The Roger W. Heyns Forum in Religion and Society
Mohammed AL Samawi, Justin Hefter and Megan Hallahan:
Three Faiths, Four Strangers and a Daring Escape
Mohammed AL Samawi, born and raised in Yemen, was working with groups promoting dialogue between Muslims, Christians and Jews when the brutal civil war broke out in Yemen in 2015. As a result of his interfaith activism, he began to receive death threats. Reaching out through social media to fellow interfaith activists, four strangers—undaunted by their lack of political or military experience—cooperated with Mohammed to engineer a daring escape. Two of those former strangers, Justin Hefter, Stanford University,’11 and Megan Hallahan, will participate in a panel discussion with Mohammed AL Samawi at the Roger W. Heyns Forum in Religion and Society. They will reflect on the harrowing two weeks which culminated in Mohammed’s escape, the bonds that it created between them, and their ongoing commitment to building bridges between Muslims, Jews and Christians.
Mohammed AL Samawi
Mohammed AL Samawi is a peace activist from Yemen who is living in the United States. Since arriving in 2015, Mohammed has been involved with various NGOs and interfaith groups. He's worked at the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) in Washington D.C., where he facilitated difficult discussions with religious leaders in the Middle East and encouraged them to question their prejudices. Mohammed is the director and the founder of the Abrahamic House. The Abrahamic House is an interfaith foundation devoted to building a common understanding of one another in order to stand together against hate and fear of “others”.
He serves on the board of the Yemen Peace Project, which advocates for peaceful U.S. policies towards Yemen, and works with the Muslim Jewish Solidarity Committee, a nonprofit that focuses on grassroots social action to build relationships between Jews and Muslims.
He is the author of a riveting memoir, “The Fox Hunt: A Refugee’s Memoir of Coming to America.” The book describes his journey to become an interfaith activist, his extraordinary escape from Yemen and his unwavering dedication to tolerance and understanding.
Mohammed has been sharing the story of his personal transformation with religious groups and academic institutions around the country. He’s been deeply moved by the opportunity to speak with young people in high schools and colleges, and has been overwhelmed by the responses.
Mohammed AL Samawi’s first speaking engagement upon coming to America was at Stanford.
Megan Hallahan is the Executive Director of the African Middle Eastern Leadership Project (AMEL) based in Washington, D.C. A California native, Megan has spent the past 15 years leading youth empowerment and peace initiatives across the Middle East, Africa and Europe. From 2012 to 2017, Megan was Director of the Academy for YaLa Palestine, a co-founding organization of the YaLa Young Leaders online movement alongside the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv. Among other roles, Megan led the co-creation and co-management of the YaLa Academy together with a team of Palestinians and Israelis who trained thousands of young people from the Middle East and Africa on conflict management, human rights, peacebuilding, good governance and citizen journalism. Previously, Megan served as Secretary General of the Ara Pacis Initiative (an international coalition of grassroots peacebuilders) and held various positions at The Glocal Forum (a European non-profit that linked conflict-affected communities in Africa/the Middle East with communities in Europe/North America). Megan holds a B.A. in Political Science from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Justin Hefter is a peace builder who uses technology to bridge social divides. He was the founder and CEO of Bandura Games, a company he created with Israeli and Palestinian partners, which developed video games to connect people from diverse backgrounds and encourage intercultural cooperation. Justin’s passion for bringing people together began as a student at Stanford University (Public Policy ‘11), where he worked to build bridges between the Muslim and Jewish communities. Seeing the incredible power that people have to overcome their differences and develop meaningful relationships, Justin was inspired to amplify the message of peace he experienced as a student to people in places of conflict.
In 2015, Justin co-led a successful operation to help the interfaith activist and author Mohammed AL Samawi escape the civil war in Yemen, and he continues to assist those who bravely advance human rights around the world. In 2017, Justin was part of the international team that launched The AMEL Project, which trains the next generation of human rights activists who advocate for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights and religious freedom in some of the most oppressive regimes across Africa and the Middle East. Justin currently serves on the board of directors for The AMEL Project and AJC San Francisco.
Roger W. Heyns Lecture in Religion and Society
Established at Memorial Church in 1994, the Roger W. Heyns Lecture in Religion and Society, is an annual event that focuses on problems and challenges of religion and community. Heyns, who was a resident of Atherton, was a member of the Memorial Church congregation from 1977 until his death in 1995.
Heyns served as chancellor at the University of California at Berkeley from 1965 to 1971. The lectureship honors Heyns on his retirement after 16 years as a board member of the James Irvine Foundation.