I came to this country from Yemen, Arabia at the age of three. I remember it was a cold March night, and when I woke up the morning after we had arrived in upstate New York, I looked outside the window and saw, to my delight, that there was sugar everywhere, sugar covering the streets and all the trees. My father said "no, honey, it's not sugar, it's snow." I did not understand what it was since I had never seen it. He opened the window and he let me touch it and I said "well, can I taste it?" Of course it did not taste like sugar, but I loved that I could play in it.
But not everything about America was as sweet. At first, I did not speak English, and the other children laughed at me. I learned the language quickly after that, and at a young age I became the interpreter for my mother and father when they needed to go to the doctor or to any other appointment. As I grew up, I faced great difficulty searching for my identity as an Arab-American. I remember one year, I decided to put a henna design on my hand for my Arabic friend's wedding party. At school, my teacher sent me to the bathroom to wash my hands even though I told her it would not come off. Because of the design, my classmates would not hold my hand or touch anything that I had touched. Another time, I went to school wearing the hijab, the headdress worn by Muslim women. The whole day, one student after another taunted me.
I did not wear it again until I married and moved to New York City. That is when I noticed all over Brooklyn African American Muslims wearing the hijab. I admired them for their grace and beauty in their modest Islamic dress. They seemed comfortable and content with their presence in public. No one stared at them or made remarks about their appearance. I began to reflect about my religion and culture. How can American converts embrace a religion I was born into and I can't embrace it with pride? After a great deal of soul searching I decided to follow my heart and cover my hair. Wearing the hijab empowered me to reach my personal and professional goals. It gave me a high stature. People recognized and respected me for what I knew, not for my physical presence. Being a modern woman in traditional garb has made me a role model for young women across the city. I symbolize the co-existence of both worlds during a complex time. I came to realize that New York City is a place that is accepting of all cultures, races, colors and creeds. I finally found a place where I felt comfortable and could call home.
Still, when my daughter, at the age of nine, decided she would go to school wearing a hijab, I was worried. I prayed all day that history was not going to repeat itself. When she came home, I waited nervously to hear what had happened. "Mom," she said, "everyone liked my hijab. Everyone said I look beautiful in it."
My daughter, Shifa, is now 13 years old and wears her hijab all the time. She is your typical American girl whose passion is music and being on the phone with her friends, especially her best friend, who is Jewish. Shifa went to her bat mitzvah.
I also have two sons. The older one, Yusuf, decided to join the US Army three years ago. I was torn because I'm a person who loves peace. But this is what he wanted to do and so we supported his decision. However, now I say to myself I wish I had not supported him then. On September 11th, he was activated to report to his unit, and then was sent to Ground Zero. He has been there ever since. In the beginning, he was part of the rescue mission, and I waited anxiously by the phone every night hoping he would call. But he could only call every three or four days, which felt like months. What's worse, usually he called during the day, when we were away at work. He left a message on our answering machine: "Mom, Dad! It's Yousif. I'm okay. Don't worry about me. I'm eating better now and sleeping a little longer. I'll call you soon. I love you."
After he had been there two weeks, his job switched to patrolling the area. More recently he has been assembling telecommunication equipment.
I spend my days worrying about his physical and emotional well-being. He has experienced something that only grown men in the army usually experience, and he is only 19. I know he has shown his honor, love and dedication to his country, but my concern is, how do others perceive him? Do they recognize his deep commitment? Especially now, since Muslims, Arabs, and South Asians have become scapegoats for many frustrated people.
Recently Yousif came home for the night; it was the first time since the tragedy. His presence at the front door was a relief for sour eyes, but I almost did not recognize him. I thought, Oh my God, he could pass for his father's brother today, because this experience has actually made him look like he's aged at least five or ten years. When I asked him "how is it like there?", he couldn't talk about. And God only knows when he will be ready to talk about it. The evil doing of others has stripped my child's innocence on many levels. He remains with visions of destruction and uncertainty.
In the school where I teach, PS 261, students, teachers and parents have been incredible in the way they have been sensitive and supportive of the Arab and Muslim community. On September 13th, all of my colleagues and parents were very happy to see me at work; they all came over and hugged me and kissed me. A group of parents offered to escort the Arab and Muslim children to school for as long as needed. I ended up going out into the community to reassure Arab and Muslim parents that they need to send their children to school, that they should not worry about their safety there.
Since September 11th, I have been involved in so many projects to safeguard my Arab, Muslim and South Asian neighbors in Brooklyn. This all evolved from my membership in the Brooklyn Dialogue Project. It is a group of Jews, Palestinians, Muslims, Christians and others who meet on a monthly basis, just to talk about the issues of the world and give each other a sense of hope and support. Immediately after September 11th, some members of the dialogue called to check up on how my family and I were doing. Based on the concerns and issues I raised, I was invited by these members to go to their churches and synagogues and to speak on behalf of the Arab- American and Muslim communities in Brooklyn.
Arab- American and Muslim women have become very limited in their daily routines. I for one was a prisoner in my own home for almost a month after September 11th. I was afraid to go out in public alone because I wear the hijab. My husband became my escort; he drove me to work and drove me home. He did everything that I needed to get done outside because I feared for my safety, if not my life. We were afraid of having someone attack me physically or verbally. There have been many attacks in the city. Women wearing the hijab have been chased and had their hijabs pulled off. Many have been spat on. Gangs of teenagers beat three women in Brooklyn. One woman walking down the street with her child in a stroller was stoned with cans, bottles and trash. An Islamic school in Brooklyn was vandalized with eggs and dog droppings. Local businesses had their windows or awnings destroyed.
These are some of the incidents that have been reported. However, there are some that have not been reported. Many Arabs, Muslims and South Asian do not know enough English, or know enough about their civil rights, to make reports. Some fear being detained by police or discovered by their attackers. Many think that reporting what happened to them will not change anything. They feel isolated and outcast by New Yorkers in general. Many feel guilt and shame for what has happened, even though they had no involvement whatsoever in the hideous acts of terrorism.
Why can't all New Yorkers treat Arabs, Muslims, and South Asian with respect, love, trust, and compassion? Many of my friends at work and in My Aspiring Leaders Program at Baruch College fear for me as much as my family does. Many have asked me to take off the hijab in public and wear it when I get to work or class. I very much appreciated their concern and told them not to worry. But taking off the hijab was not something I would do. I cannot compromise when it comes to my beliefs. I would rather die than take it off. For me, it would almost be like asking me to walk around topless.
I am blessed to have such caring friends because they have not let me travel by foot or train alone. Many have extended themselves to support me emotionally and physically. Some are escorting me to work, college, and around the city. Others are calling on a continual basis to cheer me up and tell me how much I mean to them. Because of their continuous love and support, I was encouraged to start helping my community rather than stay home and feel sorry for myself. After speaking at different churches and synagogues, I realized that many people within the community did not know their Arab and Muslim neighbors on a social basis. So I decided to open my home to neighbors, friends and people I met at the churches and synagogues. I wanted them to get to know who we are and how much we have in common. I had over a hundred and thirty guests. Who are now good friends and allies.
This open house opened the doors for me to help my community on many levels. Many of my guests were very eager to help, such as the Christian Children's Fund. With their facilitation and moral support, members from Park Slope and myself were able to develop the Brooklyn Bridges Project, which offers to escort people who are afraid, makes legal and mental health referrals, and tries to educate people about Arabs, Muslims and South Asians. Another group with which I have become involved is developing with the help of expert educators from across the city a curriculum that will be distributed to New York City schools and universities. All this volunteer work has literally become a full time job.
What's important now is that we need to come together as a community to be educated and educate others as you would children: There are people who do bad things, but there are many people who do good things. We must get to know each other by speaking to one another. We need to make sure that everyone's voice is heard rather than silenced, to overcome our fears. We need to take this unfortunate event as a way to build bridges with the communities that are affected. We need to develop relationships with our Arab-American, Muslim and South Asian neighbors and merchants to develop understanding and insight. We need to show our solidarity by morally and ethically supporting their existence as Americans.
One of my Israeli guests said to me, "I have always wished to get to know an Arab on a personal level but had no idea how to go about it, thank you for opening your home, your life and your heart."
For those of you who are interested in finding more information about ways to promote understanding and justice, the following are some useful resources:
- The Study Circles Resource Center helps communities organize study circles - small group, democratic, peer-led discussions that give people opportunities to make a difference in their communities.
- Tolerance.org aims to create a national community committed to human rights. Its goal is to awaken people of all ages to the problem of hate and intolerance, to equip them with the best tolerance ideas and to prompt them to act in their homes, schools, businesses and communities.
- Whole Nation: Whole Nation is dedicated to bringing about reconciliation of the peoples of America.
Debbie Almontaser is an Arab-American who wears the hjiab or head-covering of a devout Muslim. She is also a schoolteacher and a mother whose son is a soldier standing guard at Ground Zero. Above all, she is a New Yorker.