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February 27, 2017 by

Breaking Boundaries and Building Bridges

May Aihua Ye (right) and Nancy Hammoudah (left). Photo Credit: Aaron Van Heest.

May Aihua Ye (right) and Nancy Hammoudah (left). Photo Credit: Aaron Van Heest.

On Thursday, January 26th, I sat at the piano bench in the dismal practice rooms of the school of music at Western Michigan University. My eyes would often wander from the Brahms sheet music in front of me to the stained orange carpet. Lately, I’d been struggling to find purpose in what I do. With less than one hundred days until I perform my senior recital in pursuit of a Bachelors of Music degree in Piano Performance, it doesn’t feel right to practice the music of eighteenth-century aristocrats which once provided me with joy and peace. I can no longer justify creating this art I once found so powerful. Now, I feel guilty spending hours every day in practice rooms.

The calm I once experienced is now overpowered by an awareness of the tremendous suffering and pain felt in my country and across the world, the fear felt by so many who are being marginalized and oppressed. There was a time when I was content in my career path. I dreamed of using music as a means to conflict resolution in the Middle East. I deeply believed in its ability to unite people, to heal and to bring comfort. Watching the week of January 20th unfold, manipulating beautiful melodies out of black and white keys was no longer possible. With a major recital looming, I found myself unable to focus on this important last requirement of my degree. I took my phone off of the music rack and typed a message to my friend: “Will you come if I organize a rally against Islamophobia?” A minute later, I texted my friend back: “I AM organizing a rally against Islamophobia for next Sunday. Hope you’re in!”

I am a student in Kalamazoo, Michigan. I was born and raised in Maine and took a gap year after high school during which I lived, worked, and studied in Boston. Aside from two years in the bubble that was boarding school in Northern Michigan, living in the Midwest has been a struggle for me. Studying at a public university here has exposed to me to the vast cultural differences between New England and the Midwest. On a daily basis, I am hard pressed to find a rally or action to get involved in. Attending an organizing meeting nearly two weeks after the election, the only discussion was regarding taking care of one another, with no mention of what actions we must take from here on out. Nearly all of my classmates and colleagues were born and raised no more than three hours’ drive from here. I’d be hard pressed to find an out-of-state student who doesn’t hail from the Midwest.

In my time here in Michigan, I’ve attended two rallies against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The support among those who showed up at these rallies was strong, though no more than 100 of us came out to each one. In looking to organize my own rally, I prayed to see 100 people at the park downtown. As the week of organizing progressed, I watched the numbers on the Facebook event grow exponentially. Every day, between 100 and 300 people confirmed their attendance, and hundreds more expressed their interest. By the day of the rally, 2,100 people were confirmed to attend and over 5,000 had expressed interest! I was stunned. I was proud, excited, and nervous. This was the first rally I had ever organized, and I was leading this endeavor on my own.

I decided to organize a rally against Islamophobia and for Muslim, immigrant, and refugee rights for two reasons. First, the rally was a response to the Trump administration’s ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. Second, as a Jew, I feel compelled to stand with the Muslim community. I understand anti-Semitism and Islamophobia to be two sides of the same coin, a coin minted by white supremacy. I have noticed, even within my own community, that to some Jews standing in solidarity with Muslims includes all Muslims except those who are Palestinian. As a Jew who is actively involved in anti-occupation work and feels strongly about standing up for the Palestinian people, I felt called to organize this rally for my Muslim brothers and sisters, Palestinian and otherwise.  

In 10 days, I lined up religious leaders, Muslims from the Michigan community, an Iraqi refugee family, and a few Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients. The president of my university made an unannounced appearance. I have been told that the vice-mayor of the city of Kalamazoo was among the crowd.

At noon on Sunday, February 5th, I walked to the front of the stage in Bronson Park and paused. I stood at the podium taking in the crowd before I greeted them through a megaphone. A group of Muslim women wearing hijabs stood in the front row. They were joined by individuals of all ages, colors, and backgrounds. Signs that read: “Mitakuye Oyasin” (a phrase translated roughly as “all are related” in Lakota), “Now you pissed off grandma,” “This is my first protest sign,” “Atheist for Islam,” and “I’m white, I’m male, I’m old, I’m scared, I’m here” shone light on the diversity of the crowd. Hijabs, yarmulkes, pussy hats and baseball caps adorned people’s heads. Children played in the drained fountain and ran across the stage. A memorable moment for me was when one of the Muslim speakers opened by saying: “Assalam Alaikum” and a young child who was standing on the steps to the stage responded loud enough for the crowd to hear, “Wa’alaykumu Salaam,” the traditional response, much like “Shalom aleichem/ Aleichem shalom”: May peace be with you. It was a touching moment.

One thousand people. It’s not something I ever could have imagined. I never dreamed to see so many come from across the state of Michigan to stand in solidarity with our Muslim, immigrant, and refugee neighbors. What I saw was a beautiful display of solidarity, of support, and of resilience. I am proud of the Kalamazoo community for coming out in numbers, but I feel it is necessary to bring one point home. Many people told me after the rally that they were so grateful that I organized it, that this was their first step into political activism and the first rally they ever attended. I cannot count how many people told me that they looked forward to the next rally I would organize. But the onus does not rest solely upon me (or any individual.) If every single person who came out to the rally continued to take action upon leaving the rally, change would be happening rapidly.

My hope for the rally was to begin building bridges. It is only from the relationships we develop that true change will grow. As I said in my opening remarks, I hope that “you can become acquainted with those who you are standing around, that you can build a friendship, that your children can play together, that you can share meals, and that you can make a new friend whom you can reach out to when you feel marginalized and oppressed.”

Don’t wait for me or someone else to organize the next rally; take it upon yourself. My activism alone will not change the world, but together we can create something larger than ourselves. Take further action: organize your first rally, call your congress people, write a piece for your local newspaper. We are stronger together.


The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Lilith Magazine.