Washington Post: “A Muslim cook wanted to stop the hate. So she started inviting strangers to dinner.”

by Joseph McKeown

When Amanda Saab—a social worker, amateur chef, and practicing Muslim who wears a hijab—heard then-presidential candidate Trump’s call for a ban on Muslim immigrants to the US, she realized that a lot of Americans must not know any Muslims. “Have I played a part in that?” she asked herself. “Have I not reached out to people and given them an opportunity to meet me?” Her solution? Invite strangers to dinner.

“Dinner with Your Muslim Neighbor” is a dinner party concept Amanda created with her husband, Hussein, with the hopes of using food as a way to connect strangers and shed a positive light on the Islamic faith. Capitalizing off her exposure on “MasterChef”—where she was a popular contestant and the first hijab-wearing American Muslim contestant on a major reality TV show—Amanda invited guests over social media to come to her home for dinner to discuss a topic often avoided at the table: religion. The response to her initial invitation was immediate and overwhelmingly supportive. One prospective guest even confided to Amanda that she wishes society didn’t have such feelings of contempt towards Islam.

The dinner parties thus far have been a success, with hundreds requesting spots. One recent dinner took place over Passover. Amanda researched customary Jewish diet restrictions before cooking a lavish meal for seven diverse people. They began the dinner with prayers before digging in. The group engaged in emotional conversations over their respective faiths, history, doctrine, and culture. One neighbor expressed despair over how poorly Muslims are represented in the media. Another neighbor who identified as a Christian proclaimed that she had prayed for a way to get to know more about her Muslim neighbors. To her, Amanda’s dinner invitation was an answer to her prayers. Food was a “disarming" way for her to make this desired connection.

With hate crimes against immigrants and Muslims increasing since Trump’s inauguration, many individuals and groups are looking for inventive ways to connect people of different faiths, origins, and cultural backgrounds. Many are finding that socializing and bonding over food can have a powerful impact.   

Lonnie Firestone, a modern Orthodox Jew and freelance writer from Brooklyn, decided to start inter-faith dinners between Muslims and Jewish people after President Trump’s victory. She wanted to bring Muslims and Jews together as friends so they could work against anti-Semitism and Islamophobia. “When you have a natural affiliation with people, you can advocate for them effortlessly,” she tells the New York Times. “It’s like you don’t think about advocating for a relative. And I really liked the idea that friendship and common ground naturally emerges from sharing food together.” The League of Kitchens, which we’ve mentioned previously, is another New York-based program hoping to bring diverse people together. The cooking classes connect immigrant home cooks and strangers. The participants are invited into the immigrants’ homes in order to become fully immersed in their culture, and even get to go home with a booklet of family recipes. Lisa Gross, founder and chief executive of the company and daughter of a Korean immigrant and a Jewish New Yorker, says she has "always been interested in the way that foods can bring people together in different ways." In Chicago, a pop-up dinner series featured chefs from immigrant communities that were being unfairly "demonized"  in the news. In Staten Island, there is even a restaurant featuring cooking from grandmothers from around the world.  

It’s not just happening in the US. In Sweden, United Invitations joins immigrants and Swedish families together as a way of connecting people from different countries, cultures, educational systems, and traditions. This program has helped Syrian refugees acclimate to a new society and learn more about Swedish culture and traditions. The overall goal for United Invitations is to create an “inclusive society through food, language and meetings.” Post-dinner surveys have shown that immigrants feel more welcome by their Swedish neighbors after attending only one dinner.

During his presidential campaign, President Trump said about Muslims, “we have a problem,” and called for a complete shutdown of Muslim immigration “until our country's representatives can figure out what the hell is going on.” Both of his executive orders banning travel from certain predominately Muslim countries have been blocked, and this week the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals pressed Justice Department lawyers to explain the legality of the president’s travel ban in light of his comments on the campaign trail. 

There’s never been a more important time for this,” Michael Hebb, a former restaurateur and a teaching fellow at the University of Washington, says about “Dinner with Your Muslim Neighbor.”  Hebb is collaborating with Amanda and Hussein Saab to create and assemble free online tool kits so that others can host their own dinners. By simply sitting down to dinner, Amanda hopes that people of diverse backgrounds will “get to know one another better and show those spreading hate that love and understanding will prevail.”