Community gathers to fight hate


Dozens of local residents from diverse backgrounds and faiths gathered Thursday, Jan. 11, at Christ Episcopal Church in Ponte Vedra Beach to take a stand against antisemitism and all forms of hate. The dinner and program served as a kickoff for a series of events inspired by a UF Hillel initiative launched in 2020 called Spread Cream Cheese Not Hate®.

The evening featured compelling speakers, including Basma Alawee, a leader in refugee resettlement and inclusion. In 2010, Alawee and her family fled their home country of Iraq after their lives were threatened. They eventually became American citizens, but not before being confronted by anti-Muslim prejudice and discrimination in this new land.

But unforeseen acts of kindness turned things around for Alawee.

“A Jewish friend extended a hand of friendship, inviting me to Thanksgiving family dinner,” she said. “Around that table, three families, each representing a different faith, shared stories of their homeland.”

This shared humanity eroded the walls that divided the families.

“My Jewish friend with an open heart and home showed me the true meaning of compassion and friendship,” Alawee said. “Similarly, a dear work friend, recognizing my vulnerability as a newcomer and expectant mother at that time, surprised me with a baby shower.”

In these moments, she said, she felt the embrace of newfound community.

Alawee went on to become deputy executive director of the Community Sponsorship Hub and an advisory board member for The Global Refugee Sponsorship Initiative. She is a co-founder of the U.S. Refugee Advisory Board and works with the U.S. Department of State Welcome Corps program.

“In the teaching of various faiths, we find common threads that emphasize love, hospitality and compassion,” she said, citing passages in the Quran and the Bible.

About 50 volunteers came together to conduct the dinner event. Christ Church was joined by Beth El The Beaches Synagogue, Palms Presbyterian Church, JaxTHRIVE, OneJax and students from UNF. Several teens from Ponte Vedra High School, Landrum Middle School, Episcopal High School and Bolles High School also spoke about their commitment to stopping hate.

“In the spirit of unity, let us raise our voices, standing up against hate through everyday acts of kindness, understanding and solidarity,” Alawee told those assembled.

In the coming weeks, members of Palms Presbyterian and Christ Church will be invited to sign a pledge to combat antisemitism and all forms of hate. Signers receive a free bagel with cream cheese, a reminder to Spread Cream Cheese Not Hate®.

Members of the community not affiliated with the participating churches can still take the pledge online at Signers can claim their free bagel and cream cheese between 10:30 a.m. and 1 p.m. Jan. 28 at Trasca & Co., 155 Tourside Drive, No. 1500, Ponte Vedra Beach.