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Panel seeks to shatter Mideast stereotypes

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A multi-ethnic panel discussion designed to open a dialogue about the myriad misconceptions surrounding the Middle Eastern and Islamic communities will be Thursday.

“We want to help break down stereotypes and better inform the larger community about our little community,” said Hanna Omar, vice president of the Middle East Association.

The panel is sponsored by Ivy Tech Community College, the Middle East Association and the Islamic Society of Columbus and is funded by a Welcoming Communities II grant from the Heritage Fund — The Community Foundation of Bartholomew County. It will feature five people of Indian, African and Middle Eastern descent who practice a variety of religions.

Their identities will remain a secret until the panel discussion has begun, said mediator John Roberts, dean of the schools of academic skills advancement and liberal arts and sciences at Ivy Tech and secretary of the Human Right Commission.

Roberts said the idea is to avoid attaching to panel participants a sense of separateness — the very form of judgement this panel seeks to eradicate.

“This is the whole premise,” Roberts said. “They will make up the audience, just as they make up the ‘audience’ of Columbus as a whole.”

Roberts, an African-American with Jewish ancestry, said his own experiences as a person of multi-ethnic heritage informs his approach to the topic.

“Most people assume that I am entirely African-American, but that is not the totality of who I am,” Roberts said. “I don’t look Jewish, but then, who is to say what a Jewish person looks like.”

Omar said the event was inspired by an event that Ala’a Wafa of the Islamic Society of Columbus heard about when she was in college called Not All Asians Look the Same. The panel attempted to address major cultural differences between Asians from different countries, and Omar and Wafa thought a similar approach could help dispel stereotypes surrounding Middle Easterners, Muslims and South Asians in Columbus.

Omar, a Muslim of Middle Eastern descent who moved to Columbus from New York about a year and a half ago, said the goal of this and other programing funded by the grant is to help people look beyond religious and cultural differences to see the commonalities.

For instance, Omar said that parents from different cultural backgrounds can find common ground through parenting, rather than allow themselves to be separated by a religious belief.

“Parents all want what’s best for their children, so all parents can relate to that feeling, regardless of their background,” Omar said.

Future programs funded by the Welcoming Communities II grant include a film screening in January of a PBS documentary about the prophet Muhammad and another discussion tentatively planned for April that will take a closer look at Arab Spring, the name given to the recent spate of uprisings and demonstrations that have taken place in the Arab world.

Omar said she hopes that the discussion offers a welcoming, healthy environment for attendees to ask questions and share their feelings without judgment, which will benefit individuals as both workplace and society as a whole become more global.

“Columbus is going to get more diverse,” Omar said. “Not less.”

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