By Amr Omar
Lilburn, Georgia –On May 9, 2015, Lilburn Mayor Johnny Crist attended a Muslim community potluck held at Lucky Shoals Park. Asma Elhuni, a passionate community organizer and Georgia State student, Amin Tomeh, a Geotechnical Engineer whose children attend Al-Falah Academy in Lilburn, and Ibrahim Awad, a criminal defense attorney and resident of Gwinnett county, invited the Mayor to come out and meet members of Gwinnett’s Muslim community.
With some prayer and a humble expectation of germination, this gesture towards building bridges was no more than a single seed planted by the local Muslims and the city leader. At a debriefing session meant to uncloud what seemed to be a foggy topic, Mayor Crist asked how he could enhance the lives of his Muslim constituents. At that point, a cultural sensitivity training course was brought up.
“One way of fostering a relationship of trust with the police and the Muslim community is by educating the police force on the nuanced beliefs and practices of Muslims,” Awad mentioned.
Mayor Crist immediately phoned Police Chief Bruce Hedley and asked him to coordinate such a training. Without delay, Chief Hedley brilliantly compounded the mayor’s goodwill by making the cultural sensitivity training mandatory for all of his officers.
Asma Elhuni solicited the help of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta to help create a presentation for the Lilburn Police Force. In addition to the basic beliefs and practices of Muslims, the ISB put together a training specifically tailored to the Lilburn Police Department containing the names and addresses of the multiple mosques located in Lilburn.
Elhuni, along with Amin Tomeh, Khalil Abdullah, and Ibrahim Awad, presented to the entire police department on three separate sessions to make sure every single member of the police department attended. The trainings took place on August 6, 11, and 12 at the Lilburn Municipal Court.
The training contained different scenarios of how officers should react when handling a Quran, entering a mosque, observing a group of Muslims praying, and learning some of the sensitivities they may encounter when interacting with Muslim women, some of whom who wear the hijab or niqab. The hypotheticals were all classified as non-emergency encounters where an officer’s discretion can make or break the rapport between law enforcement and a Muslim civilian. The presentation delved into diverse customs and practices the police may come across and how best to respond in real-life settings.
“The officers were incredibly receptive to the material,” said Elhuni, “[and] the sessions crystallized everything we hoped to accomplish.”
The seed planted a few months prior did not just sprout; it was beginning to bloom. Along with Mayor Crist, some city council members, including Margot Ashley, President of SafetySmart Lilburn, and local pastors attended the final session and even inquired as to visiting the local mosques to expand their horizons.
Based on the feedback and validation shared by the attendees of the training, “An indelible difference was made,” remarked Tomeh.
After the session, Captain Mike Johnson (Operations Division) approached the trainers about partnering with the Muslim community. Mayor Crist had informed the group that there were small portions of Lilburn that required attention, and Captain Johnson wanted to discuss creative ways in which the collaboration would create public spaces that are conducive to community building, emphasizing safety and providing a thriving environment for the residents. An exciting project is in the works and follow up meetings are scheduled to pursue these ideas.
On September 12, 2015, the City of Lilburn plans to host the “Small Town. Big World: Lilburn International Festival,” and the ISB is invited to have a booth at the festival to inform the attendees of Islam and Muslims. The ISB is planning on participating and the broader Muslim community is ready to become proactively involved in community building in Lilburn.
The small seed planted a few months ago has started to take root within the community, and is thriving. Only time will tell the greatness of such a planting, but even the biggest redwoods start as a single seed.