This essay is part of an occasional series provided by our partner organization Encore.org, which is building a movement to tap the skills and experience of those in midlife and beyond to improve communities and the world. Read more stories and share yours at Encore.org/story.
I am a Muslim by faith, originally from Pakistan. I ran a computer sales business for 12 years, but after the dot-com bust, business started slowing down.
Then 9/11 happened and completely changed my life. I decided I was not going to be a victim and sit at home and cry. That was when my community activism began.
Fremont, Calif., where I live, is an extremely diverse community. I felt I needed to educate people about who I am, by doing what my faith teaches me. In the Muslim faith, we are taught from childhood to know our neighbors in 40 homes within our radius, to make sure everyone is doing well and has food on the table.
I started small – just talking to people while standing in lines, wherever I could find a chance. I worked on interfaith relations and, at age 56, began serving as a volunteer “ambassador” with a city program known as CAPS, counseling new immigrant seniors who don’t speak good English or don’t know where to get help. I hold their hand, speak to them in their language, take them to the social services office, and help them fill out forms.
Then, in December of last year, another terror attack, this time in San Bernardino, Calif., shook me to my core. I realized that, in the work I had been doing to promote tolerance, I was always preaching “to the choir.” After the San Bernardino attack, I wanted to reach “the masses,” or at least people who never might have met and spoken to a Muslim before.
My idea was to sit in a coffee shop and invite people to join me in a conversation. I called it “Meet a Muslim,” and I put an ad in the paper. The newspaper told me to be prepared for no one to show up. So I just brought my laptop and planned to do some work. But I didn’t need it.
When I got to the coffee shop ahead of time, there were already 20 people waiting. By the time it was over, there were more than 100. I told them that, yes, I am a Muslim woman in a headscarf, but I am also just an ordinary American. I have children: I raised them here and sent them to school here. And what happened in San Bernardino was not the real Islam.
Many wanted to talk about current events, and the San Bernardino shooters. They wanted to know about radical Islam, about Shiite and Sunni, the “oppression” of Muslim women, and more.
So far, I have staged 11 “Meet a Muslim” events, and have invitations to speak at places of worship, schools, mobile home parks, and senior living facilities. For the most part, the audiences have been very respectful. A few people have made blanket criticisms of Muslims, saying they’re terrorists, but I nod my head and say that killers don’t represent the true Islam.
My goal is to change one person, one heart at a time. People need to live together with compassion and acceptance. We Muslim-Americans are not going anywhere; no one else is, either. And we’re all in this fight against hatred together.