If you saw someone on the street sitting next to a sign that read “Ask A Muslim,” what would you ask?
Sebastian Robins has probably heard it before. He and his wife Mona Haydar have gained local fame in Cambridge, Massachusetts, for setting up a booth on the street and fielding questions from strangers about all things Islam.
“We were really afraid the first time, up to the point where we considered notifying the police,” Robins told Fusion about the couple’s unconventional idea.
Robins, a white American, converted to Islam in 2012 after meeting his wife, a Syrian American Muslim from Flint, Michigan, on a trip to New Mexico. A few months ago, in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, the two of them started putting up their booth around town “to conquer fear through conversation,” as Haydar put it. The couple’s idea has been successful beyond their imagination, helping them spread love and awareness and even inspiring others around the country to do the same.
“We love it if you can just break bread with us,” said Haydar, who offers free coffee, donuts, and flowers along with her conversation. “Take a moment out of your day and hang out with us.”
The couple said they felt the need to reach out to their community for open dialogue amid heightened security fears and Islamophobic comments from Republican politicians. “Post Paris and San Bernadino, I had never only felt the fear of going out, but kind of this incredible impotence and depression,” said Robins. “It was the first time I was afraid in my own country."
His own education about Islamophobia had come from his wife. “It’s been a huge reckoning for me," said Robins about his marriage. "Re-examining my place in society, and what it means to be a white, straight, educated, upper middle-class male in society. I knew these things through studies, but to experience them through Mona’s eyes…it’s pretty amazing.”
“I never really realized how people stared at you,” he would tell his wife when they started spending time in public together.
The booth idea, the couple said, was inspired by an episode of “'This American Life” in which an Iraqi refugee traveled the U.S. with a “Talk to an Iraqi” sign to encourage dialogue about the Iraq War.
Haydar and Robins, 27 and 43, first set up in front of a high school and a library in Cambridge, a relatively diverse college town. They thought it would be the safest place—and close to a bathroom, too. Little did they know who had attended that school. “The booth was in front of the school where the Boston Marathon bombers went to school. We had no idea,” said Haydar. But the coincidence spurred thoughtful conversations.
Most of all, the couple wanted people to see that they are typical Americans. “We are normal humans living our silly and mundane lives as parents to a two-year-old, who change diapers and cook eggs in the mornings,” said Haydar.
“We certainly do not want to convert anybody,” added Robins.
Not that everyone who stopped at the booth had a positive comment. Some people confronted Haydar about wearing “an oppressive thing” on her head, referring to the hijab. Robins was surprised by that, he said. “Here we were in Cambridge, home of Harvard, MIT and all the prestigious universities, with very smart people and I was amazed how the media effectively creeped up into people's minds,” he said. Haydar said that it’s a matter of perspective. “My perspective is that hijab is liberating, whether you see that as me being brainwashed or not,” she said.
Haydar was born and raised in Flint, Michigan. She met Robins in 2013 on a trip to New Mexico for a summer course. They fell in love after meeting on a mountaintop. “It was my birthday. I ventured up the mountain and Sebastian was sitting on a bench. He was the first one I saw there,” said Haydar.
Haydar recalled the time she told her parents that she was marrying a white man. Arab expatriates tend to marry each other; the idea of marrying an American isn't very popular within the community due to cultural and religious differences. “It was definitely not an easy conversation with my parents. But when they met him, everybody knew and felt that it was right,” she said. The couple now lives in Massachusetts with their two-year-old son.
To date, over 100 conversations have taken place at the booth over donuts and coffee, said Haydar. People were happy to see a Muslim couple on the streets extending a hand and willing to talk, she said. “Suddenly we had all these people thanking us for what we were doing,” said Robins. People came up to the couple to talk about everyday things, like “making breakfast and the weather,” said Haydar.
“We stepped out of our comfort zone and it paid off. We went and did something that took a lot of guts for us,” said Haydar. “We didn't feel safe and we did it anyways because we believe in love. We believe that the world is a generous and beautiful place. Period.”
People nationwide have reached out to her for advice about setting up booths in their own cities.
Alaa Basatneh is a human-rights activist and a writer at Fusion focusing on the Arab world. She is the protagonist of the 2013 documentary "#ChicagoGirl."