Throughout history, religious differences have torn people and entire nations apart.
Even in recent months, headlines have been full of hate crimes and acts of terrorism, both across the ocean and here in Washington.
But on the evening of June 16, about 100 people of many different faiths gathered at the Pine Lake Community Center in Sammamish to celebrate a traditional Ramadan Iftar dinner with the local Muslim community. Although half the people at the dinner were not practicers of Islam, they came together in a show of unity to demonstrate that the bonds of love and friendship are stronger than any differences between people.
Ramadan is celebrated by Muslims throughout the world for one month every year to honor the revelation of the Quran to the prophet Muhammad. Every day during Ramadan, Muslims are expected to fast during daylight hours (including abstaining from water), until the sun goes down.
After sundown, Muslims gather together to share a meal known as Iftar. It is this special, communal meal that was celebrated at the community center.
Yasmine Abeldayem, who helped organize the dinner, said that the local Muslim community had been wanting to share an Iftar dinner with the non-Muslim community for years to share their cultures with one another, but she never knew how to organize such an event.
“We thought it would be amazing to break those boundaries while breaking bread,” Abeldayem said.
It was the creation of a local peace and tolerance activist group, Plateaupians for Peace, that provided Abeldayem and her friends with an outlet through which to organize an Iftar gathering.
Abeldayem co-chairs a sub-committee of Plateaupians called “Neighbours Without Borders” (spelled with a u because some of its members come from British commonwealth countries that use this spelling). The committee’s mission is to unite people from all of the different cultures in Sammamish and help people learn about one another’s backgrounds.
“We all come from different places, but we have the same heart,” said Neighbours Without Borders Co-Chair Hayley Gudgin, who emigrated to the Seattle area from the U.K.
As the sun went down, the 40 or so Muslim attendees conducted their evening Maghrib prayer, facing in the direction of Mecca. The non-Muslims in attendance watched quietly and respectfully, fascinated to learn about the practices of another faith in such an up-close way.
Abeldayem said in the past, if she has been in public when it is time for one of the five daily prayers, she has found a private place to pray, such as a dressing room in a store. Being able to pray openly in front of the members of the community on June 16, she said, “made me feel at peace.”
“I was so happy,” she said. “I felt blessed.”
When the prayers were completed, the group sat down to eat a feast of traditional Middle Eastern foods, which had been prepared by a local Syrian refugee family that started a catering business after moving to the Seattle area.
Abeldayem, whose family moved to Sammamish from Egypt 10 years ago, said that thankfully, she has never experienced any hate speech or threats here. However, she did note that coming from so far away, it can be a little harder to make friends “in such a fast-paced community,” and observed that “it’s easier to make friends if you have the same background.”
This was why Neighbours Without Borders felt it was so important to have an event like the June 16 dinner. The Iftar gathering brought together people born in a variety of countries besides the U.S., including Egypt, Pakistan, Palestine, Iraq, India, the U.K., Germany, Colombia and Spain.
“We have a lot of differences between us, and we wanted to do some events that would help us get to know each other and understand each other’s cultures better,” said Gudgin, who is a Christian.
Abeldayem said she loves the chance to learn about other faiths and cultures, and, in turn, welcomes it when anyone asks her about her own practices, such as why she chooses to wear a hijab (“It makes me feel complete; it’s part of my identity”), or the significance of the five daily prayers (“You put everything that’s worldly behind you and focus on something that’s bigger than you”).
“It gets you to know each other more,” Abeldayem said of these conversations. “We’re made to be different, that’s what makes us interesting.”
Gudgin said that the committee hopes to grow and increase its events over time. The group is “happy to do an event with any religion or culture,” and welcomes anyone who would like to step forward and help organize an event around their heritage.
“It doesn’t matter that we have different faiths, it’s that we can connect with each other and listen to each other … it doesn’t have to be a threat,” Gudgin said.