Growing up, I watched my mother interact with so many of our neighbors. In fact, she would strike up a conversation with just about anyone she came across. If you made eye contact with her, you better be certain that she’s going to say, “hello, how are you?” That’s the beautiful character she posseses. To this day, my mom knows many people all over the city she lives in. Yet, here I was not knowing a single neighbor by name.
The Chapel Hill tragedy made me reevaluate my role in my community. Alhamdulilah, all praise is due to God, without hesitation I help out readily within my Muslim community. But what am I doing for society around me?
Like many other Muslims, since 9/11, I am weary of what non-Muslims may think of me. I worry that many believe what they hear and see on the media. For that reason, it makes me shy, almost hesitant to interact. What if I say something that’s taken out of context? What if my actions are misunderstood? What if they judge me or hate me despite my best character? Then by God, my good intentions are known by Him and I have done all that I could.
I decided to make my favorite chocolate chip cookie recipe to bake for the neighbors. We wanted to make enough cookies for as many neighbors as we possibly could reach. I felt like nothing says “kind next door neighbor” more than a fresh batch of homemade chocolate chip cookies. As we began to package the cookies, we took into account that some of our neighbors may have dietary restrictions, so we also created a few packages of fruit.
I was so nervous. My God, I was so nervous. The girls and I said a little prayer before we headed out. We packed up their little red wagon with 20 little, pink bakery boxes of chocolate chip cookies and fruit. I jotted down a small note: “Dear Neighbor, Please accept this peaceful gesture as a token of our appreciation for having you as great neighbors. #YourMuslimNeighbor” I didn’t mention anything about Chapel Hill. The intention was fully to honor their memory, but I didn’t want to introduce myself to the neighbors with the mention of a tragic death. The inclusion of the hashtag, if they decided to look it up, would lead them to the information and reason behind our belated introductions.
Aisha,(RA) relates: ‘I said: “O Messenger of Allah, I have two neighbors. Which of them should I give gifts to first?” He replied: ‘To the one whose door is nearer to yours.’ (Bukhari) The girls and I had the intention of beginning with the neighbor directly across the street because their front door open towards our walkway to our front door. Instead, we went diagonal to a house with children that my girls play with. I approached the garage where my neighbors stood in the driveway, I smiled and said “hello!” The father and grandfather flashed huge smiles and we began our little conversation. The neighbor’s kids were overjoyed by the fresh treats and that my girls were over to play with them.
We moved on to the next house, and the next, and the next. With each subsequent house, it became easier. I became less nervous and more confident. We learned our neighbors names and chatted about their lives. We even came upon a family wedding celebration. An elderly neighbor commented on how it’s a delight for her to see my girls play in the neighborhood. She promised to bring them a gift, and sure enough, she stopped by a few days later to deliver some stuffed animals. Neighbors that were vegan were touched by our inclusion of a fruit option. It showed them that we care enough about them to make sure they too enjoyed a treat from us.
With 20 houses to visit, the younger girls tapered off to play in the neighborhood while my oldest daughter and I continued on. This was such an important moment for us. Her personality is very similar to mine. She’s slow to introduce herself, almost shy at first. However, once she feels comfortable, her outgoing personality comes out. In all honesty, when I was younger, I used to be embarrassed when my mom would strike up random conversations with people. To have Jenin by my side and excited to meet the next neighbor was such a game changer. The sweetest part for me was that she was so excited about our little adventure that day, that she asked me if we could do this more often.
At the end, our wagon was empty but our hearts were full. We felt like we accomplished something pretty great that day. I felt like I finally belonged to the neighborhood. As if we were all a little closer that day. Walking out to the mailbox, I now knew who lived in which house. They were no longer strangers behind their closed doors. Our “hello”s and waves had a little bit more substance behind them.
We may not have solved world peace, but we did inspire others to step out to meet their neighbors as well. If we each do what we can, where we are, the effects will ripple out into our communities and beyond.
Can treats combat Islamophobia? Perhaps it’s worth a try. One day, your neighbor might say, “I know a Muslim. They’re really sweet.”