In the immediate aftermath of September 11, fear reverberated through New York's Arab-American community. There was widespread concern that anger over terrorism would bring about a wave of discrimination and violence directed at the city's Muslim population. As Hunter College Professor Philip Kasinitz emphasized in a recent interview with NEW YORK VOICES, for the most part this backlash of hate never materialized. But in the chaotic days of mid-September, reports of scattered incidents in Brooklyn and Queens seemed initially to confirm our worst fears. The Arab-American Family Support Center began recruiting volunteers to escort Muslim children to school and women to buy groceries.
Arab-New Yorker Debbie Almontaser responded to this situation on both a personal and a professional level. A Yemeni immigrant who came to the United States at the age of three, she began covering her hair with the hijab only after moving to New York as an adult and observing how Brooklyn Muslims wore the traditional Muslim headdress with pride. After September 11, Almontaser and her thirteen-year-old daughter Shifa went against the advice of friends and family members and decided to continue wearing the hijab despite threats to their safety.
A teacher and consultant with the New York City Board of Education and the Christian Children's Fund, Almontaser believed that post-September 11 anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment had resulted from an array of misconceptions. She cofounded the September 11th Curriculum Project, a group of educators that began developing materials and workshops to educate children about Arab culture in the classroom. She spoke at local synagogues, and held several open houses for friends and neighbors in an effort to pull together the community. As a member of the Brooklyn Dialogue Project, Almontaser continued to meet regularly with Jews, Christians, and other Muslims to talk through problems in the community, make contacts, and lend support.
Read an essay by Debbie Almontaser about September 11 and her identity as an Arab New Yorker, which was published last October in GOTHAM GAZETTE.
Visit the Museum of the City of New York for a new exhibit titled, "A Community of Many Worlds: Arab-Americans in New York City," which Debbie Almontaser helped plan.
For general information about Arab Americans and the campaign against prejudice, contact the Arab American Institute and the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee.