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Nations, United

In collaboration with Peace Catalyst International, an organization that generates peace specifically (though not exclusively) with Christians and Muslims, (614) contributing photographer Nick Fancher captured the friendships of many Muslims and non-Muslims in the city this month. The organization’s goal is to shift destructive attitudes by creating safe spaces for Christians and Muslims to get to know each other and become friends, and the≠ featured friendships you see here are all affected or influenced by Peace Catalyst’s work in Columbus.

Sadly, Islamophobia is one of the biggest stories of 2017.

One probable cause: about 60 percent of Americans, polled over nearly two decades, said they do not personally know a Muslim.

Here in Columbus we are telling a different story.

The following represents stories—in image and word—of friendship, activism, hardship, and creativity.

Storytelling has the power to make people who are foreign to one another feel familiar–and sometimes even like family. These women are a part of a larger network of peacemakers and storytellers in Columbus, and they work to restore harmony between Muslims, Christians, and others. It’s simple: they invite others to share personal life stories centered on a theme and hold storytelling events all across Columbus. This year, their theme focuses on the American Dream.

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Intisar Adbi was born in Kuwait to a middle class Somali family. In her senior year at Kuwait University, her family moved to the States as refugees. Not only did she have to restart life in a new country, but also her college education. Intisar has worked hard these past five years and recently graduated from OSU with a bachelor’s degree in microbiology. She has also worked as a peacemaker alongside Christians. “One of the things I’m most proud of are my friendships, because it took me awhile to become comfortable enough to build meaningful friendships with incredible people from other cultures and religions than mine.”

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After the start of the U.S.-Iraq war, the circumstances in Iraq between Sunnis and Shi’ites became deadly for Suhad Almaini’s family. The war exacerbated differences between the groups and she lost two of her siblings to murder. Despite only knowing about four English words upon arrival (yes, no, potato, fries), she studied English for six years and eventually earned her associate’s degree from Columbus State. She now says, “When I see Columbus I feel like I am in Baghdad! The thing I love the most about Columbus? The people—they are so friendly.”

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Karima Akbary is currently studying for her masters degree in public policy at Ohio State. In her home country of Afghanistan, she worked as a human rights lawyer, leveraging Islamic teachings to encourage her community to focus on education and gender equality. Her friend Rebecca hopes to pursue graduate work in peace and conflict studies, but works now as a grassroots peacemaker. Spending time together for the two friends includes kiddos gallivanting around the house, hot tea, and enthusiastic political discussions.

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Ali Alsafi, a trained medical doctor from Iraq, didn’t need much help with his English when he arrived in Columbus, but he did need a friend. That’s why it was perfect when an organization paired Phil Claes (husband of PCI staff member Hannah Claes) with him as a conversation partner. Ali: “My friendship with them is proof that people can respect and love each other even if they have differences in faith or beliefs.”

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Hospitality from Kirsta Benedetti and Asma Alasmar is second nature. These women use healing, pragmatic connections around cups of tea to making people feel welcome at the Riverview International Center, where Benedetti is the Executive Director. The organization is a resource center open to a majority-Muslim immigrant community off Olentangy River Road. Asma has been in the U.S. less than a year (she grew up in Jordan), yet she is already a force for social change in her community.

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Afnan Isleem is practical, with a knack for being a visionary. Because she grew up in Gaza, Palestine—one of the most aggressively confined areas of the world due to Israeli border security—she has a depth to her lived experience that’s aware of violent conflict… but she’s a peace activist because she has a pragmatic hope for a better world.

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