June 2018

From strangers to cousins

It shouldn’t be a shock to see a Catholic school girl from Pymble share a meal with Muslim school girls from Prestons. But it is, writes Ashleigh Green.

BY Ashleigh Green

“Why did they congratulate me for sitting on a table with Muslims?” my 17-year-old cousin asked as we departed the Iftar dinner. “They were normal teenage girls just like me.”

My cousin was right. It shouldn’t be a shock to see a Catholic school girl from Pymble share a meal with Muslim school girls from Prestons. It shouldn’t be a shock to see scarves and crucifixes on the same table.

But it is.

We take a second glance. We consider hidden agendas. And then we see the laughter, the uninhibited joy and the adding of each other on Snapchat. Finally we tell ourselves, “This must be real.”

There was something special about Mount St Benedict Centre’s inaugural Iftar dinner,* co-hosted by Affinity Intercultural Foundation on June 7. Despite being seated in a large dining room with 80 guests, it had the intimate feel of someone’s home. In fact, the array of vases, mosaic plates and coloured table cloths that lined the room came straight from someone’s house.

Ahmet Polat, Executive Director of Affinity Intercultural Foundation set the mood when he greeted us all as cousins. “Love is a verb,” he emphasised, “and seeing it in action should be our dream.”

For the school girls on my table, the dialogue about Ramadan, fasting and religion came as naturally as the banter about school and social media. As we broke the fast with a Medjool date, my cousin noted that she’d never had a date before. Of course, this was followed by clarification that she wasn’t referring to the romantic kind of ‘date’. Laughter ensued and the ice was broken.

When someone from Generation Z tells a story, it is often accompanied by a photo on their smartphone to illustrate a point. One of the school girls on our table explained that during Ramadan it is normal for households to host home Iftars and invite crowds of neighbours, friends and family.

She showed us a photo of her mother’s banquet of Middle Eastern goodness, a three-metre long table with not a space left uncovered by kafta, tabouleh or hommus. It was glorious. I looked at my cousin who shares my appreciation of good food and our jaws dropped in sync. For a moment, the theme of the evening – “Be the Best Neighbour” – became very literal. I am sure the same question crossed my cousin’s mind: how feasible would it be to relocate to Prestons and live next door to this girl’s mother?

But it was more than just the food. It was the love and care that went into the creation of the meal. It was the intimate act of several people drawing nourishment from the same table. It was the communion this woman enabled that made her the best neighbour.

The theme of the evening – “Be the Best Neighbour” – was developed by Studies of Religion students from Mount St Benedict College after reflecting on the concept of ‘neighbour’ in the Islamic writings. The theme is inspired by the quote, “The best neighbour to Allah is the best to his neighbours”, which comes from the Hadith.**

Sister Patty Fawkner, Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, and Dawud Ilham, Senior Head Teacher of Religion and Values at Amity College, both delivered keynote addresses. There was a beautiful congruence between the two speeches as they explored the common themes of mercy and compassion.

Patty broke open the parable of the Good Samaritan and encouraged us to consider the context of the story. As Jesus told the story, listeners would have been shocked that the best neighbour was not one of them, but the Samaritan. Instead of the Samaritan asking himself, “If I stop will I be late?” or “Will I be ridiculed?” he asked, “What will happen if I don’t stop to help this person?”

As the night went on, we shared stories around the table of where our ancestors came from. I found myself reflecting on the view I once held that I was Australian, and ‘they’ (the second-generation Muslim girls living in Western Sydney) were not. Growing up in a white-Anglo suburb on the New South Wales Central Coast, my view of Australia was the stereotypical, care-free, beachside lifestyle that I have since learnt is reality for a minority of Australians. What struck me about the school girls’ dialogue was the acceptance that we are all foreigners on this land.

My cousin shared the story of our great-great-grandmother who fled Ireland to escape an arranged marriage, while one of the Muslim girls announced her mixed Lebanese-Jordanian heritage. Our great-great-grandmother came to Australia by boat to escape a life that she didn’t want for herself. She travelled to the ends of the earth for a better life, as did the girls’ ancestors from Lebanon, Jordan and Pakistan. The dreams, the struggles, the pain, the hopes and the treacherous journeys of our ancestors had brought us, mere pilgrims, together for this meal. Not one of us was more worthy of a seat at the table than another.

For most of the evening we mused about life and the mundane realities that fill our days – biology teachers, HSC exams, driving tests, 16th birthday parties and weddings. And food. There was a lot of talk about food – Lebanese food, Pakistani food, Indian food and, of course, McDonald’s, which is conveniently located within reach of every teenager in Sydney.

The shared reality of being a teenager in 2018 was enough to outweigh religious differences. Don’t get me wrong, the differences were acknowledged, discussed and even celebrated. But they weren’t enough to stop a series of new Instagram and Snapchat relationships from blooming.

“Why did they congratulate me for sitting on a table with Muslims?” my 17-year-old cousin asked as we departed the Iftar dinner. I didn’t do this question justice on the night, so here is my second attempt:

We continue to live in a society where segregation is expected.

Soon you will go to university and find that the cafeteria is split into factions of international students, Australian-born Chinese, Muslims, Jews, evangelical Christians, progressive Christians and members of what they call the ‘North Shore bubble’.

When you leave home you will probably live in a suburb with people that look like you and talk like you.

When you apply for your first job after university, you will find yourself at a desk beside someone who did the same degree, probably because they share similar values and interests.

The ladies who congratulated you tonight didn’t do so because you did something heroic. In fact, you did something that is expected of us as Christians. You were congratulated because what happened tonight still isn’t normal. To see young Christians and Muslims sharing stories over butter chicken and naan is so abnormal that it warrants praise.

Our challenge, from today, is to set a new norm. As young people, it is in our power to redefine our culture and choose the values that we pass on to future generations.

And that is exactly how David Patterson from the Iftar dinner planning committee wrapped up the night. “Our challenge,” he said, “is to be the best neighbours we can be in a world that is so hungry for peace and connection.”

Now it is up to us.


* Mount St Benedict Centre, a ministry of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan, is a place of spirituality and formation. The Iftar meal is that which breaks the daily fast for Muslims during the holy month of Ramadan.

** Hadith is a traditional account, handed down over generations, of what the Prophet Muhammad is said to have done, said, approved or disapproved.

Ashleigh Donnelly

Ashleigh is a Social Worker who has worked with youth at risk and adults living with intellectual disabilities. Ashleigh is married to Justin and is mum to Rosemary who is soon to turn one. In 2019, she accepted an invitation to join the Vatican's International Youth Advisory Body as the Oceania representative. Ashleigh enjoys speaking, writing, cooking, hiking, and undertaking creative endeavours.

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