Columbia couple looks for peace amid national tension
COLUMBIA - As President Donald Trump prepares an alternate version of a temporary travel ban on refugees and members of seven Muslim-majority nations, one Columbia couple is sharing its experiences to promote acceptance in America.
The message that Rasha Abousalem and Rick Baker are trying to spread is that it's not about who is right, it's about living together peacefully.
"One of the problems facing our society is a lot of people think it has to be a certain way," Baker said.
Abousalem said, "You don't have to agree with me as a Muslim. You don't have to agree with my practices, I don't have to agree with you as a Christian, or a Jew or an atheist. It's about respect, and it's about showing them that you will not speak badly against them, it's about having manners and it's that simple."
Abousalem and Baker work for an international medical relief organization that works with refugees in places like Greece, Haiti and India.
Baker serves as the director of clinical operations on refugee trips, and Abousalem serves as the director of humanitarian operations.
For Abousalem, volunteering is a rewarding experience and that is hard to come back whenever she is working with refugees abroad.
"They tell me 'You're the only one who cares about us, and you're leaving, and what are we going to do now,' and I don't know what to tell them," Abousalem said.
Baker tries to keep a more professional relationship with the refugees he works with. Sometimes, that doesn't work.
"There's always going to be somebody that sneaks under your skin for one reason or another," Baker said. "It may remind you of another patient, it may just be the eyes of somebody that you just connect to. You can never wall off everything."
It's these experiences that have shaped the couple's view on refugees.
"They're like family to me now," Abousalem said. "That's the kind of relationship I have with these people."
Abousalem was born a Muslim and Baker converted in August of 2014.
As a white man, Baker said, he has had an experience atypical of most Muslims. That fact isn't stopping the local Muslim community from accepting him.
"The community here has been phenomenal," Baker said. "As a middle-aged white man, they have been more accepting, more gracious and more informative and supportive than I was ever expecting coming in."
According to Abousalem, Baker is treated differently than her by non-Muslims because it's not always whether you are Muslim or not, but whether you look Muslim or not.
"They see my husband, who's a white male, but they wouldn't know he's Muslim. And even then they might not fear him," Abousalem said. "But just looking at me, they might not know what I am, but once they find out, all of a sudden I'm questionable."
Abousalem sais she has dealt with her share of Islamophobia. She filed a police report after a man had posted several Islamophobic messages on a dog park Facebook page.
After instances like that, Abousalem was astounded by the amount of support she and her husband received at the solidarity march at Peace Park in January, shortly after Trump signed the executive order.
"It was really humbling," Abousalem said. "It made me feel as an American Muslim that these people see me just like them, no different, and they're their to support us through thick and thin. It's almost like a marriage."