In April 2015, Ahmet Tanhan, PhD student in the Counseling and Educational Department at UNCG, as well as Dr. Vincent Francisco of UNCG’s Public Health Department, conducted a survey with the help of the Muslim Student Association and a UNCG research team.
The purpose, Tanhan said, to measure and address Muslim student concerns and satisfaction. The results of the survey were shared at a dinner on campus, followed by an open discussion of the results with Muslim and non-Muslim students, staff, faculty and other members of the community.
Now, nearly six months later, Tanhan has played a role in uniting Muslim and non-Muslim communities in Greensboro again, with the help of the Islamic Center of Greensboro, the Muslim Student Association and the International Civil Rights Center and Museum.
On Saturday, September 19th, the museum in downtown Greensboro was filled with a vibrant mix of people of all ages, races, and religions.
The historic Woolworth’s store, the site that famously sparked the Greensboro sit-ins during the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, was an appropriate setting for the event, a Peace Festival imagined by Tanhan, Wasif Qureshi, President of the Islamic Center of Greensboro and other community leaders.
Like the dinner following Tanhan’s research group’s survey, the Peace Festival was an intentionally positive response to a negative outcome – this year, that is a hate letter sent to the Islamic Center from a neighboring restaurant. The Islamic Center has decided to keep the identity of the sender and their business private.
“The only way to have a more meaningful life is not to ‘fight hate’, but to embrace it and create some physical and psychological space, context [and] moments to talk about it,” Tanhan explained, citing a verse from the Quran.
The hate letter was addressed briefly by Qureshi, who took the stage to welcome the community and to introduce each of the night’s seven speakers.
John Swaine, CEO of the International Civil Rights Museum, was the first speaker of the night.
Swaine emphasized the connection between peace and justice, and asked the community to consider the powerful significance of the location of their march for peace, where only 55 years ago, four A&T students decided to change their world.
Swaine left the audience with the imaginative, but compelling words, “Peace… Let that word dance in your heads, much like a gala, and when we leave this auditorium to start our march, let that word, ‘peace’ continue to dance in your heads for equality and for justice for each of us.”
The next speakers of the festival were Marikay Abuzuaiter, of the Greensboro City Council, and Police Chief Wayne Scott. Both speakers demonstrated a love of Greensboro with their words of encouragement for the event, and their continual support of community-building efforts like the Peace Festival.
Scott compared the spirit of American unity to cable bridges, which contain individual wires that gain their strength when twisted together, conveying the message of the festival perfectly – strength through peaceful unity.
The UNCG community was well represented at the festival. The speakers included Dr. Christopher Graham, a UNCG history professor, Nick Russo, a recent convert to Islam and a current student at UNCG who was part of Tanhan’s research team and Dr. Omar Ali, the Interim Dean of the Lloyd International Honors College at UNCG.
The first portion of the peace festival was concluded by Diali Keba Cissokho, an expert Kora player from Senegal, who played a song for the prophet Muhammad, as well as words of solidarity with a Quaker organization representative, who also initiated a moment of silence.
The event continued with a peaceful march beginning from West February 1 Place at sunset, a communal prayer and meal featuring dishes from two local Indian and Egyptian restaurants and a symbolic and colorful balloon release.
Qureshi and his colleagues decidedly marked the event as a success. One UNCG student remarked on the mixed presence of both students and community members, “That gives me faith, that everyone is involved.”
Tanhan, a student himself, spoke of the importance of understanding and compassion within the university, “I would encourage all students at this great campus to attend one another and to strive to hearken to other’s unexpressed stories to make this education process richer for all.”