Imagine opening an email and being asked, “What are you doing in the basement?” Should you laugh, cry, get angry or should you go on the defensive? When the new president and nominated cabinet have platforms and histories boasting ideology that eerily resembles something from bygone eras filled with oppression and genocide, minority groups cannot help but go on the defensive and prepare for bigotry fueled by government support.
Paducah is a small town of about 25,000 people tucked along the Ohio River in the very red state of Kentucky. The state is often the butt of numerous jokes and stereotypes, setting up a scenario perfect for community backlash toward an Islamic Center nestled in its midst. Fortunately for the approximate 14 families from about as many countries belonging to the Islamic Center of Paducah, any negative messages seem to be outweighed by an outpouring of support and love.
Support has come from friends and colleagues through emails, messages and phone calls as well as from strangers. Cards and flowers have been sent anonymously and from groups like the local chapter of Indivisible. A friend of the center bequeathed a cherished plaque and clock to the center upon her passing away. There was even an unsolicited donation of 50 sandwiches from the local Jimmy John’s restaurant during an open house hosted by the Islamic Center.
Board members made the bold decision to host a community open house on Saturday afternoon as a way to say thank you and to create opportunities for conversation, offering delicious food and refreshing beverages, in true Kentucky hospitality style.
As finishing touches were being placed, news of guests had reached a group of members in the basement a few minutes before noon. Smiles were abundant but with recent events like the Quebec mosque shooting, one has to have a healthy sense of what could happen.
Community members began pouring into the basement, reading informational posters on the walls while ooh-ing and aah-ing over the delicious spread of treats like samosa, hummus and baklava on the tables. Guests, mostly caucasian and ranging in ages from young children to seniors, were greeted by members wearing name tags and smiles and encouraged to engage in conversation.
Some people were obviously nervous, aloof and unknowing of how to ask certain questions. Many were clutching scarves or wearing them around their necks. One woman was wearing a very stylish outfit with a scarf draped across her shoulders fastened by a large safety pin. One notable shirt that stood out was worn by Laura Petrie that simply stated “FAIRNESS. No More. No Less.” She stated that she and Bianca Ardigo were going around to different events that day showing support and solidarity for fellow minority groups.
Conversations ranged from specifics about the religion to politics and how they affect everyday life and the future. One concern was quite though provoking. “What about the college students?” Being in the middle of three colleges with foreign student populations of more than 300 each, Jennifer Smith wanted to know what would happen to them if a travel ban was reinstated and they can’t stay in dorms during school breaks. She was willing to go as far as to offer her own home for students.
The buzz of conversation was soon replaced by the melodic call to prayer. Everyone in the room stopped what they were doing and listened reverently. Guests were then encouraged to come upstairs and observe the mid-day prayer. That’s right, they asked outsiders to take off their shoes, women to put on a scarf and sit behind those offering prayers.
After prayers, the crowd of more than 75 people came back downstairs for more conversation and food. Islamic Center president Amna Ali addressed the crowd, thanking the group of being a support. “We think the same way, we have families we care about,” she said. “[Immigrants] leaving everything is already really hard, thank you for thinking we should be here.”
Paducah’s mayor, Brandi Harless was next to speak, saying, “We know we are better when we bring different ideas to the table, but we also think a lot alike.” She went on to encourage multicultural events and expressed an interest in starting a multicultural initiative with input from the community.
The day started with about 100 copies of Quran translations for guests to take home leaving a mere 20 on the table at the end. Not all guests took a copy and by estimates, there were at least 100 guests during the two-hour event. While members and organizers were overwhelmed by the amount of support from the community, there was certainly a missing element: the opposition.
As stated numerous times throughout the day, these interfaith and multicultural events are crucial to not only show support but openly display an opposition to the negative narratives floating around and provide an avenue for education.
“We get together and find out we think the same. The problem is, the other side is missing from the conversation,” said Imam Ali Hassan. He encouraged conversations with those that don’t think the same as we do so everyone has a chance to share their narrative and create lines of communication and invited the public to come on Friday’s during the afternoon service.
As stated numerous times throughout the day, these interfaith and multicultural events are crucial to not only show support but openly display an opposition to the negative narratives floating around and provide an avenue for education. Several people posed the question: is there really all of the negativity and attacks or is it just internet buzz? At events in this small town, it seemed that could be a real possibility, but racism and assaults can come disguised in micro-aggressions.
While it is important for allies to speak out and stand up, it is just as vital for communities, even small groups in rural areas, to open themselves up to the public and allow for dialogue and break down walls the president seeks to build.