If you go

What: Eat With Muslims, an interfaith dinner

When: Sept. 15, doors open at 5:30 p.m.; dinner at 6:15 p.m.

Where: First United Methodist Church, 680 NW Bond St.

Cost: Free; donations are accepted

For more information or to RSVP, call the Interfaith Network of Central Oregon at 503-307-7083

Fathia Absie and Ilays Aden, two Seattle-based activists, have been leading dinner guests in dialogue about Islam since the 2016 presidential election.

On Sept. 15, they are hosting a meal and a chat in Bend.

“After the (presidential) election, we realized maybe people don’t know enough about the Muslim communities in their own backyard,” Aden said.

Eat With Muslims, a nonprofit, strives to break bread in more ways than one, the pair said. Absie, 45, and Aden, 31, are both Somali-­Americans and wear hijabs, or veils that cover their heads and shoulders. They lead a casual discourse while guests nosh on Somali cuisine, which includes halal chicken and lamb on beds of rice. Salads, seasoned lentils and a pinto bean dish — which Aden jokingly refers to as “The United Beans of America” — round out the table. Absie and Aden said the food has a comforting effect on the diners. Satiated, they find themselves falling into easy conversation with those at their table.

“We try to focus on different cultures from the Islamic world,” said Aden, who prepares the bean dishes and salads. “Somali food is a cross between Indian and Middle Eastern food. It’s delicious.”

The Interfaith Network of Central Oregon, a nonprofit that provides opportunities for people to learn about different faiths, invited Absie and Aden to host a dinner at downtown Bend’s First United Methodist Church. Nearly 50 people have RSVP’d, including members of Prineville’s Muslim community. There are about 20 more spots available.

Dinner guests wear name tags and chat during dinner. Friends and family are encouraged to spread out and sit next to new people. During the meal, Absie and Aden address the group. They tell a bit about themselves, pose questions and tell stories. Absie, whose first name is pronounced ­FOH’-tee-ah, is a writer and filmmaker who has worked extensively with the Public Broadcasting Service. Aden, whose first name is pronounced ee-LAYS’, is an advocate for immigrants and asylum seekers. The duo film the dinners and post short videos on the Eat With Muslims website.

“We try to get people to open up as a larger group,” Aden said. Each dinner is different because it is adjusted to the interest of the particular host group. Sometimes ­Absie sings traditional Somali songs. Religion doesn’t dominate discussions. While topics are sometimes passionately discussed, no one has left upset, Absie and Aden said.

“This is a space where everyone is welcome,” Aden said. “It’s a place where nothing is off-limits.”

The Sept. 15 dinner in Bend will be the 35th event since Absie and Aden started “Eat With Muslims” in Seattle in December 2016. They have also organized meals in Portland, Oregon and Des Moines, Iowa. Their intended expansion beyond the Pacific Northwest was accelerated by a Des Moines woman who contacted them after reading about their work. She told them she didn’t know how to engage the Muslims at the grocery store.

“She said: ‘They look very sad or afraid,’” Absie said. “She makes the point to make eye contact and smile at them. She can see their relief.”

Absie and Aden know the difference a smile and a nod can make. Absie, who said she passes as many ethnicities, hasn’t always worn a hijab. When she began wearing one, however, her faith became immediately visible.

“I knew that feeling of being afraid or uncomfortable somehow, and then have a white person smile at me,” Absie said with a laugh. “I become at ease, I feel: ‘Oh. You don’t hate me.’ I knew exactly what (the Des Moines woman) was saying.”

Absie and Aden helped the woman facilitate a lunch in Des Moines in June. The non-Muslims, who numbered about a dozen, were mostly evangelical Christians. Aden and Absie said they were struck by the group’s warmth and graciousness. Local Somali- and Syrian-American Muslims, whom Absie and Aden had reached out to through mosques and other faith-based groups, joined the meal, too. The diners are still in touch.

“(The evangelicals) are helping some of Syrian families learn English. They’re teaching them Arabic, and they’re cooking together,” Aden said. “They’ve maintained their relationships.”

Aden and Absie are quick to point out that Eat With Muslims is not a political organization.

“We just want to change and open hearts and minds,” Aden said.

Susan Gregory, the Interfaith Network of Central Oregon chairperson, is responsible for bringing Eat With Muslims to Bend. The interfaith network is covering airfare costs for Absie and Aden, who in turn cover the cost of food. Gregory, 66, said it’s easy to live an insulated life without meaning to.

“For me, it’s really easy to just be familiar with your own world,” Gregory said. “When you have opportunities to meet people with different experiences than you, it’s enriching. It allows you to broaden your horizons and become a whole human.”

It’s this connectivity that Carol Carlson hopes to tap into by attending the event. Carlson, who’s 70 and lives in Redmond, is a member of the nondenominational Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Central Oregon, which is affiliated with Interfaith Network of Central Oregon. Carlson said she enjoyed meeting Muslims in Cincinnati, where she previously lived. Since she moved to Redmond in 2013, the diversity is less apparent, Carlson said. .

“I enjoy getting to know people who are different from me,” Carlson said. “It helps break down stereotypes. I think religious stereotypes (can be) worse than racial stereotypes.”

Carlson will bring a 13-year-old, whom she mentors, to the Eat With Muslims dinner. She wants to expose the girl to a culture and faith different from her own. Carlson would like to learn how to say “peace be with you” in Arabic so she can say that to Muslims she meets in public. She’s also excited to try Somali food for the first time. She’s yet to meet members of Central Oregon’s Muslim community.

Bend resident Kathleen Harrington, 70, will also be there.

“Eat With Muslims seemed to me to be a chance to share values across the artificial boundaries of religion. We can share what binds us,” Harrington said. “What we’re seeing across our country is an amplification of ‘the other.’ This is one opportunity to demystify someone who might be considered ‘the other.’ It’s really a chance to accept one another. There’s a chance to explore commonalities in a way that will be meaningful. In fundamental ways, (Muslims) are just like us.”

Absie and Aden said they are continually learning from the people who attend their dinners.

“We found out that nothing is what it seems to be,” Absie said. “As Muslims, we have bared the brunt of misconceptions. We know what it’s like to be marginalized for something you don’t have anything to do with.”

Absie shares Aden’s outlook.

“Humanity is a lot kinder than we give it credit for,” Absie said. “But when we see horrible things happening here and there, we’re like, ‘My God, what’s going on? This is the 21st century. We should be done with this craziness already.’ But I guess we will always fall short because we’re human beings.”

Harrington thinks a more peaceful future can begin with something as simple as sharing a meal and a conversation with someone new.

“(These dinners) increase the chances for a world community where peace and justice can work for everybody,” Harrington said. “And we can start here right in our own backyard.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7816, pmadsen@bendbulletin.com

“Editor’s note: This story has been corrected. In the original version, several quotes were misattributed. Absie and Aden’s ages were switched. The Bulletin regrets the errors.”

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