Florin Manzanar Pilgrimage finally bowls in Bishop on April 29. From left: Saad Sweilem, Amara Munir, Danna Elneil, Thoraia Ali, Inyo County Supervisor Jeff Griffiths, son Owen Griffiths, Michelle Huey, a man who joined the group from the Manzanar Pilgrimage, Breana Inoshita, and Blythe Nishi. (Photo by Josh Kaizuka)

Special to The Rafu Shimpo

An incident that happened in connection with last year’s Manzanar Pilgrimage was revisited this year, with a much more positive outcome.

In April 2015, a group of American Muslim and Japanese American youth from Sacramento on their way to the Manzanar Pilgrimage were denied service at Back Alley Bowl in Bishop, Inyo County. The group was given excuse after excuse as to why the “system” was broken while two groups of white patrons were clearly using the lanes.

When asked if the group could come again the next day, an employee claimed that she did not know if or when the bowling alley would open again.

Those denied service believed their mistreatment resulted from racial, ethnic and religious bias. The Florin Manzanar Pilgrimage Committee, consisting of members of Florin JACL and CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) of Sacramento Valley, took several actions seeking an apology. The committee was established more than a decade ago in response to anti-Muslim sentiment following the 9/11 attacks.

On the advice of their attorney, representatives of the bowling alley backed out of a meeting scheduled at a neutral location to address the concerns of the pilgrimage group. The attorney said in a letter to Andy Noguchi, chair of the committee, that the management was “innocent of any wrongdoing” but “sincerely regret any misperceptions.”

Noguchi called the letter “patronizing and misleading.”

Maheen Ahmed, programs and development coordinator for CAIR-SV, said at the time, “This incident was not a matter of a ‘technical issue,’ a misunderstanding or employee confusion. It was a clear denial of services in public facilities.”

“When our story reached Bishop and the surrounding area, we received much support from local public officials and community leaders,” said Breana Inoshita, Florin JACL board member and Next Generation youth leader. “The bowling alley insisted that there were technical issues the night we tried to bowl and they invited us to come back at any time. We took them up on their offer and planned a bowling event at the alley in partnership with local officials, the superintendent of the Manzanar National Historic Site, Bernadette Johnson, and the local Bishop Sunrise Rotary Club to integrate the bowling alley.”

Prior to the bowling event, the pilgrimage group partook in a cultural exchange with the AkaMya Culture Group, which works to raise awareness of indigenous issues and works with youth for wellness within indigenous communities.

“Many of our travelers said the cultural exchange was the highlight of the trip because it was enlightening and inspiring to see two groups of people respectfully learn each other’s culture while creating such a sense of unity,” said Inoshita. “After the cultural exchange, we all moved to the bowling alley and had a fun night.

“Although Back Alley Bowl never owned up to their discriminatory actions, our experience last year opened up a larger conversation on understanding across racial and religious boundaries in the area.”

In addition to Johnson, officials who came to show their support included Kammi Foote, Inyo County registrar/clerk/recorder and president of Rotary Club of Bishop Sunrise; Jeff Griffiths, Inyo County supervisor (District 2) and former mayor of Bishop, and his son Harvey Griffiths; Fran Hunt of the Sierra Club; and Inyo County Supervisor Dan Totheroh (District 1).

Harvey Griffiths mentioned to Danna Elneil, operations coordinator for CAIR-SV, that she was the first person he had met who wore a hijab (headscarf) and was visibly Muslim. The two, along with Supervisor Griffiths, spent much of the night talking and Elneil shared some information about Islam that the father and son had not known before.

“Honest conversations, person to person, can help foster understanding and acceptance on a greater level,” said Inoshita. “The night of the bowling event, it was great to see conversations like these happening all over the alley that we had been denied service to just a year ago.”

Elneil added, “That was a really eye-opening experience for me to realize that there are so many people, and even in California, that have never met a person who they recognized to be Muslim. Much of the Islamophobia we see stems from ignorance, and unfortunately many people get their information from television and the media, which really only shows Muslims in the news in a negative light, usually in the context of terrorism.

“Though I was fortunate that Harvey was a very sweet and accepting young man, this isn’t always the case, and I realize just how much work we have to do to educate the greater community about what Islam is all about.”

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