Viewing of “Hawo’s Dinner Party” an adaptation of the documentary Welcome to Shelbyville.

Last Tuesday, September 6, roughly 75 people from the Greensboro community gathered in an intimate restaurant to view “Hawo’s Dinner Party.” This 30-minute adaptation of documentary Welcome to Shelbyville revolves around religious and cultural tensions in a small town in Tennessee, and the beginnings of change brought on by personal interactions shared over a meal.

Annah Awartani, the owner of Zaytoon Restaurant, opened our evening by welcoming the guests into the space. Her hospitality overflowed and she encouraged us to build relationships with each other, as a community should. The Reverend David Fraccaro, of Faith Action International House, joined her to introduce the film and each of the members of our planning committee.

The short film brought us into the world of Shelbyville, TN, home to local residents, migrant workers, and refugees. When a series of articles about the recent influx of Muslim refugees from Somalia fueled tensions between residents, the real conversations began. One Somali woman, Hawo, hosted a dinner party for several townspeople, where they were able to shed the stereotypes that had held them back before. Hawo’s dinner turned strangers into neighbors, allowing the guests to experience new food, laugh over misunderstandings, and start asking the questions that had never been addressed.

When the credits rolled, Annah explained the parallels between feeding our bodies and feeding our souls. Sustenance may keep us alive, but a shared meal can give us a sense of belonging, of unity, even hope. With these sentiments, we lined up for a delicious, local, organic meal, prepared by Annah herself.

Sarah Ivory, of Church World Service, encouraged us to find unfamiliar faces to sit with, not just our neighbor, sibling or spouse. To break the ice, we had the topic of “Hawo” to start off conversation. What about the movie stood out to us? Did we relate to any of the people portrayed in the film? Was there a particular scene that touched any heartstrings? With about 20 tables of strangers, the discussions took off in 20 different directions. Some addressed the conditions of refugees; others, the responsibilities of Shelbyville’s elected officials and citizens; another table mentioned the effects of having a Tyson factory as the town’s main employer.

When all of our varied thoughts and perspectives had been aired, Rev. Fracarro stood and spoke to the importance of personal connections in shaping our opinions. In the shadow of September 11th, many Americans were fearful of Arab or Muslim strangers, avoiding contact at all costs. This was the attitude shown by the media. But those few who made the effort to make strangers into Arab or Muslim friends gained invaluable education, experience and partnerships. Fracarro asked us to share our own stories of a time we met someone of another faith or culture, and how it had changed us in a positive way. Again, each table had a different experience. Some went on and on, while others struggled to fit their stories in this positive framing, having been faced with so much negativity.

With our time nearing its end, Wasif Jalil Qureshi, Outreach Coordinator for the Islamic Center of Greensboro, led us in a closing discussion. He invited us to share our stories with the large group, and drew on themes that arose to keep the conversation going. Each table had something to share. Wasif spoke to the value of personal encounters, and imagined a time when we would be able to feel unity, just as strongly as we feel fear or joy.

To close Brianna Higgins, AFSC intern, reminded us that while we were off to a good start, unity does not come from one evening. We have to continue having these types of conversations; to reach out beyond the familiar; and maintain the relationships we build, for they can break down barriers much easier than bombs can.