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What can you do to change the minds and sway the hearts of people living in a town with a reputation – true or not – for supporting anti-Islam politics? According to a metropolitan Melbourne restaurateur and human-rights activist, you pack 77 Muslim women on a bus, send them to the location in question, and ask the locals out on a date. The non-romantic meet-up that results is ‘Speed Date A Muslim’ and it just occurred in Shepparton, Victoria, a town located in the federal seat of Murray belonging to Pauline Hanson's One Nation party. Since inception, these dating events have been a wild success, with requests flowing in to Assafiri from around Australia - and abroad - requesting she bring the speed dating team to their region. Born in Australia but raised in Morocco and Lebanon, Assafiri adopted the ‘speed dating’ format to provide a safe and respectful space for local non-Muslim to meet and ask Muslims all the curly questions they were otherwise too shy to. The overall aim is to provide people who want to explore, challenge or better understand their racial and religious perceptions with an opportunity to do just that. But it was the small town of Shepparton that was to be Hana’s first stop beyond Melbourne. Assafiri tells SBS that she has local mum and member of the Shepparton Ethnic Council, Betul Tuna, to thank for the invitation.

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“Betul attended a speed dating event in Brunswick, and stood up halfway through, ” remembers Assafiri. Put your money where your mouth is, and come run this event up there. 'Shepparton locals partake in a spot of speed-dating a Muslim to deepen their understanding of the faith. (Carlo Zeccola)Shepparton is a town that’s living out the age-old tale of two cities: on one hand, it has acquired the reputation as a One Nation stronghold, but on the other, is a largely multicultural region with a strong Muslim community. Over the past year, Shepparton has found itself in the spotlight as the unsuspecting face of Australian-Islamic tensions. In another more serious incident, a local Muslim doctor was attacked in front of her husband for no reason other than wearing the hijab. ‘‘I don’t want to be here anymore, I hate it, ’’ the victim was to say at the time. ‘‘But if we go back to the Middle East, I’m a doctor, he’s an engineer — we’re dead, we’re targets — where else do we go? ”The overall aim is to provide people who want to explore, challenge or better understand their racial and religious perceptions with an opportunity to do just that. Despite these events, people in the town are making genuine efforts to promote racial inclusion. According to the region’s, the Muslim community of Shepparton is just shy of 8,555 people. The town is known for its vibrant multicultural community, with 75 per cent of its population made up of immigrants.

Greater Shepparton City Council is a major partner with the Human Rights Commission ‘Racism. It Stops With Me’ campaign. But, given the post-truth world in which we live - where anti-Islamic sentiment is becoming increasingly prevalent in mainstream media - Assafiri felt it was time to get her dating event on the road. And so last week, Speed Date A Muslim was held in Shepparton. Assafiri and Tuna tell SBS they were understandably anxious on the day as they waited for guests to arrive. Tuna had been battling a swarm of aggressive Facebook trolls in the weeks leading up for the event, while Hana was unsure what to expect outside of her stomping ground in Melbourne’s Brunswick. “I was just hoping people will be respectful and interested, ” says Tuna. But as the people of Shepparton began to file into the event, it became clear that this dating night was to be peaceful. Those attending, it appeared, had come to learn about Islam and Muslim 'others', with a proverbial olive branch in hand. “Hopefully, we can all walk away a little more informed, ” says Assafiri as she welcomed the group on Sunday, “and as a community, a little more solid. ”SBS was at the event, along with 55 others in attendance. Under colourful umbrellas on local bar The Deck, Hana’s cheery crew of Melbourne Muslims fanned out among the crowd, each woman pairing off with a handful of Shepparton locals. Of note was the heartwarming scene of interfaith couples pairing off - an older Shepparton woman in a floral frock and neatly applied makeup sitting happily by a woman dressed in the full niqab, chatting about the heat.

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There were mothers and daughters, young couples, teachers, and even members of the local Indigenous community. One young man, when asked by our reporter why he decided to attend, cited that he was Aboriginal and he believed that as such, all minorities should support each other and “. . Help educate others. (Carlo Zeccola)Hanife Coskun is a fourth-generation Shepparton local who describes her family as “very Aussie”. She tells SBS she converted to Islam 67 years ago. Hanife no longer wears the head covering, and says that many people are not aware she is Muslim. She says she attended the event to help bridge the social gap in her local community between the Muslim and non-Muslim families. “When I first converted, my family were scared, ” says Coskun. “The first thing mum asked me was about female genital mutilation! ”“In Shepparton, I’ve seen racism and I’ve experienced it. I’ve heard comments, usually from older white males, who say things like ‘Go back to where you came from’ directed to women wearing scarves, who are a representation of our religion. ”However, Coskun says, she also believes that the ‘racist’ tag on her local town is unfounded.

“I would say that Shepparton is an open-minded town. We’re into diversity. Shep is very accepting. ”“Shepparton is not racist. There is a very, very small percentage of the community who feel that way [against Muslims]. Mal Ross, another long-time Shepparton local, is a careers counsellor at the local high schools. She attended the event in a bid to better understand how she can support Muslim students, who often present with very different learning and lifestyle issues than her other tertiary students. She was paired up with university student Sajda Yakub, who had travelled from Melbourne with Assafiri for the event. Ross asked Yakub what she should avoid when dealing with young Muslim women preparing to leave school. “You [might not]  realise that you are being biased towards [Muslim women]. Despite the fact that they might have broken English, they can read body language really well. It also takes a lot for a student to tell a teacher ‘Mum won’t let me study’, or ‘Mum won’t let me work so I can look after my husband’ - and if there’s an eye roll, a step back, or a look of dislike on your face, they will retreat back into their shell again. ”Ross nodded and took notes, hanging on the young law student’s every word.

As the crowds relaxed and personal stories were shared, the mood began to feel like old friends catching up. People swapped numbers, photos of their kids, Facebook friend requests. Plates of food were brought out as the local footy players began to drift in after their Sunday game. For a city apparently battling racial tension, Shepparton locals displaced strength in solidarity. There is a very, very small percentage of the community who feel that way [against Muslims], ” says Constable Walker. “I would say everyone gets along pretty well. Very few issues at all. ”As Assafiri looks ahead to the endless possibilities of a Speed Date A Muslim event series –around the country, she tells SBS she doesn’t want to preach to the converted. “Social change only happens if you can walk the journey of those that you are wanting to engage, ” says Assafiri. And if Shepparton is anything to go by, most Australians are ready – they’re just looking where to begin. The Mosque Next Door begins Wednesday 8 November, 8. 85pm on SBS, and continues on Wednesdays. Episodes will be available after broadcast anytime, anywhere, for free via SBS On Demand.

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