By Sam Schmieder
The Jewish Muslim Alliance hosted a dinner on March 5 for eight Jewish and eight Muslim high school students who were visiting from Israel through the World Learning Advocacy Program to experience our culture and learn more about each other.
Amna Farooqi, president of the Jewish Muslim Alliance, spent most of the beginning of the semester planning this event, from the balloons to the food to securing a room big enough to hold the close to 80 people who were supposed to attend.
“What’s interesting about the JMA is that we are a religious, non-political group,” Farooqi said. “But it’s fundamentally political when you have a Jewish and a Muslim alliance.”
Farooqi, a freshman, explained the main goal of the group is to provide a space where students can talk to each other and realize how much they have in common since the two religions often have similar ideals, she said.
“Something I’ve realized is before you can have these hard conversations about what you can do to move forward with respect to this conflict is, you need to be friends, you need to understand each other and you need to know where the other person is coming from,” Farooqi said. “And the only way to do that is if you can sit down and talk about what’s important to the other person and their values.”
Sharon Shaley, a 16-year-old Jewish girl, and Layla Toukhy, a 15-year-old Muslim girl, became fast friends during the little time they’ve known each other through the program.
“It’s normal that people think like that,” Shaley said of the problems and stereotypes between Jews and Muslims. “But when you really know the person that someone says something bad about, you think about it more and your mind changes.”
Each table at the dinner had Maryland students, students from the program and a JMA board member to help encourage conversation between everyone. The tables also had a list of questions that people could ask each other and inspiring quotes about leadership.
Shimon Gewirtz, a senior advisor for JMA, said this is the biggest event the group has ever put together and he was there to help transition the new leaders of the group into their positions.
“Until last semester, we had weekly events that drew in not many people,” JMA communications chair Abigail Jaffe said. “This semester, we’re going to ditch those weekly events and have a couple big events to draw in more people and get more publicity.”
The dinner was held in the Prince George’s room in the Stamp Student Union. Students arrived and huddled excitedly in groups to talk with each other and figure out where they were seated. The students from the World Learning Advocacy Program showed up a little later and stayed together at first, but when they were split up to go to their tables, they began talking with everyone there.
Farooqi said her main goal for this event was to make sure all the kids had a good time.
The students seemed right at home and eagerly asked and answered questions. What brought this group together was their love for sports, particularly basketball. While they’re in America, they will be shadowing a high school athlete to see what it’s like to be in a school-sponsored sport. Their coaches decided this would be a great learning experience for them and gathered sophomores and juniors to be involved.
“[Sharon Shaley] taught me stuff I never knew before,” Toukhy said. “Like their thoughts and feelings about us.”
Both Toukhy and Shaley expressed how their assumptions about the other religion changed just by meeting and getting to know each other. They just see each other as peers and friends – not someone who is scary or different.
“[I want to] teach them about Arabs because I don’t think they’ve met Arabs in such an intensive way,” Toukhy said of what she hopes to achieve with the program. “I want them to see they’re not bad and to answer questions.”