Ismaeel Hummeid was born in a country now governed by a ruler who wouldn’t think twice about killing him.
On Thursday evening, the 20-year-old college student from Syria was standing in the halls of power, introducing himself to Gov. Mitch Daniels, a man who’s served two presidents in the White House.
The setting was the Governor’s Iftar Dinner at the Indiana Statehouse; an annual event held during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. It was started by Daniels and the Muslim Alliance of Indiana eight years ago, after Daniels first took office.
Hummeid is a Muslim and Daniels is a Christian but they share a connection. Daniels’ paternal grandparents immigrated to the U.S. from Syria, a nation now wracked by civil war.
In the nearly 18-month-long uprising against a brutal dictator, more than 18,000 Syrians – many the age of Hummeid – have died and nearly 170,000 have fled the country.
Also at the Governor’s Iftar dinner: 16-year-old Wiem Eloued, a smart young woman and exchange student from Tunisia, birthplace of the Arab Spring. It was the popular uprising of Tunisians against their oppressive leader in December 2010 that triggered a wave of revolts in other Arab nations.
I’ve seen people who looked delighted on meeting Daniels, who can be so personable especially with young people.
Both Hummeid and Eloued looked almost overcome with emotion, especially when Daniels told them how proud and pleased he was to meet them. “I’m always glad when people with talent come to Indiana,” Daniels said.
Hummeid left the encounter saying Daniels inspired him. “He makes me want to do something good with my life,” Hummeid said.
Daniels has taken some heat for the Iftar dinners, from people who believe Muslims have no business praying in the Statehouse.
But Daniels has pushed back, reminding those critics that most of the Muslims who come to the Iftar dinners are Hoosiers, many of them architects, engineers, doctors, and teachers who’ve lived in Indiana for years and raised their children here.
Daniels rarely wears his faith on his sleeve, but Thursday’s dinner offered a glimpse into what he believes. In his welcoming remarks, he talked about the things that connect people of faith, including this: “We are all free because of the God who made us.”
Daniels has prayed with offenders in Indiana’s prisons; he hung the portrait of a Roman Catholic nun canonized as saint in his Statehouse office; he returned to the Sikh temple in Indianapolis – where he’s been before – after six people were shot and killed at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin earlier this month.
After the final Governor’s Iftar Dinner last week, Daniels said he was pleased the event had become such a tradition – a piece of the legacy he’ll leave behind when he officially leaves office early next years.
“Since it’s the beginning, I’ve been conscious of the imperative to serve everyone,” Daniels said, “people of all faiths and and people with no faith at all.”
He said he did so because he wanted Indiana to be seen as a place “that is open to all and accepting of all faiths.”
“It’s a fundamental American principle,” Daniels continued. “It’s the fundamental American principle. It’s how we got here.”