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‘We know they would stand up for us.’ How good neighbors are helping South Seattle Muslims lose their fear in the Trump era

Muhubo Mohamed and Yurub Mohamed hosted a dinner for neighbors after receiving a letter of support from their community. “We want to live here forever. We don’t want to move ever,” Yurub said. (Photo by Mónica Guzmán)

Yurub Mohamed feels safer in her neighborhood than she has in months. And it all started with a letter.

“If that letter wasn’t sent, we’d be scared our neighborhood would still have a bad image of Muslims, as terrorists and things,” she said from her friend Muhubo Mohamed’s home in Rainier Vista, a community in South Seattle that’s a mix of Seattle Housing Authority subsidized rentals, affordable housing, and market-rate homes.

“After receiving that letter, we’re not so scared. Now we feel safe. Now we know that those words from Donald Trump — they [our neighbors] don’t believe that,” Muhubo said, speaking in Somali through their translator, Muhubo’s daughter Fartun.

The letter that Yurub, Muhubo, and hundreds of their neighbors found on their doorsteps last month was a statement of support signed by about 200 of their fellow Rainier Vista residents, most of them homeowners.

“As members of the New Rainier Vista community, we are saddened and outraged by the blatant anti-immigrant, and specifically anti-Muslim, actions coming from the Trump administration,” the letter began.

“Today, we want to say loudly and clearly that if they target Muslim Americans, or any member of our diverse community, they target all of us; for we stand together as one,” the letter continued. “You are us. America is not America without you.”

‘We know that they would stand up for us.’

When Yurub read the letter, she was pretty deeply moved. She wanted to do something to thank everyone who signed it. So she talked to Muhubo, and another friend, Nasro, and the three went to the office of Jeniffer Calleja, the Rainier Vista community builder with the Seattle Housing Authority. They wanted to host a dinner. And they wanted to invite everyone in the neighborhood.

That dinner packed a community room at Rainier Vista on March 18. It was one of the largest events Rainier Vista had ever seen, bringing together groups that almost never mingled. Two-hundred people came — an equal mix of Muslims and non-Muslims, homeowners and residents of subsidized housing. So many families brought dishes that they could barely fit on the table. People took turns sharing words of support at a microphone. And written in red letters on a big white cake, underneath an American flag, was the theme for the evening: “Solidarity Forever for the Union Makes us Strong.”

After the dinner, Yurub and Muhubo saw their non-Muslim neighbors very differently.

“Before… We’d see them around but there was no real interaction,” Muhubo said. “This party let us recognize who they are. If someone else says, ‘No, you cannot wear a hijab,’ or other hateful comments, we know that they [our neighbors] would stand up for us.”

Yurub and Muhubo feel particularly grateful for one of their neighbors — a homeowner named Jared Howe. The letter that inspired the dinner was his idea.

‘Those walls are just fear’

The cake at dinner. (Photo by Rainier Vista resident Sue Siegenthaler)

Jared is actually the reason we at The Evergrey found out about this story. He’s an Evergrey reader, and reached out to us about what happened in his neighborhood. He was pleasantly surprised at how casually it began and how quickly it gained momentum.

He wonders if connections like these can spread.

Jared’s part in this started months ago, a couple days after a November election that left him crushed and scared for his Muslim neighbors. He lives next door to several Muslim families he would say hi to occasionally, and he wanted to reach out. So he typed up a letter that he and his wife, Whitney, signed, made five copies, and deliver them to the families.

“Please consider our home a safe space, and know that we are available to talk, share a meal, walk with you to the train, or for anything else you might need to feel safe in your home,” part of their letter read.

When he delivered that initial, personal letter, it felt like a wall had come down, Jared said.

“The Muslim families that are here, it’s been harder to meet them. It’s harder for two cultures to really mix even though they live right next door. That’s just a natural thing,” Jared said.

But after he gave his Muslim neighbors his letter, Jared started feeling more close to them. “Small things like just going over to their house and saying hi to their kids. Little acts like that can sort of break down those walls,” he said. “And what I found is those walls are just fear, not knowing what to do.”

‘That would never happen here’

After Trump issued his executive order banning travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, Jared came to the New Rainier Vista Homeowners Association with an idea. Could the community of homeowners write their neighbors a letter together?

He and others worked on a draft, which they shared with the association’s Google Group. About 200 residents signed it, hundreds of copies were printed, and the letters were distributed around the community, where they found their way to Yurub and Muhubo.

KING-5 did a short piece on the dinner they organized that aired on live TV, which Yurub and Muhubo were ecstatic about. When the video went online, they shared it with their families in Africa and in other parts of the United States. Their relatives in other parts of America all told them the same thing: “That would never happen here.”

Yurub made a point to say she really likes living in Washington, where she feels that the governor, the attorney general, and other officials “stand up with us.”

As for Jared, the women said they “appreciated him and really thank him.”

“We understand how hard it can be to interact with other communities, with other cultures,” Muhubo said.

Yurub smiled.

“Maybe in the future,” she said, “he can be president.”

By Mónica Guzmán
Mónica is the cofounder and editor of The Evergrey. She's been a Seattle journalist for a decade and adores this city.