A Journey Home: Interfaith and Cross Cultural Perspectives
In a session titled “A Journey Home: Interfaith and Cross Cultural Perspectives,” panelists Rabbi Paula Winnig, Imam Dawud Walid, and Dr. James Divita talked about a topic that has spurred compassion, heated debate, and sadly fear: immigrants and refugees in the United States. Our expert panelists shared their thoughts on this issue from Jewish, Muslim, and Catholic faith perspectives. Following this discussion and Q & A portion, Mastora Bakhiet—founder and Executive Director of the Darfur Women Network who is a refugee herself—gave a presentation on what life is like for refugees to offer the audience a raw look at the struggles these immigrants face when forced to start a new life.
Moderator Terri Morris-Downs who is the Executive Director of the Immigrant Welcome Center introduced the session by speaking about the importance of making Indianapolis a welcoming community for those seeking refuge. Morris-Downs commented on how her work has suddenly “changed” since the presidential election, and that this is the time to be a supportive resource to those who might be fearful of their future in our country.
To begin the session, Morris-Downs asked each of our panelists to give some background on their upbringing and how their respective religions shaped their views on society. Winnig grew up in a small Christian community where only 25 Jewish families lived. During her childhood, she felt excluded from social events because she was openly Jewish and on visits to her hometown, is still surrounded by prejudices 40 years later. Walid also experienced the same isolation as a practicing African American Muslim who has enslaved African relatives on both sides of his family.Walid spoke about how Muslim immigrants come to the U.S in hopes of achieving the American dream, but end up becoming oppressed by money and greed in their pursuit to “buy their whiteness” and be more accepted by society. Unfortunately, today refugees accept their isolation because their circumstances here at least are more bearable than the countries they fled from. Walid went on to say that he’s seen a trend in reverse immigration where children of immigrants are returning to their home country because they “feel like they can’t practice their faith in peace.” Divita also has personal experience with immigration and spoke about how his family was rooted in Italy and used America as a means to be saved from persecution from their old country.
Following this point, Winnig provided a line from the Torah which reads, “You shall treat the stranger as a citizen.” With so many world crises revolving around refugees and immigration, Winnig reminded the audience that we have scars from our own behavior as discriminators as well as from being those who are discriminated against, which is the story we have to share and learn from. It’s our responsibility to recapture the dialogue of what America really is. Walid continued this train of thought by proposing the idea that there always has been two Americas and we need to face the reality that our country isn’t just a place to chase the American dream, but one that has a history of persecution and exclusivity. Divita went on to say that we are responsible for how the U.S evolves in regard to immigration.
But how do we go about this? Walid remarked that xenophobia and anti-Semitism can’t be legislated away and that America is in need of a radical reform which includes a change in how history is taught in schools i.e. that whiteism isn’t the central focus. He also proposed that Election Day be a national holiday instead of Columbus Day, which essentially commemorates an explorer who exploited native people for his own personal gains.After this passionate discussion, audience members were invited to ask questions of our panel. Topics posed included a college student asking for advice on how to make Jewish students feel comfortable identifying themselves in an unwelcoming environment. Another young listener wanted strategies on how to stand up for their diverse friends who were being bullied because of Trump’s proposition to build a wall.
To end the session, Mastora Bakhiet from the Darfur Women’s Network presented on the struggles and fears Sudanese refugees face in their home country. She explained how throughout the history of Sudan Darfur has been isolated from the capital, where resources are plentiful. Aside from having to survive on the bare minimum, the people of Darfur were also victims of genocide from the government and Arab militia attacks. Families were forever separated as a result and many didn’t know if their loved ones had escaped or been killed.The Darfur Women Network was founded to help these broken families still have a livelihood and hope. Refugees learn how to make and sell soap that is then sold to other refugees. In doing so, the Network is inspiring its employees to be empowered, financially stable, and improve their quality of life.
In a time where multiple refugee crises have impacted and continue to impact the entire world, this session offered our audience a chance to face the stark reality of America’s varied and sometimes hostile responses to immigrants, as well as a new perspective from our esteemed panelists on what America needs to do to be more accepting toward immigrants and refugees in the future.
By: Lexa Muehlbauer
Session Partners: Spirit and Place Festival, Immigrant and Refugee Service Corps, Darfur Women’s Network, Center for Citizenship at Butler University