SHAFAQNA – I see her walking in the park on these cool spring mornings, her hijab covering her hair as she exercises. I may run into her at the gym or at the grocery store. We nod and smile. I don’t know her name, but she’s my neighbor. My Muslim neighbor.

In a city as diverse as Huntsville, where there are many faith traditions and cultures existing side by side, we still tend to stick to our own kind.

Some in the faith community have tried to change that. They’ve hosted “diversity dinners” for decades. They give people a chance to meet their neighbors over food and conversation, sitting around a table in somebody’s home. So how does that change things?

“Once you meet your neighbor, you don’t put him in a box,” says Dr. Deborah Snead Abu-Alrub, founder of the Huntsville Islamic Academy. “You’re not afraid of him. You don’t think he wants to harm you.”

Dr. Abu-Alrub grew up in Huntsville as the granddaughter of a Methodist minister. She converted to Islam 27 years ago when she married a man with Palestinian roots. Her work as an oncology nurse — helping people cope with cancer — has taught her that people will accept differences in culture and religion when they have a common purpose.

Along with close friend Rev. Dr. Basye Holland-Shuey, Episcopal priest and spiritual director of the Church of the Nativity, Abu-Alrub works to combat Islamophobia, hate crimes, and school bullying. The two have gone to workshops around the country to see how other communities cope.

So it was natural that they helped plan the first annual “Meet Your Muslim Neighbor” event, an open house held at the Huntsville Islamic Center on Sparkman Drive. Dozens of members of the center wanted to host an event that would deal with misconceptions about Islam as well as show the public that Muslims are doctors, professors, students, ordinary people with jobs and families.

According to Aladin Beshir, Director of Community Outreach, the event was a huge success. Over 600 visitors came out on April 2, even though it was the kind of sunny day when people play golf or do yard work or take their children to the park. They came to stand around “topic tables” to ask questions they wouldn’t ask a stranger at he grocery store:

“Why do women cover their hair? Are they made to or is it a choice? What do Muslims believe about an afterlife, about the role of women, about the Bible and the Quran?”

“What’s Sharia Law, and should we be afraid of it?”

People from many denominations came, including members of First Baptist Church who offer English as a second language classes to some of the Syrian families in the area.

Beshir says the event was modeled on those held in Birmingham, Atlanta, and Chattanooga.

“Some people now feel free to say out loud the negative things they’re thinking,” he explains. “We wanted to do something to let people know we are people of charity, worship, and prayer.”

When visitors toured the Mosque, some seemed surprised that the building, with its large meeting areas, prayer hall, and school, was open to everyone. Beshir says it always will be.

He urges people to contact him if they have questions or want to see the place.

“We’re here,” he says. “We’re your neighbors.”