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Imam Knows Best

By Joe Lamport

The other young people are taking off their shoes in preparation for their afternoon prayers, but 14-year-old Teetee Dimson has something to say. "I had my belly button pierced," she says, "and my mom found out."

Somewhere else, this might be a boast. But here amid the pile of shoes in the entryway of an Islamic center in the Bronx, it is a confession. "I didn't know it was wrong. I felt so guilty. I came here and the imam explained it to me that your body is sacred."

Dimson wants to be just another ninth-grader shooting hoops and laughing with her classmates at Wadleigh high school in Harlem. But she is also from the West African nation of Ghana, and her parents are strict Muslims. It is not always easy to keep a balance between pleasing her folks and playing with her friends.

"The other kids notice everything about you," said Dimson, tall and slender. "So you do change your accent, the way you dress, how you act."

The fear by West African parents that children like Dimson will change too much is what has led to programs like the Yankasa Masjid Islamic, Cultural and Educational Center, founded two years ago by Ghanaian parents to guard against American cultural influences on their Islamic children.

The programs serve as many as 500 children as an influx of Muslim West Africans, particularly Ghanaians and Gambians, fills Bronx neighborhoods. In just three years, Gambians have initiated five such programs and Ghanaians at least two.

The parents are hoping they will help their children avoid the horror stories that pass by word of mouth within the West African community, tales of sex and drugs and disobedience to one’s parents, stories about children committing crimes.

"I've visited many public schools," said Mohamed Abdullah, 47, a Ghanaian who has sent six of his children to Bronx public schools over the last 20 years. "It's a babysitting business. There is no discipline."

More than one-third of children in New York City public schools were immigrant children in 1996, the most recent figures available. Immigrants make up at least half of the 40,000 children in community school district 10, the home of Yankasa and other West African after school programs. There are at least 120,000 West Africans in New York as a whole, not including those who overstay months-long visitor visas. About 1,600 Ghanaians have arrived in New York annually, a four-fold increase over the last ten years.

The influx has focused attention on the difficulties West African children face in public schools, from learning a new language to dealing with peer pressure. Their parents’ activism is helpful and district 10 officials hope to piggyback on it, linking programs like Yankasa’s to free English classes, skills training and health services.

"Whatever works for the community, we want to do it," said Paul Rosa, the district’s foreign language coordinator. Last year for example, to celebrate the end of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, the district organized a celebration with Bengali families, he said.

"Language and culture are tied up together," Rosa said. "We can't negate the fact that when a first language is encouraged, a person, particularly a child, does better acquiring a second language."

At Yankasa, the first language is Hausa, a widely spoken language in West Africa that Dimson learned when she lived in Ghana, attending boarding school from age 11 to 13.

She also speaks Twi, a Ghanaian language. Less than a mile away, at another program in a mosque on Webster Avenue, Gambian children learn in Soninke.

New York City has seven public high schools specifically for seven newcomers, including one that has just been opened in the Bronx. The schools admit only recent immigrants who earn low scores on English proficiency tests. Bilingual classes are available to students who speak some eight languages, including Arabic and Bengali — but not Hausa or Soninke.

"In the future, we're going to open our own schools and ask the government to support us," said Imam Abdullah Gambo, the director of the Yankasa center. For the moment, though, Yankasa functions as an after-school center, offering classes from 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday and on some weekdays. The center is bursting with children -- most of them, both boys and girls, in long robes. The girls also wear headscarves. Their shoes fill up the foyer outside.

"We open our doors to every child who comes here," said Gambo, the school's director. "But recently we have had to stop registering children. We don't have any more room."

Islamic ethics and conduct was the main topic for Dimson's class. Imam Abdullah Gambo taught the youths about Muslim prayer, connecting the discipline necessary to pray correctly with that required in life. The youths' questions easily led the class from discussing the life of the Prophet Mohamed to everyday life in the Bronx.

The center also tutors children in math and science, but teaching African culture, which emphasizes respectful and moral behavior, is the primary goal, Gambo said.

"We don't want them to forget their culture," he said. "It's not easy at all for them to handle the two cultures. It takes time. These are two different cultures."

West African teenagers know that well. Fusseni Ishmeal, 16, a Ghanaian ninth-grader at Manhattan Village Academy School, said he tries to ignore the other students when they talk during class or talk back to the teacher, when they fight, when they discuss sex.. In Africa, he said, such behavior simply does not happen "Here, there is no discipline in the school. Students don't know their identities. What they want is to have fun. That's all."

Dimson could not agree more.

"Things are definitely different," she said. "In a Ghanaian family, most of the people are very, very strict. My mother wants me to come right after school - I mean right after school. And my friends they go shopping or somewhere. Sometimes it makes me feel like I'm not an ordinary kid."

After finishing up her class, Dimson pulls off her lime green robe. Underneath, she is wearing a black leather jacket, tight blue jeans, blinding bright white tennis shoes with a light purple trim. Underneath her headscarf is a white 'do-rag, which is all the fashion in the Bronx, though not in Ghana.

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