The extreme cold temperatures on Wednesday provided members of Purdue’s Muslim Student Association an opportunity to warm relations with the community.
The students offered free coffee and donuts to all who passed by the Islamic Society of Greater Lafayette.
Outreach Director Enosh Kazem, a West Lafayette native and Purdue food science graduate student, organized the “Meet a Muslim” event.
He says it’s time for Muslim-Americans to meet their neighbors and take control of a narrative they believe has become dominated by political rhetoric.
“We want to come out and say we’re Muslim-Americans, and this is what we believe, and this is what we’re trying to embody,” he says. “We have a faith that teaches us to participate in our community, to help our fellow people.”
Some passersby stopped and accepted the offer of coffee and donuts. Others hurried past without making eye contact.
At one point, a couple of men in a white pick-up truck drove past and yelled a profanity-laced racial epithet at the students.
Omar Raza, a freshman studying computer science and economics, says he’s philosophical about such verbal attacks.
The lifelong Muslim says he’s accustomed to seeing and hearing various minority groups blamed for larger social problems.
“I honestly don’t get offended,” he says. “I feel really sad that people have to resort to that type of violence or sort of ignorance to justify something that is actually a collective problem, like we all feel a bad economic time.”
Tuscany Bernier says she has faced questions and occasional verbal assaults since her conversion to Islam four years ago.
She grew up in Montgomery County and chooses to cover her head and face with a burqa, even though she reacted with fear when the first Muslim she met was covered head-to-toe in black cloth.
“It still scared me,” she says. “I completely understand where a lot of people are coming from. Just being in the vicinity of someone you are genuinely taught to be scared of can be hard.”
John Hanes, a Purdue student who grew up in the Grant County town of Fairmount, stopped for coffee and talked to event organizers.
He says his hometown lacks diversity, and events like Wednesday’s offer the opportunity to counter the generalizations he’s heard about Islam.
“I’ve had friends who bring it up, and I just try to be like, ‘Hey, you can’t judge all of them by what you see on the news,’” he says.
Freshman Morgan Soultz also stopped for coffee and conversation. “It’s good that we have the event, but it’s sad that we have to have it,” she says. “Sad that people can’t accept others for who they are.”
Kazem says just being part of the community is important.
“It starts maybe with a cup of coffee and a smile,” he says. “It goes towards working together in other areas and community service, and identifying our shared humanity.”