Standing in a shopping mall with a sign is perhaps an unconventional way to meet people, but it works. At least according to about 50 volunteers who organized a "Meet a Muslim" event over the holiday weekend at the Irvine Spectrum shopping center.
"Hi, hello!" Afreen Gaffar greeted passers-by as they walked past the group's table, set up outside a chain restaurant in the center.
Inspired by a similar "Ask a Muslim" event on the East Coast, organizers of Saturday's event in Irvine said their goal was to help dispel negative stereotypes about Muslims in the wake of recent terror attacks, simply by putting themselves out there.
"I just wanted people to know that I’m a Muslim man, and I’m just like every other man," said Haseeb Rahman, who grew up in the Bay Area and is raising a family in Irvine. "I love sports, I have children, I love doing fun things... and I want them to not be afraid."
Some shoppers waved hello as they passed. Others kept to themselves. A group of teenage boys looked confused and shrugged at one another. Then there were people like Michael Scoma, who was there shopping with his family.
“I thought I’d take a chance and let my kids say hello," Scoma said. "Frankly, we don’t have many Muslim friends, so I thought it would be good to get to know some.”
Scoma said he loved the idea: "I think that you break down a lot of ignorance by getting to know people, and this is a great way to do it."
Those who did stop by were handed roses — organizers said they handed out hundreds, until they ran out. They said they did get a few hecklers, but it didn't get out of hand.
"We were prepared," said Hosai Mojaddidi, an Irvine blogger who helped put the event together, "and luckily, there was security nearby."
Gaffar said she'd been slightly nervous starting out. After all, since the the November terror attacks in Paris and last month's mass shooting in San Bernardino, there's been a rise in hate crimes against Muslims.
But Gaffar said she was humbled by the reaction they got; people stopped by to encourage them, to thank them, even give them hugs.
"It was really emotional for me," said Gaffar, who also helped to organize the event. "I have not experienced anything like this before. It shows that people are actually so kind and so generous, and they are actually moved by what is going on in the media. They know that doesn't represent our religion, that doesn't represent Islam at all."
Organizers said much of their support came from non-Muslims. But local Muslims who didn't know the group stopped by, too. One man quietly thanked them, declining to give his name.
Another, Jay Moubayed, an immigrant from Syria, cheered the group on, but suggested they do outreach somewhere other than Irvine. Orange County is home to a large population of Muslim immigrants from regions like South Asia and the Middle East.
"Most of [us] here are Middle Eastern," Moubayed joked, glancing around the mall.
But Moubayed praised the group's efforts.
"We're engineers, we're doctors, we're part of society," he said. "Our kids are raised here."
Organizers of the event said they'll likely do it again.