Published on Monday, March 17, 2003 by the New York Times
In Syracuse, a Diverse Group of Women Are Working to Change the World
SYRACUSE -- The 40 Christian, Muslim and Jewish women meeting here recently had been scheduled to talk about death and dying. But after three local Arab-American men were charged with illegally funneling money to Iraq, the topic changed from the hereafter to the here and now.
The women, members of a group set up after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to promote friendships between Muslim and non-Muslim women, shared their feelings about the Feb. 26 arrests and about another potentially divisive topic, the brewing threat of war with Iraq.
The group, Women Transcending Boundaries, usually discusses educational issues like the one that had been intended for the day. But the 13 core members knew that they needed to address the emerging religious tensions in the Syracuse area, especially after the F.B.I. questioned about 150 local Muslim families following the arrests of the three men.
"We wanted a format that would allow each woman to share what was most important to her in a safe and respectful setting," said Nancy Riffer, a Quaker and one of the group's members.
After Roko Sherry Chayat, who heads the Zen Center of Syracuse, sounded a Buddhist "singing bowl" to help neutralize any impending conflicts, the group moved to a format typical of Ms. Riffer's faith: a Quaker-style meeting that allowed each woman to speak her mind without interruption.
The meeting typified the group's approach to conflict, which is to listen and learn, said Betsy Wiggins, one of the group's two founders.
"Even if we have very, very different opinions, we can air things out and listen," said Ms. Wiggins, who worked for former President Jimmy Carter at the Carter Center in Atlanta, a humanitarian outreach organization, in the 1980's.
The women's group was formed about a week after Sept. 11, when Ms. Wiggins, an Episcopalian, found herself worrying that local Muslim women would be harassed in the wake of the attacks. She called the city's main mosque, the Islamic Society of Central New York, to see if there was anything she could do.
The imam there put her in touch with Danya Wellmon, an American who converted to Islam from Christianity 10 years earlier. The two met at Ms. Wiggins's home and spent the next several hours discussing their faiths, families and visions for a safer world.
"When Betsy and I met, I felt I had known her for a long time," Ms. Wellmon said. "Afterward, we could think of a lot of women who would have enjoyed our conversation." The following week, they each invited 10 friends, and soon the group swelled to 250.
Ms. Wiggins said: "I remember looking around my living room during those first meetings and seeing this amazing group of women — physicians, counselors, lawyers, artists, journalists, mothers, homemakers. Some of the women were nursing babies, and the table was literally groaning with food."
The rapid growth of the group has been a challenge, said Jeanette Powell, a member who is executive director of the Onondaga Pastoral Counseling Center in Syracuse, "but the nice thing is it has rarely been negative or hostile, considering the topics we've covered." Those subjects have included the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and differences in religious beliefs, Ms. Powell noted. But the group's emphasis on listening helps ensure that communication remains open, she said.
To the concern of many members, however, many Muslim women are still afraid to join the group, said Magda Bayoumi, a member and a volunteer advocate for children with disabilities. That fear was heightened, said Ms. Bayoumi, an Egyptian-American who has lived in Syracuse for 25 years, after the F.B.I. questioning of the Muslim families.
"If you're Muslim, you're guilty by association, guilty by religion," she said. "It's frustrating. When I advocate for children with disabilities, I don't ask, `Are they Jewish or Christian or Muslim?' I just want to make sure those kids have the best education ever."
Over time, two things have helped hold the group together, members said. One is their sharing of personal losses and joys. Since the group was formed, for instance, Ms. Wiggins discovered that she and many of her family members have a rare form of thyroid cancer.
"When I had my thyroidectomy, Danya made sure a different woman would bring me food every night for a week," Ms. Wiggins said. "These Muslim women would come to my door with the most beautiful meals."
Collaborating on projects aimed at alleviating social problems in Syracuse and in Muslim countries has also promoted bonds between the women. A fund-raising dinner they held in October, for example, raised $7,891 to support two coeducational schools in Pakistan. The project, called Ibtida, or "a beginning," is led by the family of Dr. Nuzhat Ahmed, a Pakistani physician who is a friend of another core member, Dr. Romana Hosein, also a physician.
Sue Eiholzer, a group member who attended the dinner, which was cooked by women of the mosque, said she had welcomed the opportunity to help. "You felt like what you gave had a huge impact," Ms. Eiholzer said. "The schools have yearly expenses of $1,500, and we raised nearly $8,000."
Another core member, Ruth Colvin, the founder of Literacy Volunteers of America, now the international group Pro Literacy, is leading a related effort to create literacy materials for women in Pakistan, most of whom cannot read and write. Other members are helping refugees living in Syracuse learn English and adapt to American culture.
All of these efforts show what a few women can do, Ms. Wiggins said.
"We're a little microcosm of Syracuse, N.Y., of the United States, of the world," she said. "If we can't talk honestly in our own little group, if we can't work together to make a difference, what hope is there?"
Copyright 2003 The New York Times Company