Voices of Struggle, Hope Highlight Interfaith Dinner

Annual GW gathering has added meaning in the aftermath of Paris terror attacks and refugee crisis.

For the Interfaith Dinner's benediction, graduate student Rana Shieh combined Gregorian chant with Persian classical music.
For the Interfaith Dinner's benediction, graduate student Rana Shieh combined Gregorian chant with Persian classical music. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)
November 19, 2015

By Ruth Steinhardt

Hala Alkhalouf’s family comes from Deir ez-Zur, a Syrian city on the border with Iraq. For years, the city has been the target of devastating shelling campaigns, first by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, then by ISIS and now by Russian forces.

Ms. Alkhalouf, an exchange student at the George Washington University, has lost relatives in the bombings.

Now, as she told a crowded ballroom in the Marvin Center at GW Wednesday night, her anguish grows as she hears her countrymen blamed for acts of violence in which they had no part. Following the deaths of 129 people in ISIS-affiliated attacks in Paris last Friday, two dozen U.S. governors have suggested that they will refuse asylum in their states to Syrian refugees. The House passed a bill Thursday that suspends the program to admit Syrian refugees into the United States.

“The Syrians know what suffering is,” Ms. Alkhalouf said, close to tears. “We come from the land of suffering. We are fleeing from terrorism. This is why we’re here. There’s no way we would bring terrorism here [to the U.S.], and yet we’re being labeled as terrorists.”

Ms. Alkhalouf spoke at the 14th annual Interfaith Journeys Dinner, a gathering of campus faith communities whose theme this year was seeking and giving refuge. Held less than a week after the Paris attacks, the dinner served as a cathartic and comforting safe space for many. 

George Washington President Steven Knapp celebrated the real-world relevance of the “refuge” theme in a time of upheaval. The spirit of the Interfaith Dinner, he said, stood in proud opposition to anti-refugee sentiment and fear.

“As a democracy founded on a vision not just of religious toleration, but religious freedom, we cannot allow ourselves to be divided along religious lines,” Dr. Knapp said. “Our students have been profoundly conscious of that, and this event that we celebrate every year is a testament to the wisdom of our student body in recognizing that we cannot allow ourselves to be divided.”

The Interfaith Dinner began shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, when students from the Muslim Student Association and the Jewish Student Association, concerned about anti-Muslim feelings in the wake of terrorist attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, joined to share in the Iftar meal that breaks the daily Ramadan fast. The tradition grew and, in 2009, was renamed the Interfaith Dinner.

This year, the dinner began with a musical blessing performed by graduate student Rana Shieh. A musician who combines Gregorian chant with the classical instruments of her native Iran, Ms. Shieh said that art is one of the most important bridges across religious and cultural divides.

“As a musician, I’ve played with Israelis, Palestinians, Christians, Muslims, Iranians, Syrians, Turks, Europeans. Music and other arts don’t have any limitations, and they bring peace for all of us,” she said.

The Rev. Adam Park, chaplain of the Newman Center, greets students -- including Student Association President Andie Dowd, right -- at the Interfaith Journeys Dinner. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)

The dinner differed in format than previous years. Rather than listening as a group to several speakers from diverse faith traditions, participants gathered in intimate table discussions, variously discussing two prompt questions: “When have you offered refuge?” and “When have you sought refuge?” Afterward, participants were invited to share their thoughts with the larger group.

Many shared intensely personal stories of giving and receiving shelter. One speaker, who had emigrated from Russia as a child, remembered going with her mother to clean houses. One employer, she said, would take her aside and spend hours teaching her English while her mother cleaned. Another speaker remembered going to earthquake zones in his native Pakistan to distribute blankets, clothing and food.

Ms. Alkhalouf was the last to speak. She ended with a plea to the United States to remember its commitment to refugees, and asked Americans “not to lose your values because of ISIS or because of anyone.”

When she finished, the ballroom erupted in applause. One after another, tables of people from every faith tradition rose to their feet.

“She called on us as human beings,” said attendee Gidon Feen. “It was incredibly powerful and timely.”

Timothy Kane, associate director of inclusion initiatives in the Multicultural Student Services Center, said the event was remarkable for its displays of empathy and solidarity.

“By sharing their stories, students spoke their truth and rejected their fear of people different from themselves,” he said. “Whenever truth confronts fear, there is great reason for hope.”

The MSSC will hold an interfaith peace vigil 2:30 p.m. to 3 p.m. Friday on Kogan Plaza.