Ironically, not even two years after inaugurating our first African-American President, the United States’ romantic image as the melting pot of the world has again been shattered. Today, debates about what it means to be American are deeply influenced by racism and bigot- ry, especially against Arab-Americans and Muslim-Americans. Indeed Islamophobia, which has been plaguing Europe for several decades, is also alive and well on our shores these days, as demonstrated by some of the more intolerant responses to the proposed building of Park51, an Islamic community center in downtown Manhattan. Not all debates about the center reflected ill will, and some even communicated substantively real concerns. Nevertheless leading up to this year’s anniversary of September 11 the media readily gave voice to individuals espous- ing hatred and bigotry. The pastor who threatened to burn the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, in response to the proposed building of Park51 became an international celebrity who was even interviewed by the BBC. He told this worldwide audience that he never had read the Qur’an before, but that instead he knew all that he needed to know about this holy book from what the Bible says about it, an anachronism that may be lost on many Americans.

And yet while America’s divisive public discourse was increasing in rancor, some mem- bers of the Syracuse community were mobilizing to show compassion for their neighbors, es- pecially those in need. This culminated in the “A-OK Acts of Kindness Weekend” to corre- spond with this year’s September 11 commemorations. Organized by Women Transcending Boundaries (WTB), a women’s interfaith charitable group formed after September 11, 2001, this amazing event brought together participants and volunteers of every age and from all sectors—religious, civic, educational and business—to collaborate on dozens of community projects throughout the greater Syracuse area.

One of the more remarkable projects featured in the “A-OK Acts of Kindness Week- end” was the opening of Rahma Free Health Clinic, a new not-for-profit health clinic that will serve members of the Syracuse community who cannot afford health insurance. The clinic is sponsored and run by the Muslim American Care and Compassion Alliance (MACCA), a group formed by local Muslim-American activists. As spokesperson Magda Bayoumi explains, the Arabic word rahma means mercy. The clinic will initially be open twice weekly and is run by an all-volunteer staff, including physicians originally from Lebanon, Egypt, Kashmir, and other countries. But just like the other projects in the “A-OK Acts of Kindness Weekend,” the clinic is also attracting support from outside the local Muslim community. According to Danya Wellmon, a medical technologist with the American Red Cross who is involved with WTB and Rahma Clinic, Syracuse residents from all faiths have generously offered to volunteer for the clinic.

This potential to unite Americans is precisely what supporters of Park51 suggest the Islamic community center will do, as the majority of the complex will be open to all faiths. How- ever, for better or for worse, since the controversy over Park51 climaxed around September 11 the public debate has suddenly died down. While feelings have probably not abated, we can only hope that the exceptional humanitarian work of organizations like MACCA will further the conversation not only with words, but also through charitable deeds.

For donations to the clinic, you can make checks payable to MACCA and mail to: MACCA, 3100 Salina Street, Syracuse, New York 13205.