The 2023 honorees at the ISB Gala were (left to right) Curley Dossman, Shirley Franklin and Georgia-Pacific's Christian Fisher celebrated by Soumaya Khalifa, ISB's founder and executive director. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Love and a desire for peace among people of different faiths filled the ballroom of the Marriott Marquis Saturday night.

The annual gala of the Islamic Speakers Bureau (ISB) was particularly poignant this year. Founder Soumaya Khalifa began by expressing what a difficult period she and ISB have been going through since the Oct. 7 attacks when Hamas launched several coordinated attacks in Israel. Since then, more than 1,500 Israelis and more than 10,000 Palestinians have been killed.

Following the attacks, gala organizers were concerned about whether the event would be a target. ISB even considered postponing the gala because of security concerns.

Doug Shipman, Shirley Franklin, Mohamed Balla and Imam Plemon El-Amin. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Instead, the gala was held with the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr., who said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

Dr. Nabile Safdar, chair of ISB’s board, began by saying we will not stand for sentiments that are anti-Jewish or those that are anti-Muslim.

“We must stand together to continue the conversation, even when it’s difficult,” Safdar said. “Yes, we will go there.”

The ceremonial purpose of the ISB Gala was to give three leadership awards to Curley Dossman, president of the Georgia-Pacific Foundation; former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin and Georgia-Pacific.

The overarching purpose was to confirm and reinforce messages of peace and understanding among people of all different faiths.

That is what ISB has stood for since its founding in August 2001, the month before 9/11. Since then, it has been building bridges of understanding between Muslims, Christians and Jews — as evidenced during the gala on Nov. 4. Religious leaders of all three faiths shared the same messages.

Soumaya Khalifa, founder of ISB, at the Gala on Nov. 4. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

“We know we can’t solve the problems of the Middle East,” Rev. Joanna Ads said. “But people of different faiths can gather in Atlanta.”

Rabbi Lydia Medwin of the Temple started off by saying she was sad because of all the lives lost in the Middle East.

“ISB for years has been a part of bringing peace to this city. We pray for peace,” she said. “It has never been more important to reinforce the bridges we’ve built and come together as a model for the world, as Atlantans have always done.”

Imam Adam Fofana of the Islamic Center of Middle Georgia summed up his remarks by saying: “Every life matters.”

Gala co-chair, Ann Cramer, looked over the dinner attendees and said she saw “one room filled with love.”

Laura Badwan, an ISB board member, recounted how she and her sister were the only Muslims in her high school in North Carolina when 9/11 happened. She overheard one of her classmates saying that “all Muslims are terrorists.” She then spoke up by saying she was Muslim – providing a face to the unknown.

“Our voices cannot remain silent,” Badwan said. “It’s about changing perceptions one human being at a time.”

Curley Dossman and Shirley Franklin stand in front of their portraits painted by artist Mario Padilla. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Dossman was honored for his work in the community and for his support of ISB since the beginning. 

“Soumaya and I first got to know each other when she worked at Georgia-Pacific,” Dossman said of Khalifa, who worked for the company when she started the nonprofit.

“Without Georgia-Pacific, I would not be here. Without Georgia-Pacific, there would be no ISB,” Khalifa said. “I was there for 16 years. I will be forever grateful to Curley Dossman.”

Georgia-Pacific’s award was received by Christian Fisher, CEO of Georgia-Pacific, who praised ISB for its meaningful work to “build peace in the Atlanta community.” He told Khalifa that while she may have learned from Georgia-Pacific, the company learned from her about respecting the rights of others.

“It would have been easier to say let’s postpone this event,” Fisher said, adding that he endorsed ISB’s decision to go through with the gala and bring together people who would continue to build bridges and hold constructive conversations. Fisher then announced a $25,000 gift to ISB.

Curley Dossman, Shirley Franklin, Christian Fisher and Soumaya Khalifa at the 2023 ISB Gala. (Photo by Maria Saporta.)

Imam Plemon El-Amin and Doug Shipman, president of the Atlanta City Council, introduced former Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin.

Imam Plemon spoke of Franklin’s influence in Atlanta since joining the administration of the late Mayor Maynard Jackson in 1974.

“She has been the most influential person in Atlanta politics in the history of this city,” he declared.

“She has an undeniable faith in humanity,” Shipman said. “She has blessed us by shining her light on Atlanta.”

Upon accepting her award, Franklin spoke of growing up in Philadelphia, the home of the Quaker movement – adding that the call “work for peace is deep in my bones.”

Franklin then brought it home to Atlanta and the ISB Gala attendees.

“We are enough right here to change the world, to preserve peace, not for ourselves, but for the rest of humanity,” she said.

In the interest of full disclosure, Maria Saporta serves on the advisory council of the Islamic Speakers Bureau of Atlanta.

Maria Saporta, executive editor, is a longtime Atlanta business, civic and urban affairs journalist with a deep knowledge of our city, our region and state. From 2008 to 2020, she wrote weekly columns...

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