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Argus – August 18, 2006

Founder of American Muslim Voice
 to host forum in Newark
Group aims to spread peace

By Lisa Fernandez and Eleni Economides

World peace isn't something Samina Faheem Sundas takes lightly.

The founder of American Muslim Voice, a 3-year-old nonprofit that champions diversity and human rights, is so dedicated to the subject that on Sunday she is hosting the third annual "Peaceful Community Building Convention" at a Newark banquet hall.

A long-lasting, true peace is needed now more than ever, said Sundas, 51, reflecting on so many recent horrific world events: the war between Israel and Hezbollah, the upcoming anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, last month's railway bombings in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, and most recently, the foiled bomb plot by Islamic extremists in London.

"We really need to focus on the deep-rooted problems that we're having," said Sundas, who emigrated from Pakistan in 1979, and who also runs a child care center in Palo Alto. "We have to open dialogue now more than ever, as brothers, sisters and cousins, friends and as human beings."

People of various faiths and cultures are "walking on eggshells" because they don't want to offend one another or get into fights, she said. But, she urged, it's imperative that different groups get together and talk — earnestly and with respect.

That's the point of Sunday's peace-building convention. At least 200 guests have confirmed their attendance so far, and the hall can hold as many as 350. Sundas said the $25 ticket sales will cover their lunch, as well as transportation and lodging for the speakers, and advertising for the event. She hopes to break even by raising $9,000.

Erin Callahan, director of Amnesty International's western U.S. division in San Francisco, said her organization attends many events, but the one Sundas throws is one of the most meaningful.

"American Muslim Voice brings together an inspiring, diverse and welcoming group of activists, religious leaders, families, teachers and kids," she said. "She creates new alliances, and we meet people there that we had never worked with before."

Callahan said she was impressed that after Sundas' convention last year, various groups of interfaith teens started to meet regularly at the Peninsula Peace & Justice Center in Palo Alto and different churches in San Jose to tackle the issues of racial profiling, erosion of civil liberties, and immigrant rights issues.

Awards in several categories will be given during Sunday's convention to honor local efforts toward peace.

The Just Public Official Award will be given to the Dutra family; the Fred Korematsu Civil Rights Award will be given to state Sen. Liz Figueroa; the Peter Jennings Unbiased Media Award will be given to Argus reporter Jonathan Jones; the Human Rights Organization award will be given to the East Bay section of Code Pink; the Marla Ruzicka Social Justice Award will be given to San Jose resident Delores Lundie; and the Peace Partners Award will be given to activist Cindy Sheehan.

The list of Sunday's speakers includes John and Bev Titus of Michigan, who will talk about their daughter, Alicia, a 28-year-old flight attendant who died on one of the hijacked flights on Sept. 11. The Tituses are members of the September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows, whose members seek peaceful alternatives to war.

Also speaking will be Sana Jubayli, a 21-year-old Lebanese-American woman who recently was rescued from Beirut. Jubayli was in the midst of an internship with the Dar al Amal Organization when bombings started and she had to escape.

Bob Watada, father of Lt. Ehren Watada, also will speak. Watada's son is the first commissioned U.S. military officer publicly to refuse orders to fight in the Iraq war, and he faces up to eight years in prison for doing so.

The keynote address will be given by Azim Khamisa, 57, a San Diego investment banker. Also a recipient of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Building Award, Khamisa will be honored along with the Tituses.

He will tell the crowd what he's done in the wake of the 1995 murder of his 20-year-old son, Tariq. Khamisa reached out to Ples Felix, the grandfather of the 14-year-old killer, Tony Hicks, and created a foundation dedicated to teaching about nonviolence in schools and transforming America's gang culture. Felix is a board member of that foundation.

Khamisa also regularly visits Hicks, now 25 years old and behind bars at Pelican Bay State Prison. Khamisa wrote a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, asking to commute Hicks' sentence.

"It's not the norm in our culture to forgive," Khamisa said this week while visiting the Bay Area. "We are very much an eye for an eye. But that doesn't work. Eventually we all go blind."

Sundas met the Tituses and Khamisa last year at the Peace Alliance Conference in Washington, D.C., where they were lobbying Congress to establish a "Department of Peace."

Two bills are before the U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate urging lawmakers to create such a cabinet-level department of the executive branch. Supporters hope the department would help reduce domestic and gang violence, and also create international conflict-resolution policies, and a U.S. Peace Academy to train peacekeepers.

Sundas said she was impressed that her colleagues were not filled with anger or a desire for revenge.

"If they can do peace-building," she said. "All of us can do it."