Last December, I wrote a commentary for the Philadelphia Inquirer, condemning hate crimes against Muslims and offering to sit down with anyone who wanted to learn about Islam and/or meet a Muslim.
My friends were nervous about me making such a public statement and providing my email address in a piece that would be online for anyone to see. But I knew I had to step up and try to be a part of the solution. So I went ahead, and the response surprised even me.
To date, I have received over 300 messages from people who want to take me up on my offer. So far, I’ve had 42 wonderful coffee dates, and I plan on making the rest of them happen soon.
My article also led to over a dozen speaking engagements about growing up as a Muslim in the United States. As an immigrant, a brown man, and someone who grew up in a low-income community, I am truly blown away by the opportunity to make my voice heard.
‘The true America’
While our national leaders restrict travel from Muslim-majority countries and talk about building border walls, my coffee dates have shown that everyday Americans are on a very different page. Through my conversations, I met a compassionate and inclusive America — the very America my parents envisioned when they packed their bags 16 years ago in search of a better life.
I met immigrants from all over the world who reminded me that we have been here before. I met an Irish-Catholic woman who explained that my story was once her family’s story when they first immigrated in the early 1990s. I met with an Asian-American man who reminded me about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Japanese internment camps of 1942. I met with a number of Jewish Americans who reminded me of Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic campaign in the early 1920s and who told me stories about the discrimination their ancestors faced when they arrived from Europe.
I also met people who had honest questions about Islam and terrorism. Part of my mission was to meet people who are harboring fears and who have real and important questions about Islam that they are afraid to ask. As a result, they end up voting based on tired and dangerous stereotypes.
Solidarity and hope
In everyone I met I saw the diversity and unity of the real America. One of my first coffee dates was with an Iraqi Muslim refugee woman and a Jewish businessman from New Jersey. They write peace poetry together and travel on the weekends to visit libraries, community centers, and schools to discuss peace and tolerance. The woman helped translate the man’s poems into Arabic and arranged for their publication in Gaza. This collaboration is the true America.
The America I saw was also one of religious diversity united towards a common cause. I met with leaders of various synagogues, mosques, and affiliated organizations who relayed the same message of solidarity and hope. They reminded me of important verses from the holy scriptures and invited me into their homes of worship to pray, break bread, and share my thoughts about faith and community. This diversity and unity is the true America.
The America my parents envisioned — the true America — is still alive and is reflected through the responses I continue to receive each day. It is the America where the Jewish mother brings a Muslim student Challah to stand in solidarity; it is the America where the Baptist man brings a Qur’an and a Bible to our coffee date so that he can learn more about his misconceptions; it is the America where we can admit our faults, reflect on our mistakes, and move forward with thoughtful perseverance.
It’s not going to be easy. Aside from the 300+ who accepted my invitation, I also received a small number of responses from people accusing me of trying to proselytize people. I have no intention of doing that, but I do plan to respond to ignorance with love. I remain optimistic as I watch citizens protesting against anti-immigrant policies; I remain proud of my community as I meet for coffee with conservatives who have a desire to learn; and I remain confident in our judiciary as they defend the very fabric of our Constitution.
The challenge ahead of us is to decipher our America. We all carry on our shoulders the scars of yesterday’s battles with fear and hatred. You and I get to write the next chapter on what we tell the next generation about this time in our country. I want to tell them about the America I saw. What story will you tell?
Akbar Hossain is an appointee to the Norristown Planning Commission and is studying at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He is interested in refugee and asylum policies, revitalizing low-income communities, and developing opportunities for disadvantaged youth. He has been recognized nationally as a Harry S. Truman Scholar and as a recipient of the Paul and Daisy Soros Fellowship.