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Jewish, Muslim sisters explore border issues

Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom cofounders Sheryl Olitzky and Atiya Aftab speak to members at a dinner hosted by The Tucson Islamic center Jan. 26.

The Tucson chapter of the national non-profit Sisterhood of Salaam Shalom recently hosted 52 international and local members for a fact-finding mission in Southern Arizona. The group of 26 Jewish and 26 Muslim members focused on southern border issues Jan. 26-30. The apolitical Sisterhood strives to build bridges between American, Canadian, and German Muslim and Jewish women and teen girls, learning about and from one another. There are 170 chapters. The visit to Southern Arizona was the group’s fifth annual bridge-building trip.

Mission activities during the week included a Southern Arizona border orientation at the Jewish History Museum with Josh Dunlap from Tucson’s Borderlinks, followed by a visit to the U.S. Federal Court in Tucson to witness Operation Streamline, the fast-track prosecution and migrant deportation program. 

HIAS national staff Rebecca Kirzner, director of grassroots campaigns and community engagement, and Meggie Weiler, policy officer, conducted local, state, and federal advocacy training. Karen McDonald, the spiritual director of Tucson’s Southside Presbyterian Church, birthplace of the sanctuary movement in the 1980s, briefed the women. Barbara Eiswerth, founder and executive director of Iskashitaa Refugee Network, spoke about the Tucson-based non-profit’s work that twins food security with refugee work.

Two days of excursions included a trip to the border wall in Nogales, Arizona, delivering water to the migration paths in the desert, and volunteer service at Catholic Community Services Casa Alitas welcome center, which houses migrants and asylees released by federal authorities after crossing the southern border.

The group gathered for dinner Jan. 27, hosted at the Tucson Islamic Center. Following maghrib Muslim sunset prayers, Lynn Hourani, Tucson chapter co-chair with Roberta Elliott, a member of the Arizona Jewish Post advisory board, gave an overview of the area’s growing Muslim population. “We’ve experienced exponential growth through wave after wave of refugees from all corners of the world,” she said, noting that it has made the local Muslim community very rich and diverse.

Speaking at the dinner, Sisterhood co-founders Sheryl Olitzky and Atiya Aftab noted that the grassroots organization is the only movement of Muslim and Jewish women with a passion to rid the world of hate. Olitzky encouraged mission participants to “go back home and share what you saw and heard.”

“We can’t change history or rewrite it,” said Aftab, “but we can change the future.”

Barry Kirchner, the board president of the Jewish History Museum, spoke briefly at the dinner about the Holocaust, in honor of International Holocaust Commemoration Day. Kirchner is an attorney representing long-term disability and personal injury clients. He emphasized that humans have the capacity to be bystanders to thugs. “It is possible that we in the future will be the upstanders against the thugs. We need to stand by each other and stand for humanity,” he said. “As vulnerable communities, we have to stand in solidarity,” Hourani added.