Nothing has the power to unite people like banana pudding.
People as different as Chris Buckley and Heval Mohamed Kelli just have to be willing to sit down and share a meal first.
“By no means do we have all the answers to divisiveness in this country, but we should not be sitting here in the 21st century talking about how hate is growing in our country,” Kelli told the audience that gathered to hear the Syrian refugee-turned-cardiologist at the Wadsworth Auditorium Sunday.
Kelli’s unlikely friendship with Chris Buckley – a former U.S. soldier, drug addict and white supremacist – holds a message Newnan Presbyterian Church wanted others to hear. The church worked to bring Kelli and Buckley to Newnan, which was the site of a National Socialist Movement rally and a massive counter-protest last April.
Kelli is Muslim, Buckley Christian. Kelli’s high-profile Kurdish family fled persecution in Syria for the safety of a German refugee camp, eventually finding their way to Atlanta. Buckley fled his abusive family for the United States Army after 9/11, carrying a duffel bag full of pain and fear that morphed into hatred after he saw a close friend killed by an ISIS bullet in Afghanistan.
With an initial boost from kind-hearted Southerners, Kelli learned English and began working his way up from dishwasher to doctor. Buckley, on the other hand, began to spiral downward when he became addicted to painkillers while recovering from injuries sustained in a wreck that also ended his military career. Cut off from a legal supply of Percocet, he turned to meth and found brotherhood in the Ku Klux Klan.
“I had two main goals: focusing on my addiction and doing something to make me feel like I was part of something,” said Buckley, who by then was a husband and father.
After serving jail time on a drug charge and with his own family in shambles, Buckley began his own steep uphill climb with the help of a rehabilitated white supremacist, Arno Michaelis.
“He’d been through what I needed to go through, but it didn’t make it easy,” Buckley said. “It wasn’t like I woke up one day and said, ‘I ain’t gonna hate anybody any more, I’m gonna love everybody.’ At one point, I threatened him with a firearm and said, ‘Nobody’s gonna tell me a Muslim deserves to be here as much as I do.’”
But as he continued to work his way back through his hateful rhetoric, Buckley said he began to find clarity.
“It was like a Russian nesting doll,” he said. “At the very core were the things I experienced at an early age – molestation, abuse, neglect and the desire for affection.”
As he healed, Buckley began working at an outreach center in Lafayette, and Michaelis put him in touch with Kelli. The immigrant and the former white supremacist communicated through email and text, and Buckley invited Kelli to visit his community in north Georgia.
“He said, ‘Are you serious about making a difference? I’m taking you to Summerville, Ga.’” Kelli said.
There, he found a world he never knew existed.
“There were Americans in this little church dealing with hunger, coming and asking for peanut butter sandwiches,” Kelli said. “I never had to ask for a peanut butter sandwich. “
Kelli returned the invitation, and Buckley made the two-hour trek with a banana pudding in his car.
“He came, and my community welcomed him,” Kelli said. “This guy wanted to kill Muslims and harass black kids in his neighborhood, and we welcomed him. There was no space for hate. This is what change means.”
And there is life after change, Buckley said, as he and Kelli have proved with their unexpected friendship.
“We can fix this,” Buckley said. “We’re a prime example of fixing this. I don’t want my son and daughter or Heval’s children to have to solve a problem that we just deflected because it was too hard. All it takes is somebody willing to listen and somebody willing to talk.”