or simply have no tolerance for it or my faith. But this year for Ramadan, I had the honor to attend a community Iftar hosted by Holy Trinity Catholic Church, Veterans for American Ideals, One America Movement, and Muslim Public Affairs Council (MPAC). The best part of the Iftar: it was in honor of World Refugee Day— June 20, 2017—and the food was made by a locally resettled Syrian refugee family.
I grew up in Los Angeles, California, a true melting pot of America. I never considered those with ethnicities, religions, and races different from my own to be foreigners. Our family was close to people who were undocumented. I credit my open heart and acceptance of others to my childhood in a diverse environment. I recognize that most Americans were not raised in such an environment.
Contact and communication are key. Familiarity breeds trust. Of course, contact and communication also require open minds to be productive. The World Refugee Day community Iftar held at Holy Trinity Catholic Church was a prime example of how individuals and families of different races and ethnicities, who practice different religions, and even speak different languages can still share a meal and respect one another.
My country, the United States of America, is made up of all different peoples, colors, religions, genders, and political views. Our history has seen the worst and best of humanity. In conflict, there are often calls for unity. But we see through the struggles for indigenous communities’ land rights, civil wars, women’s suffrage, segregation, anti-Semitism, and more recently, Islamophobia, unity is only possible when barriers are broken and people come together. I witnessed firsthand the beauty of seeing people from different backgrounds and cultures come together for a community dinner.
I was particularly moved by this seemingly simple evening: a couple of tables, a few spoken words on the significance of the Iftar, and some delicious food. I imagined what our country would look like if community Iftars were held in every city and town in America. Could attending an Iftar like this one cause someone to reconsider his or her deeply rooted ideas about what a refugee are like? Could attending an Iftar like this one eradicate the fear of Islam? Maybe.
We refer to ourselves in our national anthem as the land of the free and the home of the brave. So I worry about my fellow Americans who fear the unfamiliar, the unknown. Looking around my table at the Iftar, I withdrew from the conversation and took in the scene. I was sitting among a native D.C. couple (attendees of the church we sat in), a fasting college graduate eyeing the dates as 8:37 pm approached, and two young Jewish women.
For most of my 20 years, I had never questioned the ability of diverse characters to respect one another’s lifestyles. But the last year and a half have given me pause, and instilled in me a desire to promote the compassion that I once thought was inherent in all people.
Dr. Ilhan Cagri of the Muslim Public Affairs Council addressed the gathering after the meal. She referenced an ayah (verse) in the Quran that moved me and summarized the evening: “O mankind! Lo! We have created you male and female, and have made you nations and tribes that ye may know one another…” (49:13) She referenced this ayah to emphasize that our diversity is our strength. I couldn’t agree more.
Although the community Iftar was a room full of people from all walks of life, what struck me most was that the newly resettled Syrian Muslim refugee family that cooked the meal for the evening got to experience what America is. There were veterans, Jews, Christians, Catholics, Muslims, and community leaders that all came out to observe a day that was dedicated to refugees. I left the Iftar in high hopes that the family and their young school-aged children will know they are free to practice their faith, and they are welcome in their new country, even when others tell them otherwise.
I attended the Iftar because of my work at Human Rights First, and heard about the event from my seven colleagues who work with our project, Veterans for American Ideals. Here is a group of military veterans who advocate for refugees and who are speaking out against anti-Muslim bigotry. They know the power of service to community and country. I was reminded of what America is, in the best of ways, but also I was inspired to engage even more. Citizenship is not a spectator sport, and our American experiment must be earned again and again, generation after generation, by citizens committed to the hard work of sustaining a nation that strives to serve the good of all.