John-Carlos Estrada

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A Muslim School Marks the 10th Anniversary with Memories of Bias

  • September 1, 2011
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Al-Noor students at the annual Breast Cancer Awareness meeting during Pink Hijab Day at the school. (Photo Courtesy: Jasmine Eldomyati)

For Jasmine Eldomyati, who was seven-years-old at the time, the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, started like any other day. Along with her two sisters, she boarded a yellow school bus to Al-Noor, a private Islamic school in the Sunset Park section of Brooklyn. When she arrived at Al-Noor, Eldomyati’s third-grade class began the daily routine starting with a morning prayer.

At around 9 a.m., the class was interrupted and Eldomyati’s teacher was pulled out of class. Moments later, Eldomyati remembers, her homeroom teacher came back into the room with tears rolling down her cheeks but the young girl did not understand why. She remained in her class — only to be picked up by her startled mother a few minutes later. Back home in Park Slope, the girl saw debris in the form of paper and other items scattered across streets and sidewalks.

In that moment, and at her young age, Eldomyati had no way of knowing that the terrorist attacks in downtown Manhattan would transform not only her Muslim identity, but those of her classmates and thousands of young Muslim-Americans, in a country still struggling to understand their faith. In a climate of suspicion and discrimination, Muslim-American students like her would have to insistently prove their patriotism.

“I remember that the adults were freaking out and the older kids were talking about it,” said Eldomyati. “I was just happy to go home early. It took me a few years when I hit junior high that I realized my world had changed.”

The events of 9/11 continue to ripple at Al-Noor. This year, as part of the welcome-back schedule, Principal Ahmad Hamid, a Caribbean-born Muslim who began his career at Al-Noor as a teacher 15 years ago, will address the roughly 200 high school students about the 10-year anniversary of the attacks at the World Trade Center and the effects it has had on their community.

Hamid believes that many of this year’s students, who were too young at the time of the event, are less aware of the significance of the anniversary and the injustice the Muslim community has endured since 9/11.

Eldomyati and her two sisters attended Al-Noor School from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. Her Egyptian-born father decided his three girls needed to attend an Islamic school because, although her mother was a recent convert, he believed they needed more guidance in their faith.

“It’s like a family school,” said Eldomyati. “All my friends had brothers, sisters, or cousins who went to Al-Noor. It’s nice to have that family feeling at school.”

Al-Noor, which means “the light” in Arabic, opened in 1995 after local mosques and private donors in Bay Ridge raised about $2 million to buy three buildings in Sunset Park. The school is off the main street of a heavily Hispanic neighborhood.

This year, the enrollment at the school is expected to be 700 students. More than half of the students are American-born children of Palestinian, Egyptian, or Indian immigrants, but others are African-American, Indonesian, and South American.

On first glance, Al-Noor’s three-level building does not look like a school. The two signs at the front of the building –- identifying it in Arabic and English as Al-Noor School and giving the school motto, “Education for Life and Here After” –- are the only external indications. The rest of the building and grounds are fenced off.

When school is in session, the building is filled with students in their uniforms — the older female students dress in the hijab and jilbab, traditional religious coverings of the head and body — chattering in both English and Arabic. The school espouses strict morals, modest dress, and an academic curriculum aimed at high achievement on the state exam and college admissions. Once students reach sixth grade, boys and girls form separate classes.

“I know people look at our school and don’t know what to think of it,” said Eldomyati. “But it is where I learned to write, read, and make friends. It’s like any normal school.”

However, during the chaotic days following the deadly terrorist attacks on American soil, despite President George W. Bush’s visit to a Washington mosque and call for religious tolerance, incidents of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab sentiment swept across the nation.

At Al-Noor, school administrators found that rocks and pork chops had been thrown into the schoolyard. Hamid estimated that there were at least a handful of fist-size rocks and five raw pork chops, a sign of insult against a religion that forbids pig products.

Students were also subjected to harassment on the subway from other students and passengers on the train. Raheeb Kased, a Palestinian Muslim-American who attended Al-Noor for 12 years and graduated in 2007, remembers students from the local public high schools frequently picking fights with him and his friends. The situation got so dangerous that teachers had to walk students into the subway to ensure that students were not attacked verbally or physically.

Kased, who is finishing his second bachelor’s degree in civil engineering at the University of Buffalo in upstate New York, said that after about two years of continual teasing and assaults on his friends, Al-Noor administrators told students to stop going to the Prospect Avenue subway stop to take the train home. They suggested using the 25th Street stop instead because, according to Kased, there were fewer public school students at that station. The number of attacks did drop but the trip home was longer and less convenient.

For the girls at Al-Noor, the discrimination was worse. The school requires the young women wear the hijab, which made them easy targets as they travelled to and from school. Jasmina Levnjak, who attended two Islamic schools in Brooklyn before graduating from Al-Noor in 2006, said about two months after 9/11 she was confronted by a man on the R train on her way to school.

“The man called me a terrorist because of my hijab,” said Levnjak. “I didn’t know how to react to him. Why would someone say that to me? I was 14 years old.”

Eldomyati, who served as class president last year and runs her own personal blog, said she has been called a terrorist on the Internet but it does not bother her. For her, the people who make such offensive comments online do not understand her or her religion.

“We were taught at Al-Noor and by our parents that what those men did to the Twin Towers is not Islam,” she said. “Those men said their actions were in the name of Islam but I would never think of doing something so horrible to this country.”

According to Louis Cristollo, a research assistant and lecturer at Columbia University’s Teachers College who was an instructor at Al-Noor in 1999, about 85 percent of the student-teacher contact time is devoted to secular instruction –- requirements set by the New York Department of Education. The remainder of instruction time is used to practice the teachings of Islam, which is a major selling point for many of the immigrant parents of Al-Noor students, including Eldomyati’s father.

“Al-Noor students are left with the burden of having to defend their American-ness because they are more visible targets, especially the girls,” said Cristollo. “If you take a look at Muslim-American students in public schools, they have the opportunity to pass themselves off as another race or ethnicity. Al-Noor students cannot.”

At Al-Noor, Islam has always been taught as a religion that preaches peace and teaches that killing one person is killing all humanity, according to Hamid. “No sane, god-fearing Muslim would do what those men did to the Twin Towers,” he said. But after 9/11, teachers at the school were told to explicitly instruct students that their religion had nothing to do with the Sept. 11 attacks despite the consistent allegations from random people in the community that they were “terrorists.”

But in spite of the challenges of post-Sept. 11 America, Hamid said his students should work to be part of the community and become community leaders.

Since becoming principal of Al-Noor in 2008, Hamid has encouraged students to get involved in their community. The number of student groups at Al-Noor went from only two in his first year to about 20 in just three years with most of them involving community service in Sunset Park.

Levnjak noticed that after the initial shock of 9/11 at her old school, Al-Madinah School, and especially at Al-Noor, students were pushed to get involved in extra-curricular activities in the community. She interned at a hospital in downtown Manhattan after school. Al-Noor students have also volunteered during elections to show people to polling stations, and even worked at Brooklyn’s criminal court.

In 2009, students helped organize the first debate team in the school’s history. Zeshan Raja, then a senior at the school, was one of the seven students who took part in the debate team’s first season. Although the team lost their first competition in Queens, the small team finished their season strong by placing ahead of many of the private schools in New York. The team now has about 20 students and collected numerous trophies from regional competition. Raja expects the team to grow stronger with time.

“It was great to see the looks on the other student’s faces during competition when they got beat by a group of girls in their hijab,” said Raja.

Last year, Al-Noor students participated for the first time in the city’s AIDS Walk New York and Walk Now for Autism Speaks. Hamid understands that a few of the activities students participated in might seem unconventional for traditional Muslims, but he stands behind his students and their ambitions to show people there is more to their school.

In May 2010, high school students at Al-Noor organized the second annual carnival for family, friends, and the community in their school’s backyard. The students were able to open the doors to their school and host a day filled with food and games for about 600 people. Many of the people at the event had never been inside the school and were grateful to have an opportunity to see students actively engaging with the neighborhood.

Cristollo believes that after 9/11 schools like Al-Noor were forced to look at themselves through their community and dispel the mystique of these private Islamic schools. “These are not places where training takes place for an army of militant radicals,” he said. He added that organizations like the debate team help students build a firm stance of religious identity that they can take onto college and eventually to the workplace.

“We at Al-Noor are trying to put a new face on Islam,” said Eldomyati. “We are not all trying to cause harm to America. We love America.”

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