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Oral history interview conducted by Zaheer Ali
February 10, 2018
Call number: 2018.006.02
ALI: I'm Zaheer Ali, Oral Historian at the Brooklyn Historical Society, and I amhere to do an oral history with Debbie Almontaser for the Muslims in Brooklyn Project. It is Saturday, February 10th, 2018, and we are doing the interview at Brooklyn Historical Society, 128 Pierrepont Street. Debbie, if you can, introduce yourself, giving your full name, and your birth date, and where you were born.
ALMONTASER: Absolutely. So my name is Dr. Debbie Almontaser. I am an educator,an activist. I was born in Yemen, came to the United States at the age of three, was raised in Buffalo, New York, and then moved to New York City --
ALMONTASER: -- as a young adult.
ALMONTASER: So my birthday is [date redacted for privacy].
ALI: Okay. So tell me what it was like moving to Buffalo from Yemen. What was itlike growing up in Buffalo?
ALMONTASER: Growing up in Buffalo was very unique. I came at the age of three. I1:00remember that day. It was in March. It was a freezing cold day. We got off the plane very late, and I fell asleep, and then the next morning in my new home I woke up. My parents were still asleep. I went to the window to see what America looked like, and I opened the window shade and all I saw was white everywhere. [laughter] And I started screaming like a banshee, "There's sugar everywhere." And yelling for my parents to wake up, to get the pots and the pans and bags, and we have to go out and collect the sugar. And my dad woke up and he's like, "Habibti, that's not sugar." And he tried to explain to me what snow was. Three-year-old, what do I know? So he eventually opened the window and he let me feel it. It felt cold and wet. I still wanted to taste it. To my disappointment, 2:00it was ice snow. [laughter] And so that was my first culture shock with the environment.
We lived in a community that had a very small number of other Yemeni Muslimfamilies that were there. It was predominantly white, and very segregated, so there was, like, one side of town that was the white community, and then one side was the black community. And it was really interesting: they never intersected, until they decided to close a couple of the schools in the African American community and start busing kids over in to the white schools, and that was, like, the first opportunity. So I was, like, the first minority in the white school, and then the African American students also came, and so, you know, we were a part of that minority. And it was interesting because everybody celebrated Christmas. I didn't meet a Jewish American until I moved to New York. 3:00It wasn't very easy growing up. I didn't have the language.
Everything, you know -- I -- everything that I engaged in was alwaysexperimental, from dress to behavior. [laughter] I remember one year -- I think it was probably, like, my first grade year, or second grade year, I don't even remember exact year. And then my parents took me to buy, you know, school clothes, and it was just a couple of outfits. It wasn't, like -- you know, like, maybe two slacks and two shirts, and -- and so I insisted on getting a pair of shorts. So then I went to school with the shorts, and Ms. Alavera [phonetic], who was my ESL [English as a Second Language] teacher, pulled me aside and she said, "These are not what you wear to school." [laughter] And so she had a pair of extra pants in the building, and she said, "Put these on. You can leave your shorts and put these on. These are better for you. It's not appropriate." And I 4:00was like, okay. So there's, like, a time for everything, you know, to be appropriate. And so I ended up inheriting those additional pair of pants, because of Ms. Alavera.
So it was not easy growing up. And my parents both were illiterate, didn't speakEnglish. My dad worked at the Ford Motor Company, and he had actually -- the reason he moved to Buffalo was because he didn't want to own a restaurant with his brothers and cousins who lived here in Brooklyn, New York, because he felt that they were being slaves to their businesses, and he just wanted a job that he would work, you know, his eight-hour shift and be able to go home and not worry about that, you know -- the job. And so yeah, so it was quite interesting.
ALI: So you mentioned that people celebrated Christmas. Do you remember what youdid at that time, or what was your family's religious life like when you were growing up?
ALMONTASER: Yeah. So one of the things that my dad always instilled in me, and5:00then my siblings, who came later, was, "You're in America now. You have to be American. You know, dress like everybody else. Talk like everybody else. You don't have to talk about your culture, you know, where you come from." My parents, when they first came to the US, were not observant, just pretty much trying to figure it out. My mom was not educated, you know, growing up. My dad read and, you know, and wrote in Arabic very well. He was -- he went to school. But in regards to the English language, he always struggled. He knew the bare minimum to get himself through.
And so sometimes, like, I was the family translator, if, you know, one of themneeded to go to the doctor, or whatever it was. You know, I played that role to help them. And I was even the translator at my parent/teacher conference night, [laughter] and all those kind of fun things. And I look back at that and, you 6:00know, like, I see how lucky my kids are, or, you know, second- and third-generation kids are to, like, have parents, you know, that can advocate for them versus you advocating for your parents. But, you know, I knew that as an immigrant child, like, that was something that was a part of who we were, and that was my responsibility.
So religion really wasn't a part of who we were, because my father was working,trying to make a living. My mom then had several siblings after me, so she was a full-time mom. I was also, like, helping, you know, her with my siblings, because I was older. So, like, you know, when Ramadan came -- we didn't even know when Ramadan was around. When the Eids came I went to school. We didn't even know. And it was only, you know, years later that -- you know, what do they call that group that actually travels to different cities? Jamaat? Tabligh Jamaat? 7:00
ALI: Tablighi, yeah, Tablighi Jamaat.
ALMONTASER: Yeah. So I remember when I was young that they actually came toBuffalo, and they were going to some of the Muslim families. And that was, like, the f-- one of the very first time that I actually, like, saw people, like, dressed in Islamic garb. You know, and they came, and they were talking to my parents, and the people that lived in the -- you know, in the building that we were living in, which my dad owned, and there were two apartments. And I was like, my, you know, these guys are really strange looking. [laughter] You know, with the long --
ALMONTASER: -- white dresses, the kufis. And so it was interesting, because,like, as they were talking to my parents, there were a couple of them that spoke Arabic, and they were, like, talking about, like, you have to pray. If you don't pray, when you die you're going to go to hell. And I remember that conversation. It's so funny 'cause I've never shared this with anybody. I don't know how it came up to me now. I got scared of Islam at that point. Like, oh my God, if you don't pray you're going to go to hell? Like, what kind of religion is this? 8:00[laughter] You know, thinking like a seven- or eight-year-old, like --
ALMONTASER: -- you know, and, like, what is hell? What does hell look like, and,you know, the hellfire? And it was like, oh my God. So, you know, their visit, it was just like a pass-by visit, and, like, nobody ever paid any attention to it. So I think when I got to middle school, like, I started then exploring a little more, both in my studies as well as one day going home and telling my parents that this boy asked me to go to this party. And then at that point my dad was like, "Well, that's not something that we do. Muslims don't do that kind of stuff." And I was like, "Okay, well, what is -- what do Muslims do?" Like, so that was, like, our first conversation.
But, you know, everything at that point that my parents were, you know, sharingwith me weren't really, like, Islamic. It was more cultural, Arab cultural norms that -- [laughter]. And so, you know, I wasn't a defiant kid when I was growing 9:00up. I didn't rebel. So it was like, okay, I guess then I'm just, you know -- I'm not gonna go. My parents did not, let's say -- they didn't, like, not let me do stuff. So there were times, like, my dad would say, "Well, you know what? You can go. You know, we'll drop you off. Who else is going?" You know, so, like, there was, you know -- there was a roller -- roller -- roller s-- what do they call that place?
ALI: Roller skating rink?
ALMONTASER: Roller skating rink.
ALMONTASER: Yeah. Yeah, I was gonna say rollerblading, and I'm like, wait, thatdidn't happen. [laughter] That was my kids with the rollerblades. So a couple of times, you know, he took me, and he would sit there, and he'd just watch us, you know, roller-- you know, roller skating. But yeah, so it was interesting. And, you know, the experience that I had about Islam in school was one day I had decided to just, like, wear my head wrapped, and I wore it like the way I'm 10:00wearing it now, tied to the back, and then I just rolled it, you know, in a fashionable way, and I went to school with it.
And my social studies teacher basically said to me, "Why are you wearing thatthing on your head?" And I was like, "Well, I just wanted, you know, to -- I just wanted to wear it. And she was like, "You know, people -- you know, you're in America now. People that are from your part of the country" -- or, sorry -- "your part of the world, you know, that's a sign of oppression. You're in America. You're liberated. You shouldn't be wearing that. You can, you know -- you don't have to wear that. It's a sign of, you know, oppression." And it was so bizarre for her to say that to me. But it -- like, I couldn't wait for that period to end. And then so the period ended, I ran into the bathroom, I took it off, I combed my hair out, and that was never -- I never then revisited, you 11:00know, putting a headscarf on.
ALI: Did you ever, like, go home and ask about that incident, or talk about thatwith your parents?
ALMONTASER: I don't know if I did. I don't think I did, 'cause my mom didn'twear it, either. And, interestingly enough, like, my mom used to wear -- you know, like, how desis wear the shawl cultural-- you know, just, like, they put around their head, but their hair is showing, or it just lays on their shoulders? Every now and then she would do that, but it wasn't, like, a significant -- like, she didn't know the significance of wearing a hijab. So I never -- I never actually spoke to -- I don't remember having that conversation with my parents.
ALI: Did they say when you were dressed like that, and before you left forschool, did they ask you, like, "What's this? What is it?" They just --?
ALMONTASER: No, they didn't. No.
ALI: They're like, "That's just Debbie doing her thing."
ALMONTASER: Yeah, yeah, yeah. So it was interesting. The other thing, too,12:00though, in middle school, like, I learned some negative things about Islam, like, things that were being said, and, you know, in my history class. And then also that was the time with the Iranian hostage situation, so, like, all of that stuff was, like, playing out. And, like, I -- you know, at that time there were a lot of things happening that were significantly making me feel like distancing myself and like saying to myself, "Well, I'm glad my parents, you know, are not, like, religious, and --"
ALI: I have a question. So is your birth name Debbie?
ALMONTASER: No, so my birth name is Dhabah, which is very hard to pronounce inEnglish. When I asked my dad, like, "Who the hell spelled my name for you?" [laughter] and he's like, "Well, this professor that worked at, you know, Immigration, and he was a professor, very educated man." I was like, "Well, D-H, 13:00you can't pronounce it, Dhabah." And he's like, "Well, this guy told me you can." I was like, "Well, everybody else can't." So it was only interesting, to share this with you -- it was when I became a teacher -- and I actually have an English background -- and so in one of my classes, when I was studying, looking at the pronunciation of what the D-H is supposed to be, it's actually supposed to be "the."
ALMONTASER: [laughter] But everybody is illiterate! And so trying to havepeople, over the course of my childhood, like, pronounce my name the correct way, it was just detrimental. So a lot of people called me Deborah. You know, they would read it quickly, because it was D-H-A-B-A-H. So they would see the D and they would see the H and the B in the middle, and just immediately --
ALMONTASER: -- assumed it was Deborah.
ALI: So did you go by Deborah --
ALMONTASER: Yeah, when I was younger.
ALI: -- from very early on?
ALMONTASER: Yeah, yeah. And part of it was some of the teachers were just lazy14:00to pronounce my name. So they're like, "Can we just call you Debbie? It's just easier." And, you know, a lot of it, too, had to do with, like, just not having to hear the teasing of the kids. You know, there were a couple of kids who used to call me Dhabah Ali Baba, [laughter] and it just made me crazy. So, yeah, they used to tease me. I was like, agh!
ALI: Yeah, try having the last name Ali. [laughter]
ALMONTASER: Yes. Imagine if I did have the last name Ali! But that's what I wasgetting, Dhabah Ali Baba, because it rhymed. I was like, okay, whatever. So yeah, so, you know, then, you know, when I moved to New York, it was just, you know, a part of the identity that I had, already had grown up with. And my husband was like, "You know, whatever you want to go by, it's -- you know, you could feel free to --"
ALI: So tell me about moving from Buffalo to Brooklyn. What was Brooklyn like,15:00and when did you move to Brooklyn?
ALMONTASER: So I moved to Brooklyn in 1980. Yeah.
ALI: And what was that like, coming to Brooklyn from Buffalo?
ALMONTASER: Oh my God, it was amazing. Amazing. So during --
ALI: Had you been to Brooklyn before?
ALMONTASER: Yeah, I did.
ALI: 'Cause you said you had uncles who were in Brooklyn. Yes, okay.
ALMONTASER: Yeah. So, I did. So several summers, when I was, like, a teenager,probably -- like, maybe I came, like, three or four summers in a row -- I would come to Buffalo, to Brooklyn, to Downtown, the Cobble Hill area. That's where my uncle was. So the first part of the summer I would come up here, and then the second part of the summer my cousins would come down to Buffalo, and we'd just, like, hang out and do, you know -- so I loved coming to New York. I loved the hustle, the bustle. I loved being able to, like, walk to everything, because in Buffalo you couldn't walk to the store. You know, you had to get in a car or a 16:00bus to get anything. So yeah, so I remember, like, the first time that I came to New York, and I was just, like, so mesmerized by it. And I was like, oh man, I wish that I could just one day live here forever. And so that feeling -- I always felt that feeling of, like, you know, I hope that I can, you know, move to New York somehow.
So my husband -- I had actually met my husband before we even ever got engagedand what have you. He came to a wedding in Buffalo. That's how we reconnected. Then, at that time, I was mature. I was older. And when he came to that wedding, I didn't make the connection, because, remember, I'd seen this guy in jeans and a t-shirt and a kufi. [laughter] And then he came to this wedding in a suit, and his hair was combed neatly, and he looked much better. So he was chitchatting 17:00with my brothers at the table. I actually have a stepbrother and a stepsister who later then joined us.
And so I didn't make anything of it, but the next day my dad invited them overfor lunch, because they were coming from New York, and what was typical, like, were the -- when there were, you know, f-- mutual friends and family that come for a wedding, that you invite them. So they invited -- my dad invited them, and that was, like, the second time that I had seen him in that weekend. So he left, and him and his dad -- he told his dad that he was interested. And then two weeks later his dad called a mutual friend of my father's to ask if I was, you know, engaged, and that his son was interested, and, if -- you know, if at all possible, if, if he can check with me and my father if there was any possibilities.
So of course my dad spoke to me, and he was like, "You know, that, that young18:00man that came," and he was describing him. I was like, okay, this is interesting. I really didn't pay him any mind that weekend at the wedding -- at the wedding. I was like, he's just another, you know, person coming in, and we'll never see again. And then when my dad told me, I was like, okay, well, he can come, but I, I don't know if I'm gonna say yes. I don't know anything about him. And I was nervous, and my parents, you know, were -- also were very, you know, understanding, like, it's a big responsibility, and they wanted to make sure that I felt comfortable with it.
So he came that weekend, alone, and then his dad joined him. It was a three-dayweekend. I don't remember what, what it was. And so then by the last day of the three days that he was there, his dad was like, "You know, we really would love an answer, so, you know, if you guys can let us know. You know, we don't want to pressure you now, but, you know, my son is interested. We don't want to pressure 19:00you, so we'll call you, you know, in a couple of days." So I remember, like, my mom speaking to me, and she was like, "Well, what do you think?" I was like, "Well, I'm open to it if you're open to it." But my parents were nervous to say right away that I was open to it, 'cause they were like, you know, "She needs more time to think about this." And then I thought about it, and then a week later we let them know that I was interested. So we had a nine-month engagement, and he used to come up all the time, two or three times a month. We got to know each other. It was really amazing.
ALI: So when you were living in Brooklyn, what neighborhood were you living in?
ALMONTASER: So we moved -- when we got married, we lived in, in Cobble Hill, 191Court Street.
ALI: Describe that neighborhood at the time.
ALMONTASER: Oh, it was beautiful. The only part that drove me crazy was thechurch bells. [laughter] We lived right across the street, a church, so I remember the -- my first day there, when the bells rang I was, like, startled, 'cause we were on the fourth floor of a six-family building. And, like, I think 20:00you just hear things even louder up there.
ALI: Were there a lot of Arab American --
ALMONTASER: In the community?
ALMONTASER: Yeah, there was -- there was a large Yemeni and Arab and Muslimcommunity in, in the Downtown Brooklyn area -- the Court Street, the Borough Hall area. And it was really, really interesting. Like, I remember our wedding. So just a short story of our wedding. So when we were getting ready to get married, there was a huge dispute between our parents as to where the wedding would be, and they were going back and forth. They actually argued about it. And then my husband and I were like, why are they ar--? Nobody, like, even asked us what we want. [laughter] And then we intervened and we said, "Well, why don't you guys ask us what we want? 'Cause this is, like, our day." So they're like, "Okay, well, what do you guys want?" We're like, "We want two weddings." That was the only way to keep the peace. [laughter] So I wore my white dress twice, 21:00once in, in Buffalo, and then the next day we flew to Brooklyn, and then I put my dress on back again, and we had a wedding in Brooklyn.
ALI: Where was the wedding? Do you remember?
ALMONTASER: The wedding in Brooklyn was actually at the Moroccan Star.
ALMONTASER: Do you know the Moroccan Star?
ALI: Yes, yes.
ALMONTASER: Yeah, so that's Naji's, my husband's, family restaurant. They openedit up when he was young. He -- his dad opened it up with partners, and then when Naji got older he bought out the partners and it was solely his and his dad's restaurant. So they set up, you know, the whole entire restaurant for us to, to have our wedding, so it was pretty cool. And at that time, they're -- you know, like, their family friends and our family weren't that, that many people. But my wedding was actually big in Buffalo, 'cause there was a large, growing community there that, you know, whenever -- they always look forward to weddings to come together. 22:00
ALI: So one of the prominent institutions in Downtown Brooklyn was the IslamicMission, also known as the State Street Mosque, or Masjid Dawood. Tell me about your experiences with that community.
ALMONTASER: Yeah, so we lived at 191 Court Street, which was not far, 'cause itwas between Congress and Baltic, I think. We lived there for a little bit. They sold the house. My, my father-in-law sold the house, so we had to move out. And we moved to  Atlantic Avenue, which was on the corner of Atlantic and Court Street, and that was a crazy place to live with the traffic. You can hear everything in the morning.
And so when we were there, that's when I actually got involved in going to themosque and, you know, being connected to the community there. And so my husband, 23:00prior to us getting married, like, that time when I mentioned to you that my cousin -- when he came over with the kufi, that was, like, his first spiritual connection to Islam was he started getting connected to the mosque and, you know, learning more about Islam. You know, he had his own spiritual journey. But he wasn't practicing when we got married, so that was also interesting, and I wasn't practicing, either. And so during that time I was doing a lot of soul searching and trying to, you know, figure out, like, what my purpose in life was, like, what did I want to do? What religion I should be? And, you know, I mentioned that there were a lot of negative things that I felt about Islam. And so, so there were certain things that were happening at the mosque that, you know, sometimes, you know, my husband would say, "Oh, you know, this person is gonna be speaking there." Or "This is gonna be happening. You know, let's just go." 24:00
And it was only 'til one day that I was actually walking on Atlantic Avenue andI saw these three African American sisters that were walking, and I was just really inspired. They were wearing jalabiyyas, and their scarf, and, you know, just minding their business, but they really seemed very happy, and they were laughing and talking to one another. So I stopped them and I asked them, you know, if, you know, if they were Muslim, 'cause it was, like, really my first connection to, like, the African American Muslim experience. And so, you know, they shared with me that they were, and we started to have a little conversation, and they asked me if I were a Muslim. At that time I was wearing jeans and a t-shirt and my hair was out. And I said to them, I said, you know, "I'm, I'm not practicing. My parents are Muslim. You know, I didn't really grow up religious, I'm -- but I'm exploring and trying to understand." So they're 25:00like, "You know we're going to the mosque. You're welcome to join us."
The one time that I say to people that you should never go with strangersanywhere, but there was, like, this, you know, connection with these women. So I said to them, I said, "You know, I don't know if I would even be, you know, accepted to walk into a mosque dressed like this." Like, they're -- "Don't worry. You know, nobody's gonna judge you. It's actually a, you know, a class for sisters who are converts, you know, helping them learn about Islam." And so I went with them, and that was the first time that I, you know, like, really felt connected to, you know, the State Street Mosque, and learning more about Islam.
ALI: Do you remember what the class was like, or --?
ALMONTASER: It was just a s-- a group of sisters coming together. There wereLatina sisters there. There was maybe one or two Asian women that were there, African American women. There were a, you know, few Caucasian women that were there. And so, yeah, I don't know if you know, you know, Umm Khalil. Yeah, Umm 26:00Khalil. She was a Caucasian, Caucasian sister. Yeah, I don't know, she probably passed away by now.
ALI: So what --
ALMONTASER: And then there was, you know, Mother Khadijah [Sayedah KhadijahFaisal] --
ALMONTASER: -- you know --
ALI: Who was Shaikh Daoud's wife.
ALI: So, so tell me: you, you -- coming from your family background, and growingup, you had a certain sense of what Islam was and who Muslims were, and tell me what it was like to walk into this room and see all these different people.
ALMONTASER: Yeah. Well, when I -- when I walked into that room and I was like,oh my God, like, you know. Well, first, these three African American Muslim women, I'm like, you know, they're -- they believe in the faith that I've been, like, learning all these things, and being, you know, scared of, and now they're -- you know. So that was one thing. And then, you know, seeing all these other women -- you know, Latinas, you know, Asians, couple of Caucasian sisters there, 27:00other African American sisters there -- it was really fascinating. And I was like, what, what is going on here? Like, what is this about Islam that, you know, these sisters are here, that they're actually wearing hijab? Like, you know, I was like -- and, you know, that whole notion of what that teacher said to me, that it was oppressive, like, every woman that I saw wearing a hijab, I felt like she was oppressed. Does that make sense? [laughter]
ALMONTASER: That was like the symbol, you know, because that was something that,you know, that that teacher just ingrained in my head.
ALI: So today you, you do cover your hair.
ALI: So when did you s--
ALMONTASER: Emphatically! [laughter]
ALI: So how did you -- how did you move to that?
ALI: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
ALMONTASER: Yeah, absolutely.
ALI: Tell me when that happened.
ALMONTASER: So, so, yeah, I love telling this story. So I, I continued going tothat group, and I actually told my husband, I was like, "You know, I met these women, and, you know, I'm going to the State Street Mosque, you know, and I'm just feeling, like, this connection with these sisters. They're really 28:00beautiful." And I learned a lot. Like, they helped me undo a lot of, like, the negative things that I learned as a youngster about Islam. And then, you know, some of the stuff that my parents were, you know, were talking about that were Islamic but were not Islamic, [laughter] that were just more cultural practices.
And so I went home, like, about six months later, and I said to my husband, "I'mgonna officially become Muslim." And he's like, "But you're already Muslim." I'm like, "No, no, I'm gonna -- we're gonna -- I'm gonna pray five times a day. I'm gonna cover my hair. I'm gonna start dressing differently." And he was like, "Okay." And, you know, at that time, too, our relationship even started to improve. Like, we were always butting heads. Yeah, and a lot of it had to do just with me, like, not find-- not being able to ground myself, and I felt like that spiritual connection was helping me ground myself spiritually. 29:00
ALI: Do -- what do you th-- do you think there was anything particular at thatmoment, or it was just accumulation of, of your study, or it was just something that said, like, this is it?
ALMONTASER: Oh, definitely. No, it was accumulation of my study, my connectionwith Allah subhanahu wa ta'ala [may He be glorified and exalted], my better understanding of, like, you know, Islam as a way of life, you know, the serenity of, you know, making your prayers, you know, how your prayers actually help center you, the reason that there are five days -- I mean, five, five prayers a day, different times of the day is a form of centering. Like, I learned all of that stuff. And what was beautiful about it was it wasn't like these are -- these are the things you have to do, but there was always, like, this spiritual and scientific understanding of why we do those rituals. And I think that was really what captivated me about Islam.
ALI: Who are some of the most impactful people you encountered --30:00
ALMONTASER: So --
ALI: -- at State Street?
ALMONTASER: Yeah. So Mother Khadijah herself.
ALI: And just for people who don't know who that is, tell us who that is.
ALMONTASER: So she is the wife of the founder, her husband, Shaikh [Daoud] Bey,who, you know, they, they created that mosque, when that mosque -- I mean, their -- even their story and journey is one that's really beautiful and inspiring. They both were also converts to Islam, and they originally bought that building to be a dance studio. I, I told you that, right? You didn't know that before. [laughter] A dance studio. He was a -- he's -- he was a shoreman, so -- and that's how he got connected to Islam, by basically meeting people who were Muslim over the course of his shoreman years. And -- but they bought that 31:00property, and it was actually officially a dance studio. And then after becoming Muslim they turned it into a mosque, which is really amazing and beautiful, and I, I promised you those documents. When you see that letter that says this, like, I almost fell over --
ALI: That's awesome.
ALMONTASER: -- when I read that. Yeah. And so the two of them, and then UmmKhalil, who I don't have -- I have no idea where she is. It's been such a long time.
ALI: And who was she?
ALMONTASER: So she was a Caucasian sister that was involved there. She was --she was a fascinating woman. She was very vocal, you know, very, very women's rights liberator kind of thing that some of the -- some of the, the, the mosque-goers were, like, always like, "Oh, God, here she comes. [laughter] What trouble is she gonna start today?" So I did a lot of observation, like, of, of 32:00her, and, you know, what she was, like, trying to do and stuff. But I learned from her, and I learned from the other sisters that were there. So -- so it was really fascinating. So six months into that I decided to wear hijab. It was not the easy thing to do, you know. I was wearing it halfway. I was wearing it different styles. My hair was showing. My hair sometimes, it fell on my shoulders. And then one day I just looked in the mirror and I was like, you gotta do -- you gotta, like, figure out how you're gonna do this. And then just one day I was like, that's it. I'm not gonna show ever a hair again. And it was very -- I -- it felt -- I felt content. I don't know how else to explain it, but I felt a serenity and content that -- and I think that what got me there was the understanding for me spiritually that my wearing hijab is a form of worship. 33:00It's not because somebody is enforcing it on me, it's not because Islam says you have to, but it's also another, you know, another way for me to, to worship.
ALI: How did people respond to you the first time they saw you with the hijab?
ALMONTASER: What was interesting -- so we were in the Downtown Brooklyn area. Alot of the people in the neighborhood were like, "Oh, this is interesting." You know? [laughter] My sister-in-laws, interestingly, they were like, "Oh, this is interesting." So at that point they also, then, like, were like, "What are you doing?" Like, my -- literally, my relationship with them got better. My relationship with my in-laws got better. You know, my -- his parents, everybody around me. And it was just like, what is she -- you know, like, what is she doing [laughter] that she's, like, become this calm, collective, you know, happy person?
ALI: I imagine that when you first started wearing it you were very conscious of34:00it in a way maybe you're not now, 'cause it's -- you're so used to it.
ALI: Do you -- do you know when that happened, when you stopped feeling like youhad something different?
ALMONTASER: On my head?
ALMONTASER: Oh, yeah, I could tell you. So, so in the beginning it feltdifferent and uncomfortable, but then when I made my peace with it and I f-- you know, I embraced it as a form of worship, it was -- I went everywhere and I did everything, and I had no, no issues whatsoever. And, I, I mean, I love telling this story. I went to St. Francis College, and the brothers there believe that I'm the first Muslim hijabi to attend the school.
ALI: [laughter] Really?
ALMONTASER: Yeah, they, they were like -- they just treated me like royalty.They're like -- all of the brothers and the administration knew who I was. Yeah, they, they adored me. And so one day -- so at that point we had actually moved 35:00to Park Slope. So we moved from that neighborhood. I already had my son, my two sons. And so we were already in Park Slope, and I used to commute to -- from Park Slope to St. Francis College. And I would get myself there. And then we still owned the Moroccan Star, so my husband bought a motorcycle, because he was getting tired of trying to park his car [laughter] in the Atlantic Avenue area.
So I would finish class and I would walk to the restaurant, or he would justpick me up, like, if he was leaving early. So one day he actually happened to come home in the afternoon. He was like, "Why don't I just drop you off? We'll go on the motorcycle, and then you just have to hold your helmet with you [laughter] until I pick you up." So, so that day we -- he drops me off in front 36:00of St. Francis, and there were two brothers out there. And they had no idea who I was until I took off the helmet, and then they saw the hijab, and me, and they were like, "Debbie?" And I was like, "Yeah." And they were like, "No way. You're on a motorcycle." [laughter] So that --
ALI: Hijabi on a motorcycle!
ALMONTASER: Yes, it was so funny. So then they were calling me Sister Biker.[laughter] "How's Sister Biker doing?" And I was like, this is funny. So -- and, you know, they'd see me sometimes when he'd pick me up. I'd put the helmet on, and we'd drive off. But it was, like, pretty cool and funny to have that. So I don't know how I got to that story.
ALI: No, it's okay. So --
ALI: -- we -- so you were studying at --
ALMONTASER: So yeah, so it --
ALI: Yes, yeah.
ALMONTASER: -- didn't bother me in terms of, like, wearing it. I felt a sense ofpride. I felt, you know, like, again, in St. Francis College that I was, like, an oddity, and I was, like, really treated very well by the, you know, [Franciscan] community there. It was a great experience, a great experience 37:00being there.
ALI: If only your social studies teacher could see you now. [laughter]
ALMONTASER: I know, man. I wish. I don't even know if she's still alive.
ALI: So you were at St. Francis, which is probably a good way to segue into howyou got involved in education.
ALI: So tell me --
ALI: -- your early forays into the field of education.
ALMONTASER: So, so the way that I got involved into education was actually mykids. They were -- my older son and my second son both were at P.S.321, and I just --
ALI: And where is that?
ALMONTASER: In Park Slope. And I just started volunteering at the school. Andthe way that I started -- I realized that there was a need to have, you know, more connection to the Arab Muslim community speaking there, and that's -- that was really the transition of my going in and being more involved in the PTA, and 38:00just helping bridge that gap between the various cultures.
And so the second year of my being there a group of other parents and I werelike, you know, "There are a lot of families of diverse cultures who don't speak English, and, you know, we're promoting this whole education initiative, but we're not reaching, like, the masses of the community." And so we spoke to the principal, and we're like, you know, "We would really love if you could support in helping, you know, support us to create a multicultural library." And he's like, "Well, what would that look like?" And so we were like, "Well, we would find books in all of the -- you know, in the languages that are spoken at the school, and we would actually man this library, and we would help parents take out books for themselves and for their kids." And so he was like, "You know, that's a brilliant idea. I do have money. I can pay you guys, you know, a small 39:00stipend. Here's a budget for the books." And we did it. And that was, like, the most amazing thing that we did. And it was actually then replicated in other dis-- in -- sorry -- in other schools within District 15.
So we did that, and I got more connected to the Arabic-speaking families. Therewere books for adults. There were books for children. And the school asked me to translate, you know, letters for them. They also asked me to translate when a parent came in. And then my segue into the world of education actually happened with a little girl who came to the school, who needed an Arabic alternative para [paraprofessional educator]. And what that meant was she needed somebody who spoke Arabic to work with her directly, because she didn't speak Arabic, and she had learning disabilities. And the family also didn't speak English. So six months into her being in the school, they couldn't find anybody. 40:00
So then the principal called me into his office, and he said, "You know, I wantto make a proposal to you. I don't know if this is something you would be interested in, but we have this student. We have not been able to find anybody. You're here anyway, and we would really love if you can help get us out of the red. You know, we're out of compliance because we can't find anybody for her. You know, test it out. If you like it, great. We'd love to have you. You're here anyway, you know, and we still want you to help us with families and, you know, making those connections." So I took the job, and I worked directly with this little girl. It was a second-, third-grade classroom, a special education classroom, where there were a couple of other paraprofessionals that spoke different languages, and a couple were there for health or emotional disturbance, and then the teacher. So I was there with the little girl that 41:00first part of the year, in the -- after the new year, and then the following year, and that's when I realized, I was like, oh my God, I love being around kids --
ALI: What --
ALMONTASER: -- and doing this work.
ALI: What year was this?
ALMONTASER: This was in 19-- I started working 1991, so January 1991.
ALI: How -- was there a significant number of Arab students in the area?
ALMONTASER: Yeah, at the school? Yeah. There were families that lived in thePark Slope area, yeah. There were maybe, like, maybe 15, 20 families --
ALMONTASER: -- that were there.
ALI: So you've, you've caught this education bug.
ALMONTASER: I caught the education bug.
ALI: And what happens next?
ALMONTASER: So -- and it was interesting because one day I was in theschoolyard, and my husband walked by, and he's like -- when I -- when he -- when I went home he's like, "You know, it's really -- like, the kids really love you." And I was like, "Yeah, they do." And he's like, "You know, maybe this is your calling." And that's, like, when I was like, "You know what? I love doing 42:00-- I love being in the classroom. I love working with kids." And then at that point I was like, that's it. I was actually studying political science. I was looking to, to do, like, public advocacy work, social work kinda, you know, stuff like that. And then at that point I switched gears. I finished at St. Francis with a degree in English and world religions, and I began towards the end taking some education classes. And so I was also still working at the school. And then what ended up happening was I finished and an opportunity presented itself in the school. At that point the girl transitioned from needing the alternative para, and there was a fourth-grade class, special needs class, who the first teacher that had it in the beginning of the school year had a nervous breakdown and she took a leave. Then they brought this gentleman who was 43:00there for a couple of months, and he was under such duress with the class that he actually walked out in the middle of the day, left a note on the board.
ALI: Wow! [laughter] Wow.
ALMONTASER: And they were calling him to go pick up the kids from the gym, andeven, like, the school tea-- the gym teachers, the, you know, the music, all of the clustered classes that provided, you know, those prep periods, like, just were, like, terrified of the kids. So he left a note on the board, and they were paging him. They couldn't find him. [laughter] So then the principal was like, "Somebody better go check he's not dead in his classroom." [laughter] They go into the classroom and they find the note on the board. They come back and they're like, "He left. He walked out." 44:00
ALMONTASER: So then they had, like, the gym teachers, of all people, to coverthe class. And it was, like, December, beginning of December, and they were just, like, at a -- in a total bind. And the principal was like, "Nobody wants to take this class. I -- you know, the subs that we call in walk out. You know, we don't know what to do with this group of kids. You know, you have -- you know some of the kids. They know you. We'll offer you whatever support we can. Can you do this for us?" [laughter] So it was December 7th, my first official day of teaching.
ALI: Of --
ALMONTASER: I don't remember what year.
ALI: Oh, okay.
ALMONTASER: I, I want to re--
ALI: But you just remember the month.
ALMONTASER: I think it was '95, or '94. I can't remember the exact year, but Iremember the day, because it was also D-Day. [laughter]
ALI: How was that first day?45:00
ALMONTASER: It was -- I was -- I have to tell you, I was scared because, like,of the reputation that the kids had had. But I -- because I was also taking a lot of special ed classes, and I had already been working there, and I learned a lot about, you know, behavior modification and what have you, I was like, I need to go in there not projecting fear. I need to go in there, be, you know, loving and firm. And then getting the kids to understand, like, how they're being perceived, and is this really the way they want to be perceived forever, you know, during the course of their time in this building, and in society.
ALI: What was the most challenging thing you ever had to deal with in theclassroom as a teacher?
ALMONTASER: So that cl-- that class was extremely challenging. Extremelychallenging. So I started December 7th, and one of the things that I realized 46:00that they needed was to be heard. And so what I did that first day that I went in, I did the talking circle, which you sit in a circle and, you know, you have a talking stick, and every person gets to hold that stick and, and talk. And so that first day we probably spent over an hour. And it was only 12 kids. And so I gave it to them, and I said, "You know, I want to hear what you're feeling, what your concerns are, what are the issues, you know. You know, talk to me." I said, "But here are the ground rules. The person that has the stick is the only one that talks. You're gonna talk about yourself and, and what are your concerns, what are your feeling. You're not gonna talk about other people." Like, I had to lay all of that -- those ground rules so that way I didn't have a fight break out on the carpet. And for them, I think, like, what was shocking was, like, "We're gonna get to talk?" 47:00
And so that became a ritual for us every day. And it wasn't that we spent anhour and a half, but it was a part of our morning starting the day, and it was 20 minutes. Every person got a chance to talk about, you know, checking in and what your goals were for the day. And then I had the kids working on behavior modification where, like, you know, for everything positive they did they got a check. You know, at the end of the week all those checks, you know, were cashed in. We got to, to take them out for -- you know, to play ball. They had free time, and they could play games, listen to music, all that kind of stuff. So all of these positive incentives, but most importantly, what I did, which was something that I realized they needed, was to just give them some dignity. Like, they were trashed in the school. Everybody was traumatized. And I told them, I said, "This is what people think of you. You know, do you like people saying these things about you?" And they're like, "No." And I said, "Well, you can 48:00change how people think of you. I see, you know, amazing young people who have so much potential, and you're in control, you know, and -- you know, you can make a change, and you can prove all these people wrong by turning it around and showing that you can learn, that you are civilized, and that you have something to offer."
And, and then what I did with all of my colleagues in the school was I said tothem, "Whenever you see us in the hall or walking down the stairs, compliment the kids if they're doing the right thing." So they were getting compliments, and, you know. And then even, like, when they were going down to gym or music or art, you know, they were even behaving there, and the teacher then would report back to me. So, like, it was like a new leaf for them.
Now, the challenge, as you said, most of -- what were the challenges, I hadactually a student there that was, was dangerous. I don't know how else to put 49:00it. But if he got set off, he can literally hurt somebody. And on two different occasions he was set off, one, during one of the prep periods, which I wasn't there, and he actually took another kid and put them in a, a headlock until the other kid was actually out, unconscious. Yeah. Luckily, they were able to break him off, and they didn't know, like, what set him off to do that. And then the second time that it happened -- and, like, so I started taking them off to trips. So I said to them, I said, "You know, we could be doing everything else that other classrooms, you know, classes are doing in the building. In order for me to take you on a trip, you have to earn my trust that I could take you and that you are going to be safe, and you're going to be respectful, and you're going to show people that you can independently take care of yourself, and, you 50:00know, be the best you can be."
And so we went on a couple of trips, and it was great. And then we went iceskating in the Brooklyn ice skating rink in Prospect Park. We were having a great time, and towards the end of the day when we were actually leaving the park to go back to the school building he actually had an episode and he, he grabbed another kid, and he put him in a headlock. Luckily, the kid didn't, like, pass out, didn't -- he didn't kill him. [laughter] But, like, I had two of my male, you know, co-colleagues who were on the trip with me who, like, you know, broke him off. They restrained him. We got the other young kid. And it was just like -- I was like, oh my God. And, like, you know, you're out in public, and then everybody -- and then people wanting to call the police, and we were like, "No, no, no, we got this, we got this." [laughter]
So, so he was, like, a super, super challenge. And it was really hard to work51:00with his family, like, to really find out, like, psychologically what was his problem. But, like, you -- like, when he was about ready to have an episode, you could actually see his eyes turning red. So at that point, like, I learned his trigger points, and when I knew, like, he was getting to that -- he verge of that, I was like, "Why don't you go see Ms. Dixon and go sit in her room and just take some time, you know, to, to regroup?" And then he would go there and sit for a little bit, and I would call her, and she's like, "Yeah, please send him." So just, you know, learning those cues. So he was, like, one of my biggest challenges. So I was in P.S. 321 for two years, and then I got accessed, 'cause I was the last man on the totem pole, or woman.
ALI: What does -- what does "accessed" mean?
ALMONTASER: So they didn't have enough money in their budget --
ALI: Oh, okay.
ALMONTASER: -- to keep me --
ALMONTASER: -- and I was the one with the least seniority, so I was sodevastated to leave, 'cause it was like, that was where I first started everything. And what ended up happening was I interviewed with P.S. 29 in the 52:00Cobble Hill area, and I got the job there. And the principal was amazing, African American woman. She was like, "Oh my God, we are so happy to have you." And it was another tough class there. And the kid there that was, like, the terror of the school was named Michael. And Michael was, like, twice my size, 200 pounds. And even the principal, who was, like, you know, 5'11" was, like, even nervous from him.
And then she had a paraprofessional there that was very off the walls, who was,like, out of control, who knew her rights, you know, and knew how much she could push without getting written up and all that kind of stuff. [laughter] And nobody wanted to work with her, and she was like, "I can't keep this woman, you know, without being in a classroom." And she's like, "We're gonna give her to 53:00you." You know, so she's like, "I will give you everything and anything you want. I just need you to have her and, you know, and manage these kids." And it was a 15, 15 students in that class, and it was actually a fifth-grade class. So I took on that responsibility, and I was there for a couple of years. And I turned Michael all the way around. He was, like, the nicest person. [laughter] Everybody was, like, shocked about Michael. They were like, "What did you do to him?"
And then Ms. Brown, Ms. Brown, like, also -- and she was another one who, like,you know, was basically targeted as being this, you know, awful, scary, mean person, and I just really gave her more responsibility, shared responsibility in the classroom. I made sure that the kids gave her the respect, and saw her as an equal. Gave her the power to teach. So she felt like a part of a community, and, like, really being -- and she was just, like, amazing. And everybody was like, 54:00"How -- what did you do to get her to work? She doesn't do anything for anybody. It's just amazing." I mean, she was, like, doing arts and crafts with the kids. So I was like, great, Friday afternoons, you know, that was, like, one of their treats. You know, she was making photo albums with them that they made for their -- for Mother's Day. It was just a whole lot of great stuff that was happening.
So I ended up leaving P.S. 29 because the superintendent came to the school, andhe came into my room, and he was just, like, very, very impressed. And they called me two weeks later, and they said that he wanted to meet with me. I went. I met with him. He was like, you know, we really love what you're doing. You know, it's a special needs class. You know, we have a lot of kids who are struggling. You are able to do things with kids, like, in a general class, and I think that, you know, you're very talented, and we want you to become one of our literacy staff developers. So I was like, oh my God, what does this mean? 55:00
ALI: Did this mean leaving the classroom?
ALMONTASER: It meant leaving the classroom. So I consulted with a couple ofpeople and, you know, people were like, oh my God, you're a natural, you're great, you work really well. You know, you're, you're really good at it. You should do it. And then I was like, "But wait, I -- you know, I don't have that many years. Like, who the hell is gonna take me serious? You know, like, I -- you know, I was a para for, you know, four years, and then I was a teacher for three years. You know, who's gonna take me serious that, like, I know what I'm talking about?" They're like, "You are -- even though you were a para, you were a teacher," you know? So at that point I prayed on it, and I was like, you know, "Please, God, give me some guidance here." And I decided to do it.
And they placed me at P.S. 94, which is actually in Sunset Park. It was a schoolthat had teachers there for, like, 30 years, 25 years, 40 years. When I got 56:00there, my nickname -- not in my face, but to everybody -- amongst them, I was a 12-year-old. [laughter] And, like, you know, "This 12-year-old is gonna come and teach us how to teach reading and writing?" And, you know. So the school was predominantly Asian American and Latino. And so predominantly, you know, second language learners, who had a really difficult time learning the Eng-- language, learning to read and write, and that was, like, the challenge. They were like, "We need somebody with a background in special ed and how to help, you know, teachers to be able to really get the kids to get there." And so there were teachers there that were very receptive and who were like, "Yes, we want your help. Show us. Tell us. You know, model for us." Who were, like, a delight to work with. And then there were those who were like, "We've been teaching this 57:00long, and who the hell do you think you are?" And, you know. And so I had to deal with all that, too. And so that was interesting. The administration was super supportive. Over the course of the years there, there were, like, a couple of bias incidents that happened to me, but we were, like, never able to figure out, like, who did it.
ALI: Like what?
ALMONTASER: I had -- somebody had left me a note in my mailbox, and one of themwas like, "Go back to your country." And then another one was -- it was also, again, you know, like, anti-Arab, anti-Muslim. And actually, that one -- that one happened -- if you remember the bombing that happened on the -- it was a ship in the port of Yemen -- I don't even remember the timeline of years -- and it happened, like, shortly after that. And, and then the note was like, you 58:00know, something to the effect, like, you know, "You're gonna bomb us." And so, like, we were never able to trace who, who put those in there.
ALI: Throughout your career in the school system, was this the first time thatyour cultural identity kind of was used in attempt to use it against you?
ALMONTASER: Yes. Yes. Throughout the course of my years teaching, like, youknow, when I was at [P.S.] 321, nobody ever said anything about my hijab. The kids, as innocent as they are and as adorable as they are -- they're, like, so innocent and fascinated with their questions, and you just love their questions, [laughter] because their questions are actually what the adults are thinking but would never ask.
ALI: What kinds of questions?
ALMONTASER: So, you know, I would get, like, "Do you have hair under there?"[laughter] And I just used to love to have a conversation with the kids about it. "Do you sleep with it?" "Do you take a shower with it?" Yeah, so those were, 59:00like, some of the funny things that kids would ask me. And they're like, "Um, and so -- like, does it itch underneath there?" It was just -- you know, all the funny things, you know. "Are you hot underneath there?" Just, like, you know. And, like, when kids asked them, I, you know, I had thought they were cute and adorable, and I was like, you know, I'm glad they're asking questions. But when adults would ask me that I'd be like, [laughter] you know, that's so rude. I never said that, but I tried gracefully in a way to respond that didn't make them feel, like, stupid and ignorant, you know. I mean, like, the question of, like, "Do you get hot underneath there?", I'm like, well, I'm much cooler than a man who wears, you know, a shirt and a tie and a jacket in 90-degree weather. [laughter] You know? So -- but yeah, so those were -- yeah. 60:00
ALI: So how, how did you make this transition from educator to activist?
ALMONTASER: So that happened, actually, organically, I want to say. The way thathappened was --
ALI: Well, I should -- let me just preface this, because clearly you -- therewas already some activism involved in your work as an educator, when you talk --
ALI: -- about the Multicultural Library, so I don't want to not acknowledgethat, but --
ALMONTASER: Yeah, no, absolutely.
ALI: -- the more, like, public activism that we know, yeah.
ALMONTASER: Yeah, so in District 15, I became, like, the go-to on Arab Muslimcultures. So the superintendent immediately, if there was anything anywhere in the district, they'd be like, "Call Debbie." Whether it was an incident, whether there was something that they needed to, you know -- that a school called, there was an issue, how do they deal with it. I immediately became, like, the go-to. 61:00Even when I was in the classroom, I was the go-to for that. And so one of the things -- so I did the Multicultural Library, and then one of the things that I also did, like, then when I was a teacher was I was always sharing lists with people, multicultural books, you know, to, you know, use in the classroom. And then we had developed a multicultural committee on the district level, and I was a part of that. So I was, like, the go-to by -- for the teachers and the schools in terms of literature, in terms of curriculum, which was really awesome. And then, that actually started to, like, you know, en-- to actually connect to the outer community in, in the district. I was invited to speak at the public library, at, you know, at the Ethical Cultural Society, you know, some educational forums, you know. And so it started really organically that way as 62:00being, like, the go-to and person that people could speak to on Arab/Muslim issues, relations, culture, customs.
And then what ended up happening was somebody recommended me to the Museum ofthe City of New York, 'cause they were working on developing an exhibit on Arab Americans. So in 1998 they contacted me and they said they were putting together a committee. They already put the committee together, and they were really -- they heard about me, and it was so important to have an educator on the committee. And so I joined it, and we worked on the exhibit with the curator and others at the museum to basically, you know, have this ready and available to be out in October of 2001.
ALI: Wow. [laughter]
ALMONTASER: And 9/11 happened. We met, like, a week after 9/11, and the63:00president of the museum was like, "We cannot do this." And I was like, oh my God. I was, like, so upset, and I was, like, ready to cry. And he's like, "We can't do it right now, and it's not because I'm, you know, caving in, or pandering." He's like, "But I want to see the next six months unfold of what it's gonna -- what's gonna happen, and I want to be able to clear more space in the museum, to expand the exhibit, double the size that we originally were gonna do." And we were, like, shocked. The whole entire committee was, like, shocked. Like, he was like, "This is a moment in history that if we don't get it right now we're never gonna get it right, and I want to be able to capture, you know, what's happening to the Arab community, and be able to also put that in -- on display." And so it was really moving and powerful.
ALI: So this makes me think about, also, the '93 attempted bombing of the World64:00Trade Center. Either together or independently, your being around children or young people, how did you see especially young Muslim children or Arab American children react to, or their response to, or feel the effects of those kinds of very, you know, in New York City kind of events?
ALMONTASER: Yeah. So when that happened, again, I was already teaching. It was-- it was very, very interesting, be-- again, that whole thing of, like, "Call Debbie. We gotta find out what Debbie thinks, what we need to do."
ALI: This is in '93, the '93 bombing, yeah.
ALMONTASER: Yeah. And so the community didn't feel under siege as they did after9/11. And the kids, you know, in s-- in a couple of the schools there were some 65:00incidents that happened, but they weren't major. The superin-- superintendent at that time was able to, like, you know, manage the situation. And it -- like, there weren't explosive things happening. There weren't, like, you know, detentions and deportations happening. You know, and so it wasn't as bad as 9/11. But I remember at that time, like, helping people understand, like, there was good and bad in every community, and Islam does not condone this kind of behavior, and the things, you know, that you see, you know, portrayed, you know, at the hands of Muslims, this is now what Islam is about.
ALI: How was the Muslim community or communities in Downtown Brooklyn, how werethey impacted? Because I know that some of the investigation targeted, like, Masjid Farooq, and some communities in Atlantic Avenue. Did you --? 66:00
ALMONTASER: Yeah, so at that time those things were actually happening, and alot of people were afraid in terms of being targeted, as well. And actually, the number of people going to Farooq Mosque, like, declined, because people were, like, just concerned about that. And -- but there wasn't, like, a level of activism that you saw after 9/11. It was really more, like, just people talking with one another, being cautious. And I, at that time, was just, like, really, like, enthralled in the whole th-- in education, and the work that I was doing there. It was, you know -- it was pretty intense in terms of keeping it together that way. So yeah, so there weren't -- you know, like, I didn't get involved with any, like, organizations, or anything like that. My starting to become, you 67:00know, engaged in community affairs was actually in -- you know, through my involvement with the museum, on the exhibit. I got to meet a whole lot of other people who were connecting me with people. And then I really started to connect with people, like in 1999, through the Brooklyn Dialogue Project, which I think I mentioned to you. No?
ALI: Before --
ALI: -- but not in this interview.
ALMONTASER: Oh, yeah.
ALI: So tell us what that was.
ALMONTASER: So the Brooklyn Dialogue Project was actually started by a womannamed Marcia Kannry, who spent the whole 1998 calling me and saying, "I want to meet with you, and I want to talk to you about the Palestinian--Israeli conflict." And I'm like, are you crazy, lady?, in my head. I was like --
ALI: Why was your response that?
ALMONTASER: Because I was like, I am not gonna engage in conversation on foreignpolicy, especially, you know, Palestinian--Israeli conflict, in a predominantly 68:00Jewish, you know, community, in Park Slope, in New York. Yeah. I was like, I'm not even prepared to have a conversation like that. And she kept persisting and persisting, and then finally I was like, "All right, I'll meet with you." I met with her for coffee. She explained to me what she was trying to do. And I was like, "Okay, I get that. I, I can dig that, and I think can be, you know, s-- a resource. And, you know, I just don't want to be in a position that I would ever, you know, put myself in a position that would basically create, you know, a problem for me, you know, in my professional career, my community." And, and that didn't happen. And what was great about it was it helped forge a lot of relationships between Palestinian and Muslim communities and the Jewish community, which nobody was really doing in a deliberate way. Like, people 69:00formed relationships who were Muslim and Jewish and Arab and who were Jewish, but it was because they just interacted with one another, whether it's through school, you know, through their jobs. But it was never that there was any opportunity to talk about what their thoughts and feelings were about the conflict, or what they feel about, you know, the way things are.
And so the Dialogue Project gave people that venue. And I sat through, you know,the circles, hearing everybody's perspective, people talking from an "I" place, their own personal emotions, their connections, their stories. It, it helped me, as well as all the other people that were engaged in the dialogue, just be able to put ourselves in the shoes of the other with no judgment, even when, you know, as an Arab or Muslim, like, hearing, you know, things about Palestine and 70:00Israel that were really difficult, but we were able to hear it because we had already formed that relationship, you know, to agree to disagree, and really be able to hear people with an open heart. And what came of that was actually strong bonds and relationships. I mean, there were people in that circle who were Palestinian and Israeli Jews who, when they first came, they couldn't even look at each other. And then after the third, fourth dialogue session, they were actually looking at each other and listening to one another. And I saw with my own two eyes people eventually forming relationships, and going to each other's homes, and inviting each other for different holidays. And the test for that, actually, was actually September 11th. The attack happened, and --
ALI: Do you remember the day?71:00
ALMONTASER: Oh, I remember it.
ALI: Tell me your experience that day.
ALMONTASER: Oh my gosh, yeah. So that day -- so after I was at P.S. 94 as astaff developer, I was told by a few people to apply to the Aspiring Leadership Program. And I was like, "Well, I'm not really interested in becoming a principal. You know, I really like what I'm doing." And they're like, "You need to apply." And then the superintendent himself was like, "You really should consider applying." And I was like, "Okay, I'll apply." I applied. I went through all the hoops. I had to write two essays. Then I had to go to an interview, where I actually interviewed in a group interview. If I passed that, then I had to go to the one-on-one interview. So I did well on all of them, and then I ended up getting in the program. And it was really pretty cool. It was like a cohort of 15 people that they trained and they paid for a full 72:00certification to become principals. So I actually started that program in 1999, I think. And I decided in 2001, in June, to go back into the classroom.
The superintendent at that time wasn't happy with me. She was like, "Why are you-- why do you want to go back?" And so were a number of other people. They're like, you know, "Why do you want to go back? You know, you should just stay where you are. Blah, blah, blah. And I was like, "Well, you know, I've been out of the classroom now four years. All I've been doing is ELA [English Language Arts], reading and writing. I don't know what the latest math, you know, math curriculum is, the science curriculum. And if I'm gonna be leading a school, I want to be able to say to teachers, I know all those subject areas, like I did when I was teaching."
So I went back to 261. So the superintendent at that time was like, "Okay, well,73:00if that's the case then I want you to go back to -- I want you to go to 261. So 261 had a very large Arab American community, because it's in the Downtown Brooklyn area, near Court Street and Atlantic Avenue. She's like, you know, "That's -- has a significant population. And who knows, you know, there may be, you know, an opportunity for you to lead that school." So I was like, okay. I was happy to go there. And it also had a lot of significance personally. My husband went to school there, you know, as an elementary student, his sisters. My cousins went to school there. So there was, like, all of these, you know, family connections of, like, wow, you know, going back to our family roots.
So September 11th happened. I want to say it was the second or third day ofschool. I can't remember off the top of my head now. And it was the fifth grade 74:00class, special needs students. It was 15 kids in the class. And I went out to pick them up in the schoolyard. I remember the sky-- you could see the skyline in the -- in the backyard of the school. It was a beautiful, crisp sky, blue sky. You know, it was a little chilly, you know, 8:30, I think I picked them up, eight-- I don't remember, 8:20. And I picked them up. We walked into the classroom. We started our routine of basically doing the math problem of the day, and, and getting started with the rest of the subject areas. And I remember at that point everything was fine, and then I got a knock on the door, and it was a parent. And I was like, okay. And I had one of the kids open the door. And then she's like, "Can I see you out in the hallway? I don't want to speak to you 75:00in here." And I was like, "Sure." So I walked out with her, and she was like, "There was a, you know, a plane that hit one of the Twin Towers, and we just wanted you to know, and we want to just keep the kids in the classroom. We don't know what's going on, and when we have more information we'll come back."
So then I went back in the room and I was like, oh my God, this is crazy. I waslike, how could a plane crash into, you know, into a ten-- one of the towers? Like, but I was like, okay, anything is possible. They are really high. And, and I was like, okay. So I was like, all right. I was like, "Are people hurt?" She's like, "Well, we don't have any information yet? You know, we'll -- you know, we'll keep you updated, but just keep the kids in the classroom." So I go back. You know, we continued doing our work. A little while later the same parent came and I thought she was giving me an update of, like, what happened, and then she came back and she was like, "The second tower just got hit, and this is not an 76:00accident, it's an attack. You know, the school right now is waiting for the district to tell us what to do, but right now just keep the kids in the classroom. You know, don't send -- don't allow anybody to go to the bathroom." Because the bathrooms were facing the s-- you know, the skylight -- skyline. And so I was like, oh my God.
And I remember when she told me this, I was like, "Please, God, please don't letit be a Muslim. [laughter] Please, God." I was like, this is crazy. I can't believe this is happening. And I had to go back in the room and, like, keep it together, make sure that the kids were still learning. And then eventually, like, one of the kids was like, "I need to go to the bathroom." And I was like, "Are you sure?" And he was like, "I really do." And I was like, well, what am I gonna do? Like, it's let him pee in the room or [laughter] go to the bathroom. 77:00
So, so then I said to him, "Okay, wait for me outside the door and I'll let yougo." So then I went to the doorway with him, and I talked to him right outside the door. The kids were inside. They were busy working. And I said to him, I said, "Listen --" And you could also hear, like, the sirens already, you know, and they were like, "Oh, what's going on?" And I'm like, "Oh, maybe it's just a fire in the neighborhood." You know, trying to keep them calm and continue working. And, you know, you hear sirens all the time in New York anyway, so they didn't make much of it. So then I basically said to him, I said, "You know, the parent that came in was telling us to keep the kids in the classroom because there was an accident. So I don't want you to go to the bathroom and get startled when you see, you know, what happened. So go to the bathroom, do your 78:00business, and come right back, 'cause I'm not supposed to let you go, but I don't want you to get frightened and startled. You're safe, you know. You're here. We're gonna make sure you get home, whether your parents pick you up --" 'Cause then we also started hearing parents -- the main office calling for kids to come down.
So then he came back. He looked like he saw a ghost. And I told him, I said,"Please, Michael, get it together. Pull yourself together. I really don't want you to tell the other kids, 'cause if you do everybody's gonna get scared, and we're not -- and, you know, we don't want everybody to get scared. But I want you to know that you're safe, nobody's gonna harm you, nobody's gonna do anything to you, and we're gonna all figure this out together." So he was good. He didn't say anything to the kids, but, like, he seemed, like, odd and different after that. Poor baby. I mean, it's, like, so crazy. So then, half of 79:00my class was literally, like, called down, and then the kids were like, "Why are parents picking everybody up? Why do they keep calling kids down?" And then at that point I was like, I don't know how much I can keep this, you know, a secret from the kids. So then we sat in a circle and I explained to them what was happening, and I said to them, "You're safe. You know, if your parents come for you, that's great. If your parents don't come for you, I'm not gonna leave the building until you're all put on your school bus to get home. So I just want you to know you're safe, you're sound, everything is okay, we're gonna be okay." And then I took them down to lunch. So they went down to lunch. Of course, it was chaos in the cafeteria. The kids were talking. The adults were talking. And so then, as I was bringing them up from the cafeteria, those that were still left with me, one of the kids basically says, "It's those dumb Arabs that did this to 80:00us!" [laughter] I was like, "Where did you hear that?" And he's like, "Yeah, the people in the cafeteria, the lunch people were talking about it, and they're saying that it's Arabs that did this to us." So then we went back in the classroom, and I sat with them on the carpet, and I said to them, I said, "You know, today is only the third day of school. You know, the last two days we've been doing community-building activities. You all got to share your stories of where you are -- who you are, where you come from, about your family. I shared with you guys, as well, you know, and I told you that my family is from Yemen. And Yemenis are actually Arabs." So, like, their jaws dropped. [laughter] They're like -- they were just like -- and then one of the kids said, "Well, we know you wouldn't do that to us, Debbie." And I was like, "Yeah, but a whole lot of other Arabs would not be doing this to you, you know, and I want you to know, like, this is a -- you know, an isolated incident." I said, "We don't even know 81:00yet. You know, this just happened a few hours ago. We don't even have all the facts. So what you're hearing is possibly speculation, but even, like, when we find out in here that it may be Arabs or Muslims that are responsible for this, that doesn't mean that I and all of your peers that are Arab and Muslim in this school building, or across the city, or across the country, would do something like this." And so that sort of, like, helped them sort of, like, you know. And we started talking about stereotypes. They said, "You know, it's -- you know, I feel hurt that you would say these things." I said, you know, "Look at your own community and your ethnic background. What are some things that you hate that people say about your community, and what are some positive things that you love and you want people to know about your community?" And so they went around and the -- you know, the Latino kids were like, "Well, we hate people thinking that 82:00we eat rice and beans all the time, and that we're on welfare, and, you know, that we have a bunch of babies." And then the African American kids, you know, shared, you know, the things that they hate, that they're lazy, that they're -- you know, that they don't want to work, that they're all, you know, they're thugs and criminals, to be afraid of them. And I said, "You see? So this is what's happening, you know, with Arabs and Muslims is they were being portrayed in a negative way because of the actions of a small group of people that are doing bad things, but not everybody's like that."
So we at -- then at that point ended -- you know, continued with the rest of ourday. More kids were picked up, and then I had a couple kids who, who were left, and we were waiting for the buses. It was mayhem. I don't know if you were in New York. It was mayhem. Like, I was still there till five o'clock waiting for the bus for a couple of the kids, and I couldn't get a hold of my family. My 83:00husband called me. I -- after I took the kids to the cafeteria, I was calling, and I couldn't get him. Cell phones weren't even working. And then finally he called to the school, and I was actually in the main office, and, and I spoke to him. He's like, "I'm home. Everybody's fine. Just figure out how to get yourself home, because there is no way I could come for you. The traffic is crazy. And do not take public transportation. Find a way to get home. Find somebody to give you a ride." He didn't explain to me why he wanted me [laughter] not to go home on my own, and I didn't think about it. And then, like, the principal -- everybody was like, "Debbie, do not go home by yourself. You know, we'll figure out how to get you home."
ALI: And why, why was that a concern?
ALMONTASER: 'Cause they were all already worried of, like, backlash. And thenwhile I was there in the office, an Arab Muslim parent came in crying 84:00hysterically, who was wearing hijab, and she's like, "I'm afraid to go back out. I came to pick up my kids, but I don't feel safe to take my kids and go. I was just accosted outside. A man, a white man was just telling me, 'You did this to us, go back to your country,' and cursing at me." And she's like, "I'm afraid to go back out." And then she ended up being in the school building. And then everybody's like, "Oh my God." And then when I saw her I was like, "What the hell? What's going on?" Like, all of that stuff -- like, everything was happening so quickly. Like, I didn't -- it didn't even register for me that I needed to be worried for my own personal safety. So we eventually found parents who lived near this woman, who basically came by and they were like, "We're gonna walk her home. We're gonna make sure she's safe, her and her kids. We're not gonna let anything happen to her." And so that's how she got home. So then, in my case, even the principal was like, "You are not, you know -- we have to 85:00figure out how we're gonna get you home." So, luckily, one of my colleagues lived two blocks down from me, on the same street but two blocks down. Her and her daughter both taught there. So they're like, "We're gonna go home. We're gonna take you home." And her car was parked in a lot across the street from the school. She was like, "I'm gonna go get the car and we'll meet you out front." So we did that. Got in the back of the car. Her and her daughter were sitting in the front. And we drove, like, a few blocks. We were on Atlantic Avenue, and then we were waiting for a light, and this old man, white old man with a cane, was standing there for the light, and was getting ready to cross. And rather than crossing, he -- as he was walking over to cross, he was pointing with his cane, and he was, like, cursing. "You F-in' this, you did this to us." And they had their windows rolled up. It -- like, you know, smoke and smog, and it was 86:00crazy. And all I could do was read this man's lips, and his, his cane waving. [laughter] And I don't know -- like, I didn't draw attention to it. I didn't want to scare Rose and her daughter. Luckily, that light changed and we drove off. And I was like, oh my God, he probably would've, like -- any closer, he would've gotten to us. He would've broke the window with that cane, and [laughter] clobbered me with it. But I was like, oh my God. That's when reality sank for me that, oh my God, the world has changed forever for Muslims.
So I got home. I think it was like six o'clock. Luckily, one of my neighbor--one of actually my daughter's parents brought her home from school. She was at Al-Noor at that point for middle school. My older son had actually come home, 'cause he worked the shift -- the night shift as a security guard at a hotel, 87:00and he was also a National Guardsman, so he got home and was calling his unit, and he wasn't getting any answer. He got all of his military gear, jumped in our car. He was -- told his dad, he was like, "I need the car. I need to go up to my, you know, to my unit. They're gonna need us." And he -- my husband was like, "Wait, wait 'til your mom gets home." He's like, "No, I can't wait. I gotta go up there." You know, National Guardsmen, they, they respond to disasters. So he left without me knowing. And then my younger son eventually made it home. He was actually going to a high school in the city on the east side. Why am I blanking out on the name of it? I can't remember it right now. He walked over the bridge, 'cause there was -- like, the trains and everything. And that was pretty crazy. And he had gotten home, I think, like, just right before I got home, and he was 88:00just, like, traumatized. He didn't go back to school. He didn't want to go back into the city. He, like, literally, like, just -- he wouldn't leave his room. It was pretty crazy. When I got home, I -- my husband opened the door, and I was like, "Where are the kids?" He -- and then he just went down the line of who's here. [laughter] And then, like, he didn't tell me about my older son. And I was like, "Where's Yousif?" And that's when he gave me the news that he left. And, of course, I was, like -- I was devastated that he left, I didn't get to see him. And I, you know, I just remember, like, collapsing on my knees. It was just, like, all of the rela-- reality of what was happening that day just, like, hit, hit that day. It's hard -- worry, it's really hard to talk about it.
So then -- so I remember that night, like, sitting, you know, on, on our couch89:00in our den, just my husband and I. We were watching the news and just, like, all the madness of, like, what the heck was going on, and then they determined that it was Muslims, and, you know, how all that just simply, like, unfolded. And eight or nine o'clock -- I don't even remember what time it was -- the superintendent called, and she's like, "Debbie, I need you to come to the district office." They -- the DOE [Department of Education] at that point closed schools for the entire day the next day. She's like, "I need you to come. I need some guidance. You know, there's nobody here. You know, you know, we rely on you, you know, to deal with our Arab and Muslim families. I need you to come in the morning. We're -- I have my cabinet meeting with me." And I turned to my husband -- and then the school board, also, the school board vice president also called, too, and he's like, "We need you to come." Like, I -- one of them -- one 90:00of them called me first. I don't remember the order. But I was like, "Of course we'll come." But then when she -- I spoke to her. I said, you know, "Carmen [Fariña] --" It's the same super-- actually, the chancellor now, Carmen. [laughter] I said to her, I said, "You know, I had a bad experience going home yester-- today from, from work, and I'm feeling really nervous about my own safety. Can you -- can you provide us train-- parking at the district office?" She's like, "Yes, I'm gonna make sure that there is a designated, you know, spot for you when you come to the district." So my husband and I went, and we walked in there. She got up. She hugged both of us and kissed us. And then we sat there, and we were just, like, strategizing. She was like, "I want to make sure that every family knows that they're respected, that they're loved, that they, you know, deserve the education like everybody else. I don't want anybody to feel, you know, marginalized or besieged or under attack. You know, we know that 91:00there are good people and bad people in every race and every religion, and I need to get that message across to the Arab and Muslim communities in our district." So then she was talking about, you know, they were putting together a letter. I said, "Okay, I can get the letter translated for us," in all the languages we needed. So we translated in Arabic, Urdu, and Bengali immediately. Like, I knew people who could actually do that for us, you know, that day. By the end of that day, that letter was, like, done. Then I told her, I said, "You know, there are a lot of parents who've experienced harassment, and we're gonna need to comfort them to make sure that their kids come to school. We need volunteers in these schools. I could get volunteers that I know to go to the schools and make calls to the families in their native language to come back to 92:00school." And it was just really amazing, Zaheer, because, like, people rose to the occasion, like -- of, like, helping. So I called up, like, a bunch of people that I knew, and I was like, "I need you to reach out to people in your network, and I need them to go to this school, to that school, to this school." Like, I -- we had a map of all the schools that had large, you know, South Asian community, large Arab community, and we were able, like, around the clock for two weeks to have people who, like, volunteered two, three hours, you know, in a school, making calls and helping make parents feel comfortable to come to the school. We sent out the letter. There were some parents that were still afraid to come, and then what we did was we actually -- after they made the calls, we worked with the district office in those schools to actually start an escorting system with families. So all the PTAs held meetings for their families. They 93:00explained to them what was going on, and how we all as a community need to pull together, and make sure all of our neighbors' children were coming to school. And so families were literally, like, going and picking up the f-- the kids and bringing them on their way to school, or picking up the parent and the kid to drop off the kids and then walk them back to school. It was really powerful, the stuff that we did in District 15. It was really, really powerful. And then, at that point, I was also involved with the Arab American Family Support Center, which is on Court Street. And then we started doing that. We formed, actually, a formal escorting system for families who didn't necessarily have kids but were feeling under attack and needed that support. And we had, like, 150 people on a list who basically just called them. And the way that those people -- like, we are -- it's not like the technology that we have today. All those people, I got 94:00a hold of them at a church or a synagogue that I presented, and they were like, "What can we do to help the Arab and Muslim community?" And I was like, "You can volunteer to be an escort for a family." And then their minister or rabbi vouched for them. There -- like, there was no way -- [laughter] Like, Google wasn't what it is today that you can Google somebody and find out everything on them. So I -- you know, it was just a fascinating time, you know. And people came around in terms of, like -- the solidarity was really profound, the love and, you know, appreciation for diversity, the care that the Muslim community -- the only setback was actually the government abuses that we experienced: you know, the Patriot Act; the detentions, the deportations that communities were experiencing.
ALI: How was that felt in Brooklyn?
ALMONTASER: Oh my God, it was -- it was detrimental. So I live in Ditmas Park95:00area, a block away from Coney Island Avenue. I moved there in 1999. Very rich, you know, Pakistani community. It's considered Little Pakistan. And during that time, there was a mass exodus of Pakistanis. Over 25,000 people left that neighborhood in the six months after 9/11.
ALMONTASER: Yeah, within that six months after 9/11. We -- so my husband and I,after doing all that stuff in the district, I found myself also speaking at churches, at synagogues, at community centers. I would teach during the day and then at night I found myself speaking at a church or a synagogue, helping people better understand their, you know, Muslim neighbors, and people saying, "What can we do? How can we help?" And then one night we went to the United Methodist 96:00Church, because the War Resisters League wanted to do a training on how to, you know, to defend your neighbor, self-defense training. So they were like -- you know, I went. My husband and I went, and we were like -- you know, we wanted to see, and we wanted to learn, and we wanted to be a connector and a bridge. And then that night, we had left, like, 9:30 from the church, and as we were driving on Coney Island Avenue, going towards Brighton Beach area, we see, like, maybe about ten blocks away from where we lived. We stopped at a light, and we see Pakistani men against the walls. There were police cars, marked and unmarked cars, and men with their hands up against the walls, being frisked by people that were dressed in uniform, and some, you know, undercover, and then people 97:00being put into cars and trucks. And we're like, okay, this is crazy. We drive another three blocks and we saw this same thing happen. And that point my husband and I were just like, what the hell is going on? We felt like we were in a police state. And then we drove another two or three blocks and we saw the same thing, and that was only, like, three blocks away from where we lived. We were like, what the hell is going on? We got into the house and my husband was -- we were both disturbed by that sight. Just totally disturbed. So then we went -- we did a follow-up meeting, and I reported what I saw, and everybody was like, "Oh my God, what the hell's going on?" And that's when we started, like, doing a lot of work. So we formed the Brooklyn Neighbors Project. I think I may have told you about that?
ALI: Yes, but --
ALMONTASER: Yeah, I gotta tell you.
ALI: -- this is our first time, so tell us, yes.
ALMONTASER: Yeah, sorry. Ah, what time is it? I gotta do a time check.98:00
ALI: I'm okay if you're okay.
ALMONTASER: Have we passed three o'clock?
ALI: I don't think so.
ALMONTASER: I don't have my watch.
ALI: Let me tell you.
ALI: It is -- oh, we have. It's 3:15.
ALMONTASER: [laughter] Talk like --
ALI: Do you -- if --
ALMONTASER: Four o'clock, my -- I gotta leave here four o'clock, yeah.
ALI: Okay, all right. If we need to we can always do a part two, but I --
ALI: -- we might not need to. Let's --
ALI: -- let's see how we do. So --
ALMONTASER: I gab too much.
ALI: No, no, no. This is --
ALI: -- this is perfect.
ALI: So tell me about the Brooklyn Neighbors Project.
ALMONTASER: Okay, so when all of this was happening I found myself doing all ofthese events, you know, speaking at different places, and then, as I mentioned to you, like, there was this mass, you know, mass of people wanting to be supportive, to stand in solidarity, like -- and then they came -- we were holding all these meetings together. People from all over the -- Brooklyn were coming, to Brooklyn Ethical, to United Methodist Church. And we met week after 99:00week of finding ways to support the community. You know, and then when I brought this to people's attention they're like, "Oh my God, we have to find out where these people are." And then we literally started contacting people on Coney Island Avenue, like, you know, "What's going on?" And a bunch of people started reporting that their husband is missing, their son is missing, they don't know where they are. So what ended up happening as I was doing all this, the superintendent was like, you know -- I was making the papers, like the Brooklyn Courier and all those papers. So the funny thing is the kids would come in the next day with the paper. They're like, "Oh my God, you're in the paper! This is so cool!" And then the superintendent finally called me in and she's like -- I thought I was gonna get in trouble. I didn't get in trouble. She's like, "You 100:00know, you're doing really important work, and I want this work to be done in the schools, but we need to figure out how to pay for it. I just don't have the budget to put you in at district level." And the Christian Children's Fund came into New York, and they did an assessment of the tragedy of, like, what communities needed, the support, and they came down to the conclusion that, you know, the first responders, the victims and their families, were all being taken care of. Like, there were resources, there were services. And they realized, like, the Muslim community, nobody was really doing anything on behalf of the Muslim community. So they actually spent money in providing services, from counseling to, you know, the whole situation with people getting detained, and their families not having money, to then organizing. So they basically said to 101:00me, you know, "We want to support the work that you're doing, so that way you can also do it in schools."
What we ended up doing was that they paid for me to work at District 15 two anda half days, and then the other two and a half days in the community city-wide, to do school workshops, and then just to organize communities to sort of, like, really help and support the Muslim community. So they supported that position for me for a whole year, and I left the classroom -- so the break of Thanksgiving I basically told my kids that I wasn't gonna come back, told them what was going on, and how important this work was. And they were like, "Of course. You know, we're gonna miss you, but, you know, you know, we want you to help other people." It was really sad to, like, leave the kids. But I went back 102:00for their graduation. It was really beautiful. And I used to stop by and visit. It was amazing, just to keep that connection with them, and then the school, too. So I did that for a whole year. The Christian Children's Fund supported that. And so the Brooklyn Neighbors Project came out of that, which basically we were coordinating workshops, the 9/11 Curriculum Project, which actually I brought together a bunch of educators. We developed curriculum. And we were actually providing professional development teachers -- for teachers that the DOE necessarily was not providing. Like, the DOE did not, at that point, feel the necessity to provide teachers training on how to deal with the con-- you know, with the issues of 9/11. I mean, there were teachers, Zaheer, that didn't even know where Afghanistan was. Yeah. It was crazy. It was crazy. There were 103:00many, many who did not know, like, how to even open the conversation with the kids because they were terrified, like, if they opened it up it was going to be emotionally, you know -- it would be too emotional for the kids. So we were providing these teach-ins on a monthly basis on a Saturday, where teachers were giving up their Saturday and coming. We actually collected curriculum. We inc-- you know, after they attended the teach-in, we're like, "Go back and try some stuff, and bring back, you know, what it was like for you, and, you know, if you can share lessons." So then we were having people share lessons.
Like, I was like, I wish we had the technology that we have today back then,because, like, we didn't have all of this digitally archived, you know what I mean? A lot of it was hard paper copy stuff. And so I feel like so much rich history was lost there. So, yeah, so it was really powerful. We were doing it 104:00all over the city. We partnered with Amnesty International, with the head for Appeal For Peace, a couple of other organizations that had money that actually were able to support the work. And then, you know, we organized on the detentions and deportations, where we actually were outside of the Brooklyn Detention Center on Third Avenue and 28th Street every Saturday for six months, demanding the names and the charges of individuals. And, you know, we were there relentless, regardless of the weather, and the movement grew because we started involving unions and, you know, different organizations, and elected officials were coming to speak. It was really, really powerful, really powerful. So we're able to get the names of a lot of these people. Some were released. Others were held because they had some criminal activity that they -- you know, like credit 105:00card fraud and stuff like that. And then some, you know, were deported. But at least we got some relief, 'cause people then knew whether their husband was there or in the Hudson River, you know? And so it was really, really powerful. And we called that group Justice For Detainees. It -- yeah, there -- I mean, there are documentaries that I'm sure you can access on that that people created at that time, and I feel like international media covered us more than the local. But like the Brooklyn Courier papers, they covered us every week. And so, so that lasted for, I think, six months. So, like, by 2002, you know, there were only a few people left that were there who had criminal activities. And then we just started, like, doing more on, on this stuff with the Patriot Act, like, all the abuses and everything that was going on, and then the whole thing with 106:00NSEERS [National Security Entry-Exit Registrations System] and dealing with all that. And --
ALI: And for people who may not know, what is NSEERS?
ALMONTASER: Oh, so -- oh my God, I can't re--
ALI: You can -- you don't --
ALI: -- you can state what the acronym is if you don't want to --
ALMONTASER: I can't remember the whole acronym.
ALI: Oh. [laughter]
ALMONTASER: The National -- NSEERS -- I can't even remember. I'm sorry.
ALI: Okay. But what, what was it?
ALMONTASER: Oh, so it was basically a special registration for men from Muslimcountry, and North Korea was actually included in that list, and these countries were actually considered the Axis of Evil by the Bush administration. And so it required men between the ages of 15, I think, and 40 or 45 to basically go in and register. And it was a disaster, because there were a lot of people who were going in to register and never coming out, and being detained and deported. And so that in itself -- we did a lot of organizing in front of 26 Federal Plaza, 107:00and making a lot of noise, and then eventually being able to sort of, like, you know, curtail that whole catastrophe of what was happening. But it was a crazy, crazy time. And then the war in Iraq, you know, that was also huge and devastating, and what was going on with that. I remember we went to an antiwar rally in Washington, D.C. It was the largest -- I think it was 2003. And then the next day, after we came back, I had the FBI come to my house. [laughter]
ALI: Tell me about that.
ALMONTASER: Looking for me.
ALI: Tell me about that.
ALMONTASER: Yeah, that was pretty crazy, pretty crazy. So I was at work, andthey came -- I think it was, like, around noon. Both my sons were home, the one that was in the military and the younger one. And they rang the doorbell. My 108:00younger one opened the door, and they were like, you know, "We're here to see, you know, Debbie Almontaser. We'd like to speak to her." And my son is like, "Well, she's not here." And he's like, "Well, is there any adult in the house?" So my son is like, "Well, my brother's here. He's older." My son was actually wearing his military gear that day. I think he was going -- either going or coming; I don't remember. So he came to the door, and then he let -- he knew not to let them in the house. He went -- my younger one went, you know, inside the house, and he was talking to them on the porch, and he's like, "What's this about?" You know, you know, "She's my mom. Is everything okay?" And they're like, "Well, we want to speak to her. You know, we, we heard that your younger brother had actually traveled to Yemen, and he was there, and we just -- we wanted to speak to her about that, and, you know, get an understanding." And my s-- my older son, as naïve as he was, he's like, "Well, you know, that's just a 109:00part of our culture. You know, we go back and we visit family. You know, he was just there for a summer. He was gonna go to school there but nothing -- he didn't end up wanting to stay." So they're like, "Well, we want to talk to your mother about all that." So he's like, "Okay, well, give me your card." So they left their card. My husband comes home and he picks up the phone and calls them, and he tells them who he was, and they're like, "Sir, we're not interested in talking to you. Please tell your wife to call us." [laughter] Can you imagine a Muslim man being told that? You know, so my husband was like, "What?" Like, you know, "It's my job to protect you." [laughter] So he's like -- then when I got home, like, they all look like they saw ghosts. My poor younger one was pacing back and forth. Whenever he was nervous he'd pace back and forth in the house. And he's like, "What -- you know, if they come to get you, Mom, I don't know what I'm gonna do." It was so cute. And he's like, "I can't believe this. You 110:00work so hard, and you're fighting for people's rights, and this is how they're treating you." My son didn't tell him that they were actually asking about him. But what was interesting was my husband was like, "Well, you're gonna call." I was like, "No, I'm not gonna call them. I gotta get a lawyer to call them. You never talk to -- " You know, and I was like, "You should know this. I don't even know why you were calling them to -- why you were calling." And then my kids, like, I said to them, I said, "If" -- you know, like, just in conversation; like, they never thought it would really happen. I was like, "If anybody comes, do not let them in, the police, anybody. You don't speak to anybody unless you have a lawyer. That's your right." Of course, you know, it just -- they were very trusting. So then I got a friend of mine who's a lawyer, and I was like, "Look, I don't know who else to call. My family's, like, freaking out. This can't wait till tomorrow. They, they will not sleep. I need to allay their fears." So he -- I gave him the phone number. He called them up. And then what 111:00they tell him was that they wanted to speak to me about my oldest son, who had actually gone to Yemen and lived there for two years, and studied there, and now was in the military, and they have reason to believe that he's probably trying to infiltrate the military. [laughter] Yeah. And, and that -- and that they're concerned because I've also been heard to be anti-American in public spaces, 'cause I was, you know, at rallies, and I was speaking. Yeah, I was anti-Bush, anti-Patriot Act, anti, you know, anything unconstitutional. So then he was like -- I said, "Okay, so --" I was like, "This is ridiculous." I told the lawyer, I was like, you know, "How can they even question my son's loyalty to this 112:00country. He served at Ground Zero for six months. He came back and he's losing hair. You know, he's not well, and, and they're questioning his loyalty to this country?" So I said to him, "What do they want?" He said, "Well, they want to -- they want to talk to you, so we're gonna do a three-way. They're gonna ask you questions, and before you answer them I'm just gonna say to you, 'Yes, you can,' 'No, no, you shouldn't.' I'll inter-- I'll interject." But he gave me an understanding of, like, the stuff that they wanted to talk to me about, so I gave it to them. I was like, "How dare you question my son's loyalty, you know, to this country. You know, he spent his 19th birthday at Ground Zero. You know, where every family was having their children at the dinner table on Thanksgiving, my son wasn't with us on Thanksgiving." And, you know, then we talked about -- I said, you know, "Yes, he went to Yemen. Yes, he went to 113:00school. I have report cards from his school. We went there because we wanted him to be, you know, fluent in Arabic, to read and write. This is customary to our -- you know, people from our country, so that way they have both languages." And then when the whole thing about me being anti-American, I was like, "This is ridiculous, that I'm anti-American. I'm an educator. I work with kids. I was fingerprinted. How would I be a threat to this country, you know?" And they're like, "Ma'am, we're sorry, but, you know, we just had to follow up with this. This is protocol. We have to take every, you know -- anything reported." And so I was like, "Where the heck did you get all of this?" And they're like, "Somebody called it into the 1-800-TIPS." Remember that freakin' program? [laughter] So I was like, "Okay." I was like, "So this is how you're spending 114:00our tax dollars: harassing people that are law-abiding, who know their rights and know their responsibilities. This is how you're -- how you're using our tax dollars." And they're like, "Ma'am, we're sorry, we're just -- you know, we -- we're doing our job, blah, blah, blah," and that was it. But I have to tell you, Zaheer, my family was terrified. So terrified. My kids would c-- used to call me three, four times a day, "So, Mom, where are you?" [laughter] I'm like, "I'm at work. I'm here." "When are you coming home?" I'm like, "I'll be coming home soon." Like, they thought I was just gonna get picked up one day and they'd never see me again.
ALI: Did you think, or did they think, to ask you to kind of pull back on your activism?
ALMONTASER: They didn't, but I sensed that that was the -- what I needed to doto ensure their sanity. And my husband, he was, like, terrified, and he was scared. And he's like, "You know, we really need to think about, like, the 115:00impact of this on our family, you know, on our livelihood." And I had said to him, I said, "You know, we can't back down from what we're doing, because then we're basically caving in to the fear that they're -- that they're basically trying to instill in our community." So at that time, even though that he and I understood that, our kids didn't understand it. They were young. They were feeling very vulnerable. And I was like, okay. So at that point, you know, all the stuff with the detentions and deportations weren't happening anymore. The NSEERS, it was around that time, the whole -- it was, I think, two thousand thr-- I don't even remember when that March was, whether -- 2004? I can't remember the timeline. And so at that point things died down, to an extent. They weren't as, as crazy as they were. But then what I did, I realized, like, I 116:00couldn't -- I, I needed to tone it down for just my kids' sanity, to know that I'm gonna come home every day. And I focused, then, all my work on education, about Arabs, about Muslims and South Asians. And so I was doing a lot of stuff, you know, in schools, universities, with the mayor's office. I worked to spearhead the Arab Heritage Week with the -- with Mayor Bloomberg, when he was in office. We got that off the ground in 2004, where we had, you know, July 9th through 16th as Arab Heritage Week. We were organizing all the Arab American organizations across the city. We were organizing cultural events for that. And then I was just doing a lot of the work, you know, the cultural diversity work that I was doing. 117:00
Two thousand and four I got accepted into the Revson Fellowship program, andthat's when I just, like, said, okay, I'm gonna use this one year just, like, to regroup and figure out what the hell I want to do with my life. So I did a study, one-year study at Columbia. I took a six-month leave from work. And then -- and then I came back, and it was amazing, 'cause I was, like, doing stuff. Like, I got invited onto the Japanese Peace Boat in 2004, and I traveled to South America. I did ten days on their Global University to educate people. They used to come to New York annually, and I would give them a tour of the Arab and Muslim communities, and help them connect with people to learn about our experiences. So really, like, all my work then just was more focused on doing education, and helping demystify Arab and Muslims. And then -- 118:00
ALI: I'll check the time.
ALMONTASER: Time check? Okay.
ALI: Because I --
ALMONTASER: I know, I talk so much.
ALI: No, it's okay. So it's, it's 3:35 now --
ALI: -- and the two biggies that we haven't tackled yet --
ALMONTASER: Tackled, okay, are --
ALI: -- the Khalil Gibran [International Academy], and --
ALMONTASER: Well, I was gonna lead into that right now.
ALI: Do you think you -- you'll be able to do it, or do you want to...?
ALMONTASER: I could. I could -- we could probably... What's the other biggie?
ALI: The, the, the Muslim ban and the bodega strike, then organizing the Yemeni --
ALMONTASER: Oh, man, you are asking too much here, brother. [laughter] Weshould've just, like, made it a longer period.
ALI: Well --
ALMONTASER: I don't know how to t-- I don't know how to tell you stories succinctly.
ALI: No, but that's -- this is -- I, I, you know -- this is what oral history is.
ALMONTASER: I know.
ALI: It's -- so --
ALMONTASER: I know.
ALI: All right, well, let's -- we'll talk about the -- so, so you were comingout of this Revson --
ALMONTASER: So I'll segue into that.
ALI: -- and we'll see how -- we'll see how we go.
ALI: I'll, I'll take my, my phone out so we can --
ALMONTASER: Okay, good. Yeah.
ALI: I'll just check.
ALI: But -- okay.
ALMONTASER: So then, in the Revson Fellowship program, I loved it, it was119:00amazing. I connected with so many amazing people, having the opportunity to study at Columbia. I did a -- I did their -- the International Conflict Resolution Program, ICCCR, I did their program. It was amazing. And so then when I finished the program it was actually April or May of that year of 2005. I was like, all right, 'cause all my colleagues that were in the program, they were all thinking about, well, what should I do now that I'm a Revson? So everybody was, like, meeting with prospective, you know, employers, or with people that, that they could get advice from. So what happened was I had set up a meeting with the Deputy Chancellor, who was Carmen Fariña at that time, and I said to her staff -- her assistant that I wanted to come in and just get her advice about career next steps. And then a week before my meeting with her I got a call 120:00from somebody at New Visions for Public School -- Schools. And the person there, Adam Rubin, contacted me to, to set up a meeting, so I met with him, like, several days after he contacted me. And he -- when he first contacted me, he told me -- he was like, "Listen, you know, I want you to come in, and we want to talk to you about a project, a school project. You know, for the last six months I was looking for somebody who is Arab American educator and, you know, doing education work, as well as community work. And, you know, I spoke to people at the mayor's office, and they were like, 'Speak to Debbie Almontaser.' I spoke to people at the DOE and they're like, 'Speak to Debbie Almontaser.'" And then he said, "And I was in Brooklyn at a falafel stand, waiting, you know, to buy a falafel, and these two Arab American women were talking Arabic in front of me, 121:00and I was your typical rude New Yorker who basically said to them, 'Excuse me, can I ask you -- are you talking Arabic?' And then he said that he explained to them -- he's like, 'I -- not that I care. I just -- I want you to know that I work for this organization, and I'm looking for, you know, somebody who's Arab American, an educator, because we're interested in starting an Arabic language school.' And so the two women, one of them was like, 'Well, you should talk to Debbie Almontaser.'" [laughter] So --
ALI: So you got approval in every sector.
ALMONTASER: Yeah. So he's like, "The falafel stand was the thing that sealed thedeal that I needed to call you. So can you please come in? I'd love to talk to you about this idea that we have. We'd really love to get your advice, input on it." So I went in. Originally they wanted to do an Arab He-- Arabic and Hebrew school, and it was about, you know, bridging the gap between East and West. 122:00Beautiful, beautiful concept. And I said to him, I said, "This is really great, but I don't know if I'm ready to do something like this." And he's like, "Well, listen, think about it. You know, you've come highly recommended by so many people. We think you'd be the perfect person to lead this, and we really want to do this, and we really want you to take this into serious consideration and get back to us in the next couple of weeks." So I was like, "Okay, I'll, I'll definitely get back to you." So next week, the following week, I'm meeting with Carmen. Now, if you know anything about Carmen, she does all the talking and you do all the listening. [laughter] I'm sitting with her at Tweed [Courthouse]. She knew, of course, what the reason of our meeting is. She comes in. She's like, "It's good to see you. I'm really glad that you, you know, you took this time off, you know, because, you know, after everything that you've been doing --" 123:00And I also forgot to mention, when I was in the Aspiring Leadership Program, after you finish the program you were actually supposed to take on a school. So, of course, 9/11 happened. You know, she knew I couldn't take on a school. But every year they kept coming back to me and saying, "Are you ready?" And I kept buying time every year and saying, "I'm not ready. Look at the state of the world. You know, and this work is important. I need you to continue supporting it." So I was able to buy time, all this time with the DOE. And so what eventually happened -- there is another story I should tell you about after 9/11. Can I interject, or no?
ALI: Of course.
ALMONTASER: 'Cause you had asked me about did you ever feel differently aboutwearing hijab and being Muslim.
ALI: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.
ALMONTASER: So pre-9/11, it never dawned on me. I was just, like, another JoeShmoe in Brooklyn, in New York, you know, doing everything. And then because of 124:00the backlash and discrimination, I actually didn't travel alone. I was escorted everywhere. My husband drove me to work, picked me up. And I was in the program, the Aspiring Leadership Program. It was my last semester, and I told my peers, like, "I can't travel by myself." So they all were carpooling to take me to school. And one day, one of the people that was supposed to pick me up totally forgot, and I didn't end up going. And everybody was like, "Where's Debbie?" And she's like, "Oh my God, I totally forgot." She's like, "Why the hell is the world like this? You know, Debbie is, like, no different than anybody. I see beyond her headscarf. I see a beautiful, amazing person." And they all felt literally horrible. So she got back in her car, and they called me. They're like, "She's coming back for you." And I was like, "Oh my God, don't worry. I'll -- just forget it. Just tell me what I missed." And they're like, "No, you're 125:00coming to class." And they actually saw me through the program, because I was literally, like, ready to give up, because I was just -- it was so much pressure, doing all this community work, and then having papers to do to get ready to graduate, and I was like, "I'm gonna break." And they were like, "No, you're not gonna break. We're gonna get you through this." So they carried me through the program. And my professors were all very supportive at Baruch. So that was an interesting thing, because pre-9/11, like, the scarf on my head had no significance. Post-9/11, I was acutely aware of my Muslim identity. And so, yeah, so that was really interesting. So, yeah, sorry for the digression, but I thought it was important.
ALI: So your meeting -- no, that's good -- so your meeting with Carmen.
ALMONTASER: Yeah. So my meeting with Carmen, I get to the meeting, and she'slike, "Here's what I think you should do." I was like, "Okay." She's like, "I want you to go visit the -- " Oh my God, what's the name of it? "The Helena 126:00School in the Bronx." And I was like, "What the hell's the Helena School?" And she's like, "It's a Greek dual-language school." I was like, "All right." She's like, "You know, it's the second one. There's one in Brooklyn. Now this one's being replicated, and we're really trying to push, you know, for -- to have multiple languages in public schools. And the reason I want you to go visit it is because I think you should open up an Arabic dual-language school." And I was like, okay, this is interesting. So I said to her, I said, "Has anybody else talked to you about this idea?" And she's like, "No, this is, you know, something that I've been thinking about since you reached out to me. I think this would be the next -- you know, the next great thing that you should actually dedicate your time to, and, and eventually, you know, keep your commitment to taking on a school like [laughter] you were supposed to." So I said, "Do you know Adam Rubin?" She's like, "No, I don't know him." I said, 127:00"He's at New Visions." She's like, "No, I, I don't know who he is." So I was like, oh my God, this is so interesting. So anyway, I go home. I tell my husband this story. I said, "They don't know each other. Last week he's telling me to do this. Now she's telling me to do this." And my husband's like, "Well, you're gonna need to give this some serious consideration, because this message has come from multiple, you know, pathways with no, no agenda, you know, here. It's just people, people coming to you with this." So I was like, "Okay."
I prayed on it, and I got back to, to Adam Rubin. And I said to him, "Okay, I'm,I'm happy to work on this, but I don't think we can do it this year." This was 2005. I was like, "I need to see if we're ready to do something like this. I want to do an informal feasibility study. I want to speak to people. I want to see what people think. I want to get buy-in before, both from within the Arab 128:00American community, but most importantly in New York, by stakeholders, elected officials, you know, community-based organizations, faith leaders, and see what people think. So I did that in 2005, started speaking to a whole lot of people. Everybody was like, "This is a brilliant idea. This is what New York needs. You know, it would be great, and if you're gonna lead this, this should be something really powerful in New York." So the next cycle for the school development was actually in 2006, in the spring. I went back to New Visions and I said, "Everybody's really receptive, and if I'm gonna do this, I want to do this with the blessing of my community." And they're like, "Okay, well, what does that mean, your blessing of your community?" I was like, "I want to engage them in a community process that they can feel a sense of ownership and support of such an institution." And we, at that point, when we got to that point, we were also 129:00talking to linguists and professionals about whether it was doable to have Hebrew and Arabic as the two languages to be taught. And we were all -- we -- they all basically said to us that it was a huge undertaking, with everything else that kids in middle school and high school need to deal with, to try to teach the two most difficult languages on the face of the Earth. They're like, "It's a huge undertaking, and you should just choose one, and the language you should choose is Arabic 'cause there's federal funding for it. It's a critical language internationally, and you'll get more traction for kids to want to enroll in the school for that." So we're like, okay.
So, so then I went back to the community, and we did a community engagementprocess. I presented the idea to them. I told them, "This is what New Visions is doing, the DOE is doing, and we just need to have, you know, community support 130:00for this. And the way that the creation of the small, new school happens is that you have to have a partner organization that receives $400,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to -- as seed money for the development of the school. And so every school needs a nonprofit organization to partner with. So what we need here is to one, you know, decide do we want to do this; two, go through a process and identify what organization in New York City has the criteria to be a partner; and then, three, put together a core group of people who will actually be a part of the designing of the school." So people were very fascinated in the Arab American community. We held the meetings at the Arab-American Family 131:00Support Center. I was in conversation at that point with Emira Habiby Browne, who was the Executive Director at that time, and she was like, "This is a great idea." And she's like, you know, "We want to partner." And I said to her, I said, "Listen, you know, if the community chooses you, that's all great, but we really need to give the community buy-in into this." So then we engaged in the process, and then we ended up having two organizations nominated: the Arab-American Family Support Center, and -- I'm glad you're sitting -- the Al-Noor School. Yeah. [laughter] The board of Al-Noor School is Arab American, and they felt that they know everything about a school, and they didn't see it as a conflict to have a private Islamic school be --'cause they were under the 132:00Brooklyn Cultural Society, which was the name of the entity that created the school, so it's not necessarily the Al-Noor School. And so they thought that they can do a public school sister to Al-Noor School, and you could only imagine how I was feeling inside, [laughter] and all the trauma I was feeling, like, how are we gonna even do this? And, you know, an Islamic school creating a public school. But the community engaged in a process. There were 17 Arab American organizations that were involved. They came to meetings. The two organizations had criteria that they had to meet. They had to provide all of the paperwork from, you know, the last three years of their, you know, tax filings, their budgets, you know, do they have the capacity, who in their organization would be 133:00able to do that. So they had a deadline. The Arab-American Family Support Center met the deadline. The Al-Noor people didn't meet the deadline, and they came to the meeting, and they're like, "We need more time." And then they pressured everybody. And then the Support Center was like, "Well, fine, we'll -- you know, they want more time, we'll give them another week." That happened. There was a lot of drama. A lot of drama. There was so much drama, then, when we were, like, getting to the point of voting, the organizations were too afraid to vote publicly. We had to do a silent ballot. And I was leading this, and then I got Louis Cristillo -- do you know Louis Cristillo? So he, then -- I said to him, I said, "Louis, I need you to co-moderate these gatherings with me, so that way we have peace and we can get through the business." And we did it. Oh my God, we did it. And so we ended up doing a silent ballot. You know, we had colored 134:00paper. We cut them up. And then we had somebody who was there that was neutral that basically collected them in front of all of us, and then opened them up, and then she tallied and she showed everybody every piece of paper. It was crazy! [laughter] And so the Arab-American Family Support Center unanimously was the chosen organization. The Al-Noor people said, "Okay, congratulations. We're really proud. This is an important institution for our community, and we will back you all up, you know, 'cause this has to happen." So the next phase of the community engagement was identifying who should lead the school as principal, and New Visions was like, "Okay, Debbie. [laughter] We were okay with you choosing the -- you know, the, the community partner, but now you're taking us into uncharted territory. Like, what if it's not you? Then what? 'Cause we want 135:00you. What if it's somebody that we don't think we can work with? And then what?" And I was like, "Listen, if the community chooses me, it's all great. If they don't choose me, you have my word that I will be here to work on getting this project off the ground, and I'll have some role in this. I don't care about being the principal, but the most important thing: the community has to feel, you know, ownership and buy-in of this project." So we did a massive callout for principals, and there were -- three people? There were three people that applied.
ALI: Did you --
ALMONTASER: I was one of the applicants.
ALI: You -- oh, you did formally apply.
ALMONTASER: Yes, yeah. And so the committee that was doing the interviews wasthe Arab-American Family Support Center, Louis Cristillo, and a couple -- and an 136:00academic from Columbia. His name is Taoufik [Ben-Amor]. I'm forgetting his last name. He's at the Arabic Language Department there. I'm forgetting his name. And one or two other people from the community. But, like, we had academics as well as a nonprofit -- the executive director of the Support Center. So the third person didn't end up, like -- they didn't end up, like, wanting to come for an interview, and it was just me and this other guy, who was Arab American, and also in education. Didn't have experience in being a principal, but he was an administrator. So they interviewed both of us. Unanimously, I ended up being the person. New Visions was absolutely thrilled, and relieved, 'cause they're like, this is crazy. Like, I need to write a book about just the history of, like, this community project, you know, the community process, 'cause I haven't written about it exten-- at all. So anyhow, what ended up happening, we 137:00proceeded with the creation of the school. The s-- the community came together. We picked the name together, and that name picking was quite interesting. [laughter]
ALI: Tell me -- tell me how that name came up.
ALMONTASER: So some of the folks -- some of the Arab Muslim folks wanted -- theywanted -- they wanted namesakes that were Islamic, so the Abu Bakr School, [laughter] the Saladin School, yes. And, and then, of course, Khalil Gibran. And all along I always wanted Khalil Gibran, but I never told anybody that that was the name that I wanted, but there were other people who, like, were smart and understood, like, if we were gonna create a school we needed somebody who was grounded, who was widely accepted. And so the name came up, you know, in the brainstorming, and then people had to vote on that, and people unanimously voted 138:00on, on the Khalil Gibran. And then, of course, you know, the, the Arab Muslim men were disgruntled that we didn't get the Saladin. [laughter] Yeah. So it was pretty fascinating. So then at that point, the whole -- you know, the engagement with the community, we were like, "Okay, now we just need to bring, you know, educators, people who can really put together the proposal, and we will keep you guys as advisors and partners. Like, when the schools open, whatever your organization can offer, whether it's mentorship, whether it's volunteers, you know, we will plug you in." So they all became listed as partners of the school. And then at that point I brought in educators from every ethnic, racial, and religious background. We had somebody who was actually Arab Israeli who spoke Hebrew and Arabic. Her family is, you know, from the Sephardic community. Asian 139:00American, African American. You know, truly, you know, individuals that reflected the diversity of New York City. And the first time that we went to the N-- the DOE meeting for the new schools, one of the people there was like, "Oh, Debbie, where's your team?" And I was like, "What do you mean, where's my team? Right here!" And, like, they took a double take, because they didn't all look like me, in hijab, and brown. And he was like, "Oh." So I introduced each and every one of them, and he's like, "Oh, this is interesting." So we all sat down, and we were doing our work. And then a couple weeks later we went again, and there was another person who comes over and then says, "So are you here alone, Debbie?" [laughter] You know, I was like, "What do you mean?" He's like, "Where's your team?" I was like, "This is my team." And I had introduced him to everybody. So it was just really fascinating, like, the stereotypical 140:00understanding that they had. So New Vision was actually supporting us through the process of the proposal development. They were providing us, like, feedback and training. They had seed money that they were given to actually support people to, like, really put out the best proposals. And so within their -- within their process, they started off with 40 groups. And these 40 groups had to basically compete to become the final ten that they were gonna support.
ALMONTASER: So in that whole process -- and I don't know if Deborah [Schwartz],you know, remembers all this -- the Khalil Gibran team was always the number one team. Everybody was like, "What the hell? This is amazing!" [laughter] We were like the superstars of that cohort of schools that were just, like, developing every piece of, you know, literature that we had to develop. And then we were, 141:00like, the finalists of the ten. So it was us and then the Lyons School was number two, you know, in terms of, like, the best and brightest of all the -- of the ten groups. And then what they did was they basically endorsed us and pushed us forward to the DOE, for the DOE process.
And so then we submitted our proposal to New Visions. New Visions gave usfeedback, and then in December we submitted it to the DOE, and then they decided who gets to come in for an interview. We were called at -- excuse me -- we were called in for the interview. We were interviewed. And that was the most nerve-wracking interview that you can ever imagine. It was a panel of ten people from different walks of life, different jobs, you know, people from CSA [Council of School Supervisors and Administrators], from the DOE, from the Teachers Union, you know, academics, and they basically went through your proposal, and 142:00then they asked you questions that you have no idea what they're gonna ask you.
ALI: What's CSA?
ALMONTASER: What -- the Council for Supervisors and Administrators.
ALMONTASER: It's a union.
ALMONTASER: So yeah, so we walked in that day into that interview, my team andI. They were all shocked, you know, to see the diversity, and then we had high school students that were on our team. We had parents who were on our team. So it was a really very well thought out team of people that, you know, were really amazing and very dedicated to the project. And then we found out that we got approved in February, so, you know, spending all of the rest of December and January on pins and needles of, like, did we get accepted, did we not get accepted. And there was, like, this dark and eerie side of me of, like, no Arabic language school is gonna get approved. We just went through all this, you know, you know, craziness to find out that the DOE is not gonna approve this. 143:00They're gonna be too afraid. 'Cause throughout the course, even with, like, New Visions, like, I kept saying, you know. "We're gonna get pushback. What that pushback is gonna look like, we don't know, but we need to be prepared for it." And so in that money that the Bill & Gates Melinda [sic] Foundation was giving us, I had wanted us to have a full -- fully ready website to be developed and, and launched the moment we got, you know, announced. And in addition to that, I also wanted to have a media communications person ready and up and available. And, sadly, the two were derailed by the Arab American Family Support Center. They kept dragging their feet. My relationship, like, with them, the Executive Director and I were always, like, at this power struggle. She wanted to have more of a role and say of how we spend the money. How -- who we hire, who do we 144:00bring. You know, even, like, for the branding of what our logo is going to be, it was such a nightmare, just trying to get that done. And then in terms of the website, you know, who do we get? You know, what's the right price? So taking all these bids, and interviewing people, it was just -- that was, like, an added layer of tension for me that I was like, why is this happening? You know, so that was also very burdening. They didn't meet their deadlines. Like, we would go in for meetings. She would show up late, and then New Visions would give me a hard time. Why is my partner late? And I'm like, you know -- so, like, how to manage them, too.
ALI: So throughout this process, it's, it's not a public --
ALI: When -- so when does it become public that this is happening?
ALMONTASER: February 7th, 2007. The DOE calls me the day before, couple days145:00before, and they're like -- they're like, "Debbie, we're calling you to let you know your school has been approved." And I was like, "Say that again?" I was like, "I just want to be sure. I -- did I really hear you say that?" It was actually -- I'm forgetting his -- Julian Cohen. What a great guy. He's like, "Yes, Debbie, your school got approved." I was like, "I can't believe it." Like, I was at work, and my eyes swelled with tears. My heart was, like, ready to jump out of my, you know, chest. And I just couldn't believe it. I just could not believe it. I was so shocked that we actually made it. So I said, "Am I gonna get this in writing?" 'Cause I still, like -- [laughter] I was like, "I want to see this in writing." And he's like, "Yes, you're gonna get an email, but I just wanted to share the news with you before you got the email." So I was like, "Okay, well, I'm not gonna tell my team until I get the email, so that way they can just see the email." Just, like, to pressure him to send that email right 146:00away. But I did, I contacted Lena at the Support Center, and then my design team, like, the people who were really dedicated, dedicated a lot of time. In fact, like, one of my right-hand people who was on my team had to be removed from my team because of the dynamics with the Support Center. It was the most -- hardest thing to ask her to step down, because then New Visions got involved, and they were like, you know, "Your part-- you know, your partnership with your partner, who's giving you money, is more important than one individual." And it was just, like, the most difficult thing to do, because she was -- she was like my right-hand person. And --
ALI: What were the nature of the tensions?
ALMONTASER: The person -- the person was very grounded and very -- she was likea superstar in curriculum, really knew her stuff well, and, and was just, like, 147:00brilliant. So the Support Center -- Lena was always saying, you know, "Debbie should be doing everything. You know, she should not, you know, just have, you know -- rely on Karen, you know, for curriculum because she's the curriculum expert. She's supposed to be doing everything." And New Visions was like, "Well, you know, there are principals that are well-versed in curriculum and also management, but then there are, you know, some that are stronger in management, and then they have an AP who does curriculum. You know, there are a variety of, you know -- a variety of, of, you know, experts and ways to go about this." But the tensions, really, with, with Lena and, and Karen. Like, you know, Karen used to see -- like, she saw the things that they were doing to us, and not being fair, and she would, you know, say things, or say things to me. And so, 148:00unfortunately, you know, she basically, you know, spoke to New Visions, and then New Visions felt like, you know, that's -- you just need to -- you need to sever that relationship. So it was the hardest thing to do. It was, like, really devastating. Karen was great about it. She, she stepped down from the group, and she's like, "I'm -- you know, it's fine. It's all good. I'm okay with it. If you need anything, you know where to find me." We're still good friends. She was very, very understanding, and knew the politics of the DOE and the school system. And so then, you know, my -- the tensions continued with AFSC. When it was time to hire a coordinator to be at the school, to work on partnerships, they wanted to be a part of the hiring. I was like, okay, fine, we'll interview the people. And then we were, like, in a power struggle of who was going to supervise that person. So they're like, "We are, because we're cutting their 149:00check." And I was like, "Well, then, you know, how do I tell her my needs if she's in my building, with my students, and I need something?" They're like, "You have to communicate with us." I was like, "This is crazy." So, unfortunately, after the school was announced on February 7th, we were the only school that The New York Times highlighted from the 80 schools that were actually announced. We were the, you know, the special school of the century [laughter] to be created. And then you had media the following day just, like, go wildfire. It was positive, but then what was a concern was actually the media -- the blogs, the negative blogs that basically started to develop.
ALI: And what were some of the kinds of things that --?
ALMONTASER: You know, it was a madrasa. It was a place that was going to be150:00developing homegrown terrorists. But it was just incredible. Like, I was getting emails from all over the country, celebrating this idea, and how -- what a wonderful project. And people were like, you know, "Whatever you need, you know, where can we donate?" But we didn't have a website up. And I kept saying, "We need this website up. We need this website up." And AAFSC was like, "We're working on getting somebody. We're working on getting somebody." So what ended up happening was the rightwing groups created a narrative that we then couldn't even ward off. We didn't have a communications person. New Visions and the DOE were playing that role, but what ended up happening because of the vicious cycle of the blogs is that what we ended up doing was being more reactive. Like, we were putting out fires, versus putting out positive stories. And that was really 151:00the detriment of the school, so --
ALI: One of the fires involved a t-shirt. Can you tell me --?
ALMONTASER: Sure. So that fire happened towards the end. So what ended uphappening was they were -- all these negative things were being written. Daniel Pipes wrote an op-ed in the New York Sun which was called "A Madrasa Grows in Brooklyn." Brooklyn Courier paper wrote, you know, "A Monstrosity Develops Amongst Us" about the school, where she basically called for people to go out to City Hall with torches against the school. It was crazy. And so just, you know, it -- the pressures were, like, really, really mounting. And what ended up happening, like, May and June, they realized that they needed to shift gears about just, you know, going after the school. Then the attacks started on me. So 152:00they were scanning the entire internet. They found, you know, newspaper articles that I was interviewed. They were splicing some of my quotes that I made after 9/11. They developed, like, this whole page that I was anti-American and leftist, Islamist. It was so funny that that was a title. You know, "leftist Islamist." I was like, can that even exist? [laughter] They created a page where they actually combed the internet for pictures of me over the course of the year, and they put them all together, and they showed, like, a timeline of how I went from conservative to, like, super moderate Americanized to push an agenda, an Islamic agenda. And they were comparing, like, "Here she didn't wear makeup and jewelry, and here she wears makeup and jewelry." It was so funny. Like, my 153:00colleagues at the DOE, like, when I told them about the blog and they looked at it, they were laughing hysterically. They were like, "They have no idea. Like, you're the fashion diva of the DOE, [laughter] who has a hijab color for every outfit, who wears it in, you know, fascinating ways people could only imagine to try to wrap their head in." So they were having fun with it. They were like, "These people are so ignorant, they have no idea who you are." But sadly, that was what they were trying to do. So, so what they also did was they tried to see who I was affiliated with. So they found out that I actually inaugurated Arab Heritage Week with the city, and that month, in July -- July 9th through 16th -- they were going to all the Arab Heritage events. And they went to the Arab Park Festival in Bay Ridge, and they found Arab women in the arts and media at a table there, and they had a t-shirt on the table that they were selling that was 154:00called "Intifada NYC." They picked up the t-shirt. They took a picture of it. They took literature of the organization. They went home. They did their research. They found out that it was actually operating a program at the Yemeni American -- SABA - the Association of Yemeni Americans. They connected that I was a board member there, and that this organization was there, so they made this tenuous connection between me and the organization. And so they put out a press release. This was in end of July. They put out a press release condemning me and saying that I should be removed because I endorsed this t-shirt, and I'm affiliated with this organization. So they -- the news outlets called the DOE. The DOE called me, and I was like, "Look, I know nothing about this t-shirt. I have nothing to do with it. This organization rents summer space to run, you 155:00know, SYEP [Summer Youth Employment] programs, YEP programs, the student youth program, funded by the City. They use the pr-- you know, they use the space in the summer to run this, you know, arts and media program for girls. I have nothing to do with them, or the organization." Everybody dropped it, except for the New York Post. They're like, "We're gonna write a story, and we want her to speak." The DOE called me a couple days later. I was like, "No, I'm not speaking to them. We've all said we're not gonna speak to the -- to the Post." Sunday morning I get a call from the DOE and they're like, "They're gonna write a story, and it's better for us to be on record than to have them write a story without us on record." I was like, "Whether we're on record or not, it's not gonna be a good story. This is the New York Post we're talking about." So I said, "I'm not going to speak to them." So they dropped it. They got more 156:00pressure. They got back to me. They're like, "How about if we ask them for questions and you write your answers and we give them a statement?" I was like, "Okay, fine." They sent me the questions. Answered the damn questions. Sent it back. The press person that was working on this was at her father's 65th birthday party on a Sunday afternoon, didn't get around to putting -- to reviewing the questions, to put them for-- you know, to send them forward to the Post. And then 4:30 she calls me and she's like, "I'm really sorry. We didn't get a chance to do this. We're gonna get on this call. I will be there, and I will tell you what questions to answer, what questions not to answer, and I'm gonna monitor this and, you know, let's just do this, 'cause we really need to do this." So I trusted. I was like, "Okay, fine." We got on the call. Asked me 157:00about the organization. I told them exactly what I just told you. Then he asked me about the t-shirt. I was like, "Has nothin' to do with me or the school. Therefore, there's nothing to talk about." And then we got -- he, then, basically said to me, "Well, you know, for my own personal understanding, I just wanted to know about the word 'intifada.' You know, you guys are teaching Arabic. You know, what, what is the root word of 'intifada'?" And so there were two things that were going in my head: should I answer this, or say, "I'm not engaging in this conversation?" The press person didn't say, "Debbie, you don't have to answer, this is not relating to it." And then I remembered from an interview that I did with the New York Sun, where they asked me questions and I basically -- they asked me who did I think was responsible for 9/11, and I said to them, "Would you ask this of the 1,500 other principals in New York City Public School?" And they said, "No." I said, "Well, do you think it's fair for 158:00you to ask me?" They're like, "No." And then they asked me if I believe that Hamas and Hezbollah are terrorist groups. And I was like, "How does this relate to me and the 1,500 other principals in New York City?" So what they did is that they, they actually wrote that they asked me these questions, and rather than saying what I said they said that I declined, refused to answer the questions, which really sucked, and made me seem like I had something to hide, or -- so it was that moment of, like, okay, do I want the New York Post to basically -- you know? So I went into the whole aspect of the -- what the root word was, that it's "shaking off." And they're like, "Well, you know, these girls are -- you know, are -- you know, we believe that these girls are gonna engage in a Gaza-style uprising." And I defended the girls. I was like, "These are inner-city youth that don't have the opportunity to go away to camp, or go on 159:00luxurious, you know, vacations. They are in a program, learning a skill. I don't think they're gonna engage in any kind of situation that you're portraying them to." So the article came out that I defended the t-shirts, [laughter] and that I minimized the historical context of the intifada, which I basically, when I was giving the root word. And then I said, you know, "This -- 'intifada' developed from the Palestinian--Israeli conflict, where thousands of people, you know, have died from the intifadas that have happened, and this word has different connotations for different people." None of that made it into the paper. So the press person was on the phone. She heard everything. She didn't interject. We finally hang up. She calls me back and she says, "Debbie, I think it went well. 160:00We'll see what happens tomorrow, but I think you did a good job." We hang up, and I'm like, I hope we did a good job.
And then the next day the report was "Principal Revolting." And, yeah, "defends,you know, t-shirts, and calls, calls what the girls are doing a, you know, shaking off oppression." Well, the Jewish community was up in arms, the, the establishment, ADL [Anti-Defamation League], JCRC [Jewish Community Relation Council], UJA [United Jewish Appeal]. So someone from the ADL called me. Someone from JCRC called me. And I was like, "Listen, those were not my words. My words were taken out of context, and this is the New York Post for you." And then, of course, New Visions called me, and they're like, "We really don't know what's going on." You know, I was like, "Well, I told the DOE I shouldn't be talking to 161:00the Post, 'cause this is what the Post does." So at that point, the press secretary calls me, and he's like, you know, "This is not a good situation. We've just been in meetings, and what we think we should do is that you should issue an apology." I was like, "For what?" And they're like, "For the statement." And I said, "But I didn't say anything that I feel I should apologize. What we should be doing is issuing a statement demanding a retraction and an apology from the Post. Because Melanie was on the call. She heard everything. She approved it. She didn't interject. My words were taken out of context, and this is what happened." So they're like, "Well, in our opinion, our expert opinion, this is how we need to handle it." So I was like, "Well, I don't think I should be writing -- I should be issuing an apology." They were like, "We're gonna draft something and send it to you." They drafted a statement. They sent it to me. I tweaked it. I sent it back to them. And they issued the 162:00original one. Yeah. And I was very, very upset, because they basically condemned the girls. It was -- it was crazy. I don't even remember the extent of what was in there, of that statement. But it was just -- it was just unnecessary for me to apologize, which, then, made it even worse, 'cause then everybody then, they called up Randi Weingarten, who is the President of the UFT [United Federation of Teachers], the Post, and they said to her, like, "What do you think? Can you believe this?" Her mom that week had just gotten diagnosed with cancer. She was pretty emotional and just, like, beyond herself. She then was like, you know, "This school needs to be monitored and this principal needs to be removed." They got her to write a letter, I think, and, and then they posted it. And so then the New York Post had the article of her and I looking at each other, yelling at 163:00each other. So funny, [laughter] when I look back at this. So at that point the DOE was like, holy crap. And then the mayor was like, "This is done. Get Debbie out of there." New Visions called me, and they're like, "We need to speak to you. You have to come down to the office." And they basically were like, "We can't go forward with you. You know, now with Randi coming out, you're, you're going to have to step down, if you really care about the school." And I was like, "What?" And they're like -- I was like, "No, I want to speak to the Chancellor. I want to speak to the Chancellor. You don't have the authority to tell me what I should be doing. You're not my employer." So at that point, the Chancellor was away, and I met with Dennis Walcott, who was the Deputy Mayor. And I met him at NYCHA. My superintendent wanted to go in with me. I didn't let 164:00her go in with me. I was like, "You know what? Let me just go meet with him and try to talk things over." I get there and he's like, "It's done. The Mayor doesn't want you in there, so it's either you or the school. And so if you step down, we're gonna make sure that you're in a good place. You know, we'll find you another school. You could be an assistant principal, or you can work on a administrator -- you know, as an administrator at central, or --" And I was just shocked. Shocked. And that week they -- you know, New Visions and the DOE was asking me if I was getting any threats. We got some, you know, stupid stuff, but nobody saying "We're gonna blow up the building," or, you know, "We're gonna come for you and, you know, kill you," or -- it was just like, you know, "We don't need a stupid Arab school," you know, "Go back to your country" kind of nonsense that I was getting. So at that point I knew, like, because they were asking about that, that was probably gonna be what they were gonna publicly say 165:00was that the school was getting, you know, death threats, and because the communities that -- the schools that they tried to place us in put up a fight because they didn't want us there, and they felt like we were gonna be a danger to their schools. So it was just, like, a -- or you know, a natural thing to say. So after I met with him, the superintendent met me outside, and I told her. She was, like, shocked. She's like, "I can't believe this. This is not right. This is not fair. What do you want to do?" My husband was actually away in Pennsylvania. I didn't want to you know, call him and tell him what was going on. I went to a friend's house, someone that I trust and respect, and her and her husband sat with me, and they were like, "Oh my God, this is so crazy." And I said, "Well, what do you think?" And they were like, "They're not bluffing. They're gonna do what you think they're gonna do, so you have to make the decision, is it about you or is it about the school?" I was like, "It's always 166:00been about the school, creating an institution in New York City that is significantly known to teach about Arab culture and history, and the language." And they're like, "Okay, then what are you gonna do?" I was like, "I need to write this letter." And I was given a deadline of 8:00 a.m. in order for the -- for the -- in order for the mayor to announce it on his radio show that Friday morning at 10:00 a.m." And so he -- they got the letter, and he announced it, and he said, you know, "She's not really that media-savvy. You know, she's a really nice lady, and, you know, she's not a terrorist. [laughter] And we, you know, we thank her for her service. She decided to step down because she was a lightning rod." Blah, blah, blah. And then at that point the media -- I had to 167:00tell my staff that I had done that, and then I had to flee the school, because the media, after he announced the -- and the radio, they all came to the building, the Clara Barton High School building. I had to escape from the back. One of my interns that was interning there drove me out of there. I was about to go home and then my kids told me that press was outside our house. [laughter]
ALMONTASER: It was crazy. So then I went to my friend's house. She's like, "Yougotta stay here, you know, until --" You know, my husband came home that night, the night before, and I told him everything, and he was just, like, shocked. Just absolutely shocked. So he then said to me, he said, "As soon as you, you know, you do what you need to do, I'll come pick you up." But then we didn't realize, like, the media was gonna be camping out everywhere for me. So then I went to my friend's house. He picked me up from there, and then he took me to our house in Pennsylvania. We have a house in Delaware Water Gap. Then I 168:00basically stayed there for, like, two weeks. The DOE was like, you know, "Take some time off, you know, as much as you need, you know, regroup, and when you're ready we have an assignment for you. You're going to be working at this department, blah, blah, blah." You know, and -- yeah. So that's what ended up happening. The Post was camped out at my house for five days. Every time anybody opened the door, they'd run with the cameras. [laughter] My daughter, who was still in high school at that time, we had to take her to her friend, who went to school with her, and she stayed at their house. My mother-in-law, who also was at the house, because they were scaring her, she went and stayed at my sister-in-law's house. And then the only two people that were there were my sons, who were already adults, and they were just like, "She's not here. You're wasting your time." And that's what it was like. So I ended up, then, trying to 169:00speak -- after the school opened, they didn't want me -- I wanted to go to the opening. They were like, nope. You know, like, I really was trying to figure out the best way to deal with the situation, but then when they were not wanting me to go to school, not wanting me to have anything to do with the school, I was like, this is crazy. And then at the same time, like, lawyers were calling me. Everybody was, like, outraged and, like, what the hell happened? This is not Debbie. Like, all the immigrant groups, civil rights groups, activists. Everybody knew, like, what happened would not -- was not, you know, something -- it was some-- there was something behind all this. So some people called me, and they were like, "You know, Debbie, you know, can you tell us?" I was like, "I really don't want to talk about it right now." And my biggest fear was I wanted the school to open. I didn't want to say anything before the school opened. So lawyers from all over the country called me, seven lawyers who were interested 170:00in, like, taking on the case. I was like, "I'm not ready right now to speak to anybody." So after the school opened -- and I tried multiple other ways to engage with the school, and I was getting this, you know, "No, no, no." I then met with a couple of the lawyers, and a coup-- the first couple that I met with were just looking for a platform, which I was not interested to be anybody's platform. And then the final person that I went with, Alan Levine, a much older civil rights First Amendment specialist lawyer, met with me for five hours. He was also an activist. His wife was an activist, and did a lot of community organizing work. And he said to me, said, you know, "It's my honor and privilege." When I went to meet with him, he bowed down. And he said, "I want to correct this wrong that my community, you know, was engaged in." And, you know, 171:00hear-- you know, after five hours of hearing everything, he said, you know, "These are -- these -- this is what's wrong, and this is what we can do, and I don't want to do anything without you feeling safe and comfortable. You know, I want to see you as holistically, you know, get through this. So think about it, and if you're interested it would be my honor to support you, you know, to take your case pro bono." And I waited a couple of days, and then I got back to him that I would do it, and then October 16th we went public with what happened. But what was interesting was because people were so outraged, I went back to work. So my resignation was submitted on the 10th, and then I went back to work, I think, on the 18th or 19th. And the supervisor at Tweed came over to me and said, on the 20th, she said, "Debbie, I just got called that there's gonna be a 172:00protest outside." And I was like, "Okay, why is she telling me this?" She's like, "So I think it's best for you to go home." And I was like, "Okay, can you tell me a little more?" And she's like, "The protest is about you." I was like, "About me? Like, now what?" Like, I was thinking it was, like, the negative, crazy people that were harassing me. And she's like, "No, it's, it's, it's, it's supposed to be some groups that are upset about you leaving the school." And I was like, "Okay..." So then I was like, okay, and I was supposed to be meeting a friend for coffee in the city, so I was like, "I can't go home, I already have these plans." So then I met the person in the city, and, you know, I let her know. Actually, she was able to meet me a little earlier. And then she was like, "Okay, this --" She was like, "This is amazing. You should be so happy." And I was like, "I don't even know what the hell all this is about." And she's like, "Yeah, I did see an email about it, and I'm really happy that people are 173:00stepping up." So then eventually it was time for me to leave, and she's like, "You know, I'm gonna take you home," 'cause we both lived in Brooklyn anyway. She was like, "We're gonna take a cab, and we're gonna drive down Chamber Street. I want you to see -- I want to see, and I want you to see what we see out there." I was like, "Are you crazy? If the DOE sees me out there --" [laughter] And she's like, "Don't worry." So we drive down Chambers Street, you know, getting ready to go to the bridge, and then she tells the cab driver to drive slowly. And as we get to Broadway, you could already see the people actually around the, the park area, where Tweed is, and all these incredible, beautiful signs. And then, as we were driving up Chamber and just seeing these signs, I was, like, in tears and in awe. Like, oh my God, all these people are out there for me? I had seen rabbis, ministers, community leaders, elected officials that came out, like, demanding justice for me. It was so, so powerful, 174:00Zaheer, so powerful to just, like, see, like, you know -- like, when you're involved in movements and actions, you know, defending the rights of other people, and then something happens to you, and then the masses come out? That was what I saw that day. And I was in shock. Absolutely in shock. I got home, and I was like, I -- you know, what happened to me is a grave injustice, and I have to do something about it. And, you know, I spoke to my husband, and I was like, "I don't know if I could just pretend like they didn't do anything to me." And he's like, "You need to pray on it and you need to figure out what you want to do." And what was interesting in all of this experience, Zaheer, was I never internalized it as happening directly to me, and never saying, "God, why did this happen to me? Why did you do this to me?" Or, "Why am I -- why is --?" You know, never doing that. I always knew that it wasn't about me, the individual. 175:00It was about being Muslim and Islam in America, post-9/11. You know, I was the center of this geopolitical war against Islam. And that's why I feel like I was able to get through that -- in a hole, you know, emotionally. I mean, I had my ups and downs, but I had a support network of people that really helped me get through that, and helped me spiritually. And then my spirituality also was deepened, and I have a deep sense of connection with Allah subhanahu wa ta'ala and really feeling like I can get through this. And so after praying about it, after I saw that August 20th rally, I told my husband, I said, "I don't think I should let this go. I think that this happened to me -- you know, Allah made this happen to me to see how I would accept this challenge, you know, this test. And if I don't do anything about it, then this is gonna happen to other people. 176:00I will be allowing a cycle, you know, to happen to other Muslims if I don't challenge this." And he's like, "Okay, you know, if you feel strong enough, I will support you in whatever you want to do." And that's when I started meeting with the lawyers, and then settling with, with, with Alan Levine. And then we went public on October 16th on the step of City Hall. That was the most frightening moment of my life. [laughter]
ALMONTASER: To just come out publicly, to challenge an institution, to challengethe mayor of the City of New York, to expose what they did to me, to expose what these rightwing groups did to me. You know, when I look back I'm like, oh my God, that took a lot of freaking courage. [laughter] You know, and then to still walk back into Tweed, and, like, be a boss? [laughter] Even though, like, I was 177:00slapping them around. And it was so funny, 'cause I worked at Tweed for two years while I was in the battle with them. And everybody in the department was very respectful, very courteous. Like, they knew me, and they knew my work, and my credentials, and they f-- they knew that I had a raw deal. And, you know, we just kept business moving. So I was doing a lot of school assessments, so I'd go to these schools, and then some of the principals are like, "Oh my God, you're, like, my hero!" [laughter] It was so funny. Or, like, teachers who recognized me, they're like, "Oh my God, this is so amazing. We're -- you know, we applaud you. No -- we never met anybody who stood up to the system." It was pretty, pretty amazing. And then, of course, like, at Tweed, I would run into people, and they would smile at me but would dare not say anything. [laughter] And a couple of the women who, like, would smile at me, and then see me, I'm going in the bathroom, they'll follow me in the bathroom and give me a hug and say, "Oh 178:00my God, this is so amazing that you're here. We just want to thank you. You're such a hero." Blah, blah, blah. [laughter] It was pretty crazy, yeah. And what time is it?
ALI: So it's 4:35.
ALMONTASER: Oh my God! [laughter]
ALI: It's okay. So I want to be respectful of your time.
ALMONTASER: Yes, 'cause I'm going to the IC gala [Islamic Center at New York University].
ALMONTASER: I still gotta go home and get dressed.
ALI: So I'm -- we're gonna stop here.
ALI: And --
ALMONTASER: We could do a round two.
ALI: We will do a round two --
ALI: -- and it'll be a shorter, 'cause --
ALI: -- we've covered most of everything.
ALI: The remaining is to -- the wrap-up of this, and then the, the more recentyears of your activism. So thank you so much.
ALMONTASER: You're very welcome.
ALI: This has been very, very good.
ALI: You're a great storyteller.
Oral History Interview with Debbie Almontaser
Debbie Almontaser was born in Yemen. Her family immigrated to the United States when she was a toddler and settled in Buffalo, New York. She married her husband and moved to the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1980. Her involvement with her child's primary school inspired her to pursue a career in education, eventually becoming the founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. She also became a prolific activist, including coordinating New York City's first Arab-American Heritage Week in 2005; founding the Bridging Cultures Group, Inc. in 2015; supporting Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign; and organizing the Yemeni Bodega Strike at Brooklyn Borough Hall in 2017. Throughout her work as both an educator and an activist, she put significant focus on multicultural and interfaith partnerships, also founding and participating in a number of groups and initiatives aimed at increasing empathy across racial, ethnic, and religious lines. She earned a bachelor of the arts in English and world religions from St. Francis College in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn; a master of the sciences in multicultural education and reading from Adelphi University in Manhattan; and a doctor of education in urban education and leadership from Fordham University in the Bronx.
In this interview, Debbie Almontaser discusses her Yemeni American family, including her childhood in Buffalo, New York; her marriage to her husband; and raising their children in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. She also talks about her career in education, including her early work as a paraprofessional and teacher for the New York City Board of Education; her collaborative efforts with the Board of Education, the New Visions for Public Schools non-profit organization, and the Arab American Family Support Center to create the Khalil Gibran International Academy, an Arabic dual language secondary school in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn; and the circumstances surrounding her resignation and subsequent community protests in her defense. She speaks at length about her relationship with her faith; experiences at the State Street Mosque in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn; and work to build interfaith relationships within her community, especially between Muslim Americans and Jewish Americans. In addition, she remembers being a teacher in Brooklyn during the September 11 Terrorist Attacks in 2001, and elaborates extensively about subsequent increases in Islamophobia and racial profiling. Debbie Almontaser was also interviewed for this collection on May 14, 2018. Interview conducted by Zaheer Ali.
This collection includes oral histories conducted and arranged by Brooklyn Historical Society in 2018. The interviews reflect varying approaches to religious observance among Muslim Brooklynites in relation to a wide range of communities and traditions within Islam, including Sunni, Shi'i, Sufi, Nation of Islam, W. D. Mohammed community, Five Percent, Dar ul Islam, and Ansaarullah. Collectively, there is particular focus on cultural and religious customs, practices, and gender roles within these communities; education and the arts; immigration from South Asia and the Middle East; the Nation of Islam; Islamophobia in the wake of the 1993 and 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center as well as after the 2016 presidential election; political activism and engagement; and community relations with law enforcement and government officials.
CitationAlmontaser, Debbie, Oral history interview conducted by Zaheer Ali, February 10, 2018, Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories, 2018.006.02; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- Almontaser, Debbie
- Arab American Family Support Center, Inc. (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- Dawood Mosque (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- Islamic Mission of America (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- Khalil Gibran International Academy (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- New Visions for Public Schools (New York, N.Y.)
- New York (N.Y.). Board of Education
- State Street Mosque (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
- United States. Department of Education
- Arab Americans
- Child rearing
- Cultural pluralism
- Education of children
- Hijab (Islamic clothing)
- Islamic education of children
- Jewish-Arab relations
- Muslim educators
- Public schools
- Racial profiling in law enforcement
- Religious education of children
- September 11 Terrorist Attacks, 2001
- Women in Islam
- Women political activists
- Yemeni Americans
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Buffalo (N.Y.)
- Park Slope (New York, N.Y.)
Finding AidMuslims in Brooklyn oral histories