‘They Took The Hatred Out Of Me’: How Refugee Neighbors Changed A Man’s Mind About Muslims

Christopher Mathias

John Dutcher’s story highlights how anti-Muslim hate in the U.S. is fueled by Americans not knowing any Muslims.

“I hated Muslims.”

That’s what John Dutcher, a 61-year-old house cleaner in Omaha, Nebraska, recently admitted in interviews with both The Washington Post and KETV.

He told the Post that he had been “one of those guys who would want to put a pig’s head on a mosque.” (Pork-based hate crimes targeting Muslims are common in the U.S., including in Omaha.) And he’d “sneer at” women wearing headscarfs or hijabs, he said to KETV ― even though he had never actually met a Muslim person before.

Then six families of refugees, including from Syria and Afghanistan, moved into his apartment building. They were Muslim.

His previous neighbors had been loud, messy drug addicts, and Dutcher found living next to the refugee families a surprising relief.

He learned about their harrowing stories escaping war-torn countries, and slowly but surely, his feelings about Islam and Muslims warmed.

“The Muslims here were all about family and they just loved everyone,” Dutcher told the Post. “I remember the people who lived here before; they took for granted everything this country gave them. These people, they really changed my heart.”

“After three months of being here, they all have jobs, they all have cars, their kids are going to school,” he told KETV.

The KETV segment features a refugee aid worker describing how helpful Dutcher has been to the families and shows footage of him playing with smiling refugee children.

And in an especially powerful moment, Dutcher describes how his new neighbors have changed him.

“They took the hatred out of me,” he says, tears welling up in his eyes. “I never knew how badly somebody could hate someone they don’t even know.”

A University of Maryland poll found that nearly 40 percent of Americans don’t have a favorable view of Muslims; the Public Research Religion Institute determined that 56 percent think Islam isn’t compatible with American values.

And 26 percent of Americans think Islam should be illegal in the U.S., according to a 2015 survey from Public Policy Polling. Another 21 percent said they weren’t sure if the religion, which is the second largest in the world, should be illegal here.

Americans also tend to overestimate how many Muslims are in the U.S. ― a misperception, experts contend, that is driven largely by Islamophobia. A survey released in December revealed that people think there are 54 million Muslims in America, when in fact there are about 3 million.

There are likely a lot of reasons for Americans’ dim view of Muslims: the deliberate spread of misinformation and conspiracy theories by a multimillion-dollar Islamophobia industry; Hollywood’s negative portrayal of Muslims; politicians turning Muslims into scapegoats; and the disproportionate news coverage of terrorism, which the media often defines exclusively as a problem of Islam.

But there’s also evidence that Americans’ hatred of Muslims is derived from the simple fact that, like Dutcher, most Americans don’t know their Muslim neighbors.

A Pew Research Center survey from 2014 found that 62 percent of Americans don’t personally know someone who is Muslim. That same survey found that people who did were more likely to have a favorable view of Muslims generally.

As Dutcher’s story highlights, it’s a lot easier to hate a people you don’t know. And it’s a lot easier to support a president who thinks “Islam hates us.” Dutcher voted for Donald Trump, but is now rethinking things.

“I like him, but I don’t like the way he’s carried out this ban,” he told the Post about the president’s executive order barring certain refugees and immigrants from entering the U.S. “I didn’t think he’d make a blunder so fast.”

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