Muslim woman shares touching story of stranger’s empathy, compassion

A Muslim woman is getting attention for the heartwarming story she shared on social media about a Jewish man who approached her out of the blue to empathize with how difficult it must be to face prejudice as a Muslim.

Leena Al-Arian, an American from Greater Boston, wrote in a Facebook post Thursday about the moment a stranger, Lenny, approached her at a Barnes & Noble, told her how beautiful her daughters were and apologized for the anti-Muslim sentiment in society today.

“He had tears in his eyes and told me that it must be so hard to turn on the news, that he feels awful about the bigotry my kids might one day experience, and that as a Jewish man whose parents didn’t speak any English growing up, he personally understands what it feels like to be rejected and discriminated against,” the post read in part.

Al-Arian told Yahoo News that she had taken her 4-year-old, Hiba, and 20-month-old, Huda, to the bookstore on Wednesday to meet characters from the cartoon “Paw Patrol.” After meeting Lenny, Al-Arian asked if she could hug him because it looked like he needed one (and she needed one as well). He reassured her that most Americans are not prejudiced against Muslims and don’t believe everything they hear in the news, she said.

“There’s been so much hostility toward Muslims, and this hateful rhetoric has become mainstream. I wanted people to know that there’s still goodness, kindness, compassion and love of humanity. Love trumps the politics of fear,” she said in a phone interview Friday, when asked why she shared the story.

Al-Arian said Lenny offered to buy presents for her children so they could have something to remember him with, but she suggested simply taking a picture together. He insisted on buying the presents anyway.

“I think they are a little bit too young to understand still the general hostility towards Muslims. They were excited to get new toys, for sure,” she said. “They saw the emotion for sure, especially my older one.”

Al-Arian said that prejudice against black and brown people and the scapegoating of Muslims have been around for a long time. But she said some politicians have been exploiting the fear and hatred that already existed to gain support — amplifying both.

She said she hopes the tide in the U.S. will change so that her daughters do not experience the bigotry that she has throughout her life, and that she’ll get the opportunity to explain what happened at Barnes & Noble.

On the back of the gift receipt, the man wrote his contact information so that Al-Arian could send him the picture, she said.

“Since his birthday is today,” she told Yahoo News, “I want him to know that thousands of people around the world have heard about his act of kindness and responded with an outpouring of love and birthday wishes in return. I hope he will consider this my gift to him.”

Al-Arian feels the meeting was “a little too on the nose” to be one of those feel-good stories about a random act of kindness that becomes popular on social media. She thinks the story’s quick popularity stems from what she called a sort of “modern day chicken soup for the anti-racist soul.”

When asked what she thought about the story actually going viral, Al-Arian said, “It’s so surreal. It seems to be an indication of how hungry people are for stuff like this, for Muslims to feel that their humanity is being recognized.”