The vast majority of Eastside residents want the region to be a place where everyone — regardless of culture, nationality or religion — feels welcome.
And to help ensure that this dream becomes the reality, the Bellevue Police Department and Muslim Community and Neighborhood Association organized the second annual Muslim and Immigrant Safety Forum and Dinner on Wednesday evening at the Bellevue School District building.
While Washington state and the Puget Sound in particular are generally seen as tolerant places in comparison with the rest of the nation, the region has not been immune to hate crimes against Muslims. In January 2017, an arsonist set fire to the Bellevue Mosque. A sign in front of the Muslim Association of Puget Sound mosque in Redmond was vandalized twice in 2016.
“Given the climate we now live in, I want to make Mercer Island a more welcoming community,” Mercer Island City Councilmember Benson Wong stated. He said that Mercer Island is overall a fairly welcoming place, but emphasized that the focus needs to be “not just tolerance, [but] accepting and embracing” other cultures.
Imam Faisal of the Bellevue Mosque began the proceedings with a blessing that emphasized the importance of peace in Islam. He explained that Muslims greet one another by saying that they offer only peace and no threat to the person they are meeting.
“It’s not just a religion — it’s a lifestyle,” he said.
Police officers from around the Eastside gave a presentation on how residents can ensure they are being watchful and what they should do if they feel threatened. Sammamish Police Chief Michelle Bennett, Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett, Kirkland Police Chief Cherie Harris, Issaquah Police Commander Paula Schwan and Redmond Police Lieutenant Tim Gately led the presentation.
Topics discussed included crime prevention, when to call 911, personal safety and de-escalation, hate crime laws in Washington, local immigration policies and the “run, hide, fight” strategy that is used when an active shooter is nearby. In one exercise, attendees were told to close their eyes, then point to their first, second and third choice for exits if there was an active shooter in the room. The exercise was meant to show the importance of being aware of one’s surroundings at all times.
After the presentation, residents discussed safety and concerns at tables throughout the room.
Bennett told of how she was invited to come speak at the Sammamish Mosque, which represented a first for her — before that experience, she had never even been inside a mosque. However, she was very touched when the Muslim community told her that they wanted her to set an example for their young girls.
“You all now become the same peace ambassador,” she told the gathered crowd. “So thank you for being here.”
Bennett especially encouraged everyone not to be afraid to call 911 if anything seems at all out of the ordinary.
“If you see something suspicious, call us,” Bennett said. “You’re not [imposing]. Let us determine whether it’s suspicious. We’re here to help you, to be a partner with you.”
Mylett agreed, noting, “You never know what you’re going to prevent.”
He added that “we have a long way to go between police-community relations” and that this bond needs to be strengthened, because “if you don’t trust us, you’re not going to call us.” He encouraged everyone to get involved with their local police departments and applauded the Muslim community of Bellevue for “open[ing] their arms to us.”
City of Bellevue Mediation Department volunteer Jayant Shukla, who immigrated here from India, said that Wednesday’s event was “fundamentally important” because it “encourages the community to engage.”
“There can be stressful times ahead, but when we know each other, it puts things in perspective,” he said.