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American Muslim

Mercury News – Feb 27, 2005

Different cultures bond over food and hospitality

By Julie Patel

With her husband out of town, Janet Constantinou decided on the fly to attend a lunch at the home of a friend's friend. She walked through the crowd of strangers laughing, talking passionately and gesturing boldly, and found herself before a table of plates brimming with Pakistani curries and rice, and heaps of thin brown noodles.Open House 4

``That's a dessert,'' said a younger woman nearby wearing a delicately embroidered violet and white salwar kameez, or Pakistani dress.

``Oh. It looks rather like a Turkish dessert,'' Constantinou, 62, said in a thick British accent. The woman, Zeya Mohsin, 45, joked that it was surprising Constantinou hadn't seen the dessert before given all the Indians and Pakistanis living in England.

The connection the women developed is precisely what Samina Faheem Sundas was shooting for. Sundas hosted the event in her Palo Alto home, which doubles as a day care center, Saturday to promote the mission of American Muslim Voice, the group she heads. The group's aim is to unite people of different cultures in a campaign for human rights and cultural understanding.

The 70 guests looked like grown-up versions of posters tacked up all around them, depicting children of many races holding hands, embracing and playing.

All afternoon, people exchanged stories, laughed and sampled the food together.

``I grew up in a small village with no one but Anglo-Saxons,'' Constantinou said. ``I didn't know any Indians or eat any Indian food until I moved to the U.S.''

Mohsin said she had similar experiences growing up in Pakistan, where ``there was no issue of black, white, brown'' because everyone was the same race.

For years, Sundas volunteered for another non-profit agency, American Muslim Alliance, which engages Muslims in civic issues like voting, writing letters to politicians and even running for office. But after the Sept. 11 attacks, as Americans from South Asia and the Middle East were increasingly targeted in hate crimes and other, more subtle, forms of discrimination, Sundas created a non-profit that would go back to basics and focus on educating people about Muslims and forming interfaith alliances.

``People were calling us terrorists, so I realized they're not too ready to vote for us,'' she said. ``It was like the second story of a building, so I had to go back and build the foundation.''

The idea of the open house was that Sundas didn't want activists like herself to meet and teach each other about different cultures in conference rooms and on panels; she wanted them to connect at a human level over warm meals at their homes.

``No one sticks their neck out for a stranger,'' she said. ``You don't really care about someone else's lot in life unless you get to know them on a personal level.''

Two hours into the event, a stream of guests started leaving, but some delayed when goodbyes sparked new conversations. Several guests offered to host similar events in the future.

As Constantinou prepared to bid farewell to her new friends, Mohsin and Sundas, she recalled feeling ``elated for thinking how women can bring people together.''

``Why can't nations do it like individuals can?'' she thought.

She touched Sundas' arm, thanked her and asked if she would do it again next year.

``Why next year?'' Sundas said. ``I hope to do it sooner.''


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