Palo Alto Weekly

News - September 9, 2011

From fear to friendship

'National Invite Your Neighbors to Dinner Day' aims to foster understanding between Muslims, neighbors and others

by Sue Dremann

For 10 years since the Sept. 11 attacks, Samina Faheem Sundas has opened her Palo Alto home and her heart to her fellow Americans with the goal of building "a beloved community."

A Pakistani immigrant, naturalized American citizen and Sunni Muslim, Sundas said she saw her fellow Americans — people she did not know — express hatred toward her as a result of Sept. 11.

"It was just a very rude awakening for me. I realized at that moment the place I call home, the nation I adopted, the people I think of as my own, have just kicked me out. That day, I became 'the other,'" she said.

But Sundas, 57, found her life's work in the rubble of the disaster. Sundas started holding dinners in her home to help her neighbors and people of faith overcome the fear of "the other."

Her efforts have neither gone unnoticed nor unrewarded. She received the 2007 Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Prize from the Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith peace organization, for her open houses and for founding American Muslim Voice, a nonprofit that brings people of different backgrounds together to learn about each other.

On Oct. 2, Sundas, together with American Muslim Voice and dozens of interfaith groups, will host "National Invite Your Neighbors to Dinner Day."

The event encourages Americans to lessen religious and cultural tensions by inviting someone of a different background over for dinner, she said.

The event, part of the "From Fear to Friendship" campaign, was announced at a press conference in Washington, D.C., on March 28. It was sponsored by U.S. Rep. Pete Stark (D-Fremont) and its supporters include The September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, Amnesty International, the Council of Churches of Santa Clara County and the Dalai Lama Foundation.

Sundas said she came up with the idea after the congressional hearings earlier this spring by House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Peter King (R-N.Y.). She found King's claims that American Muslims were becoming "radicalized" to be deeply concerning, she said.

"I was really, really disturbed by that. Rather than reacting negatively, what can we do to create a day to focus on building relationships?" she said.

Sundas said she hopes Invite Your Neighbors to Dinner goes beyond faith and culture. Within Palo Alto, there is a deep need for connection and understanding that neighborhood relationships can help remedy, she said, referring in part to youth suicides in the past two years.

"I walk a lot. There is a huge senior population and when you pass them on the street you see how lonely they are.

"In America today we live very closed, isolated lives. We will never get to know one another until we break down the walls of our own homes. Nobody swings on their porch swings anymore or even gets out of their car to open the garage door. They just rush in their cars and push a button to open the garage door, drive in and close the door. There is a minimum of human contact or understanding of what it means to have the support and love of a community," she said.

In the small Pakistani community where she was raised in the 1950s, Sundas said, everyone knew each other and neighbors were close. Kids didn't get into trouble because everyone knew what they were doing, she said.

"We should be knowing who's having a baby? Who's sick? Who's traveling and needs someone to water their plants? Who's having financial difficulties so we can protect their dignity without making a fuss?

"All of the problems we are having today are because we don't know each other. Once you build a relationship, you can't do anything but help. Our hope is that we should not wait for a disaster to come to find out who's who," she said.

Sundas most recently opened the doors of her Evergreen Park neighborhood home on Aug. 20, and 63 people showed up.

"People should host a dinner at whatever level is comfortable for them, whether by inviting one or two people or having a potluck. Choose your own people. Just have dinner that day," she said.

"Even if we find one close friend out of all that effort, it is a blessing from God," she said.

Sundas is featured in a Weekly video of Sept. 11 remembrances posted on www.PaloAltoOnline.com.

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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