California teen Yusra Rafeeqi isn’t old enough to vote. She couldn’t do anything to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, but the high school sophomore is doing her part now to confront the Islamophobia that President Donald Trump helped propagate throughout his campaign.
The election and its aftermath gave rise to some of the worst Islamophobia the country has seen since the years immediately following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Trump’s comments about Muslims and Islam throughout his campaign and after the election have helped fuel this bias and embolden Islamophobes around the country.
Even in the liberal college town of Palo Alto, California, Rafeeqi and her family felt the effects of anti-Muslim prejudice.
“My mom, who wears a headscarf and abaya (a full length covering) has been rudely stared at and honked at, and people have often moved away from her on the street in fear,” Rafeeqi said in an email to HuffPost. “In one instance, a car saw her, pulled over while my family and I were walking on the street, and screamed ‘Heil Hitler,’ which made all of us very scared.”
“Islamophobia is widespread across the United States, but it’s not because people hate Muslims. To me, the issue is that people do not understand Muslims.””
The 15-year-old decided to make a Facebook page called “Dine With a Muslim Family” to do what she could to confront bias in her own community.
“Seeing a president who depicted Muslims, Mexicans, and many more minorities negatively made me feel as though I needed to make sure that America, or at least my Palo Alto and Bay Area community, knew that Muslims are not how they are portrayed by Trump or the media,” Rafeeqi said.
Her parents, who immigrated to the U.S. from Pakistan nearly 30 years ago, were supportive of the idea, the teen said. She and her father began posting up at a busy intersection in town every Thursday with signs inviting passersby to “Have Dinner with a Muslim Family.”
The Rafeeqis hosted their first dinner on May 5 with guests Alex Radelich and Dalton Lemert, the 23-year-old co-founders of Explore Kindness, a nonprofit that “aims to make the world a better place, one act of random kindness at a time.”
The family hosted their second dinner on May 13, with two couples and another woman present. “They were very open-minded and supportive people,” Rafeeqi said.
Americans as a population have a very low opinion of Muslims as compared to other religious groups. Just over a third of Americans say they know someone who is Muslim, and few know much about the faith.
“Islamophobia is widespread across the United States, but it’s not because people hate Muslims,” Rafeeqi said in an interview with The Mercury News. “To me, the issue is that people do not understand Muslims.”
“By the end, we were just a bunch of friends laughing together. Food has a magical way of doing that.””
Other Muslim activists have similarly attempted to combat Islamophobia by addressing its root cause: ignorance.
After the attacks in San Bernardino, California in December of 2015, poet Mona Haydar and her husband Sebastian Robins decided to promote interfaith understanding by stationing themselves outside of a Cambridge, Massachusetts library with doughnuts, coffee, and a sign emblazoned with the words “Ask a Muslim.” They invited passers-by to stop and ask them questions about anything, including their Muslim faith.
More recently, Amanda Saab, a Detroit-based social worker and the first Muslim woman to compete on Fox’s “MasterChef” in a headscarf, started inviting guests over her home for a home-cooked meal and a conversation about Islam.
“Let’s start at a basic fundamental need that we all need, which is nourishment and let’s not only nourish our stomachs, but let’s nourish our minds,” Saab said on an NBC News video in March.
At the Rafeeqis’ house, the guests feasted on dishes like chicken tikka masala, biryani and naan while engaging in rich conversations about faith, identity and kindness.
“Yusra’s mother prepared a wonderful Pakistani meal and all six of us sat around the dinner table to learn from each other,” Radelich and Lemert wrote in a Facebook post. “At the beginning, we talked about serious stuff ― religion, kindness, cultural differences, traditions, discrimination, and humanity. By the end, we were just a bunch of friends laughing together. Food has a magical way of doing that.”
Rafeeqi said she has several dinners scheduled for the upcoming weeks, and she hopes to enlist other Muslim friends in her community to join the initiative if her family receives more requests that they can handle.
The teen doesn’t anticipate quitting any time soon. “I plan to host dinners for as long as I can, at least until it’s time for college,” she said.