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Mepham senior opens minds with second annual Culture Night

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For two years, Mepham High School senior Rina Sarfraz, a Pakistani-American and a Muslim, has helped highlight Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures, and bring them to life for students and parents in the Bellmore-Merrick Central High School District.

“My sophomore year, I decided to do this cultural night for the first time, because just with everything going on around the world, I saw the importance of acceptance and mutual understanding,” Sarfraz said last week. “I wanted to help that, and I thought, ‘What better way than showing people different cultures?’”

Sarfraz, who was born in Pakistan and immigrated to the United States at age 2, said that she has felt the push and pull between the two cultures she considers herself part of, and has looked for ways to bridge the divide with the people around her.

“The countries have a lot of positive yet negative relationships, and I see them trying to coexist,” she said. “Being in the middle is . . . it’s a struggle sometimes, trying to understand who I am and trying to identify myself. I consider myself both, though, and I’m grateful for that.”

In her sophomore year, Sarfraz brought her Culture Night idea to one of her teachers and Mepham’s principal at the time, Mike Harrington.

The first event — which featured a talk from Habeeb Ahmed, first vice president of the Islamic Center of Long Island, as well as Bollywood-style dancing and cuisine from the Middle East and South Asia — was enough of a success to warrant making it a tradition, according to Sarfraz.

“We got a lot of positive feedback,” she said. “It was really eye-opening for a lot of people, especially in Bellmore.”

“It’s so important that we raise awareness of different cultures,” Harrington told the Herald during the first event. “Rina and I had a great conversation. She came up with so many great ideas, and everything just came together so smoothly. Tonight is one of those nights that makes me proud to be in Mepham.”

For this year’s event, held on March 1, Afaf Nasher, executive director of New York’s chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, gave a talk about her work as an attorney, and the rise of anti-Muslim hate crimes that she, and CAIR, have been handling.

New York state saw a 74 percent increase in anti-Muslim harassment, discrimination and hate crimes in 2017, according to CAIR.

“We talked about the reality of discrimination, tolerance and the need for respect,” Sarfraz said, adding that proceeds from raffle tickets sold at the event benefited the United Nations Refugee Agency.

Attendees enjoyed a variety of activities, including coloring mandalas, receiving henna tattoos and sampling traditional foods such as samosas, naan, kebabs and banana chips. Some participants even dipped their toes — and hips — into an interactive Bollywood dance lesson.

The World of Difference and Leo clubs, led by adviser Josephine Parlagreco, partnered with Sarfraz to make the event happen. Both clubs aim to teach others about acceptance of and respect for people no matter their race, religion or gender identity.

Sarfraz, now a senior, will attend LIU Brooklyn in the fall, where she will major in global studies and minor in international relations and study abroad for more than two years.

“It’s an interesting program,” she said. “I’ll head to Costa Rica first, then do a second year in Europe and a third in Australia . . . Then, senior year, you pick a country where you want to focus on a global issue and do a whole semester and capstone project on that.”

And after college? “I’ve always been passionate about humanitarian work, so I’ll probably go to law school after that,” she said.