Her Group Promotes Cultural Understanding, Respect, Civil Rights

By Kellie Schmitt

When Samina Faheem Sundas was 6 and living in Pakistan, she volunteered to package supplies for victims of a monsoon. Sundas, whose grandmother called her ``a bundle of love,’’ was a humanitarian before she even knew what it meant.

Decades later, the Palo Alto resident is dedicating her life to a bigger mission as the founder of American Muslim Voice. The group works to unite people in a campaign for human rights, respect and understanding of other cultures.

In the year since it was founded, Sundas, 49, and her organization have tried to voice concerns about civil rights while also forging ties with other groups nationally, such as Amnesty International, the American Civil Liberties Union, Global Exchange, and the Blue Triangle Network.

Sundas started the group after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, when the backlash against Muslims made her part of a ``target community.’’ She wanted to help people move through that to create friendships between Muslims and Americans, something she hoped would lead to the preservation of civil liberties and human rights.

``What I wanted to see was friendships between Muslims, Arabs and fellow Americans,’’ Sundas said. ``American Muslim Voice was founded to fill a void and take dialogue to the next level.’’
The campaign began on the grass-roots level, with Sundas looking for groups of ``community builders’’ across the country that shared the philosophy of the American Muslim Voice. She immersed herself in their divergent causes and along the way found a common mission with many.

``We get to the bigger things by meeting people, one person at a time,’’ Sundas said. ``I go to the community and say, `What can I do for you?’ ‘’
She measures the organization’s success, in part, by pointing to the diversity of groups whose causes have become part of the agenda for the American Muslim Voice.

Among them are the Oct. 22 Coalition, an organization designed to stop police brutality, and Code Pink, a group of women who created a peace organization after the bombing of Afghanistan. Most recently, Sundas’ organization has advocated for people who have been deported because their visas are expired, a cause that took her to Pakistan to speak at a news conference on the issue.

``I think she has the ability to bring people together because she’s coming from a very non-ego place so she can get people together that normally won’t -- she bridges warring factions,’’ said the founding director of the San Francisco-based Global Exchange, Medea Benjamin, who invited her to speak at a Code Pink event.
Richard Konda, the executive director of the Asian Law Alliance, met Sundas after a San Jose police officer shot Bich Cau Thi Tran, a Vietnamese woman. As the case progressed, Sundas attended many strategy sessions and worked to inspire hope in the community, he said.

When she called her news contacts to attend the Tran news conference, they were baffled as to why a Muslim would be calling about a Vietnamese issue, Konda said.
``She said, `This is a human issue,’ ‘’ Konda said.
Sundas came to the United States from Pakistan when in 1979 she was a young mother and her husband was studying in California.

``I chose America because I thought this country would provide my children with a better opportunity,’’ she said. ``You can make mistakes your whole life, and change it at any point, any stage -- that’s the beauty of this country.’’

Before creating American Muslim Voice, Sundas was a full-time volunteer with the American Muslim Alliance, a political organization that helps Muslims understand the government and empower them to run for office.
Sundas said she sees her work as a calling, putting in about 18 hours a day and doing her best to answer all e-mails sent to her Web site within 24 hours.

``She believes wholeheartedly in civil rights for everyone, much like Martin Luther King,’’ said her daughter Misbah Faheem, 27.

Sundas said the magnitude of her mission to improve the human condition can seem daunting, but that it’s really as simple as inviting a neighbor over for dinner one night.
``I want us to be able to sit in the park and talk about movies while the children are playing,’’ she said. (Courtesy San Mercury News)


Editor: Akhtar M. Faruqui
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