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Maha Attieh

Oral history interview conducted by Liz H. Strong

October 08, 2018

Call number: 2018.006.47

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STRONG: All right, so. Today is Monday, October 8th, 2018. My name is Liz Strong. I'm here for the Muslims in Brooklyn Oral History Project with the Brooklyn Historical Society. Maha, why don't you just introduce yourself and --


STRONG: -- say when and where you were born?

ATTIEH: OK, my name is Maha Attieh. I was born on [date redacted for privacy] 1958, in Jordan.

STRONG: Tell me a little about your family, your life growing up -- anything you'd like to share.

ATTIEH: Okay, I moved into the United States when I was 23 years old. In 1981, I got married, and I have five children: three boys and two girls. And I think we grew up in Midwood area; we've been living in the same area for -- since 1981. And I started working at Arab American Family Support Center in 2003, here.

STRONG: Tell me about your childhood: your parents, siblings, anything like that.

ATTIEH: Okay. I was born and raised in Amman, Jordan, and I grew up -- I finished school there. I finished my college education -- social work -- in 1:00Jordan, and I have ten brothers and one sister back -- [laughter] -- in Jordan from the same mom and dad. [laughter] And grew up, finished education, then moved -- worked a couple of years there, got married, then moved to the United States here to be with my husband.

STRONG: Tell me how you met your husband.

ATTIEH: He came for his sister living down in Jordan, a couple of years before we got married, around 1979. And he saw me there, in 1980 [laughter] we were engaged. In '81 [laughter] he petitioned for me, got married, and we came to the United States. Yeah.

STRONG: What do you remember about meeting him? What did you think of him?

ATTIEH: He's just a normal guy. I would have never expected to get married and move to the United States. I was dreaming just being there with my family, working as a social worker for the community back in Jordan. I never expected to move to the United States, but --


STRONG: What was your impression of Brooklyn when you got here?

ATTIEH: It was different. Difficult leaving my family. Different language. Different culture. It wasn't an easy life at the beginning; the life I got used to, grew up with, for 23 years -- it's not there anymore. So when I moved here, I felt like all alone. I had no family around me. I didn't speak the English -- the language -- that good. Started having babies. For 20 years, like I was stuck home, taking care of my kids -- they are the love of my life. And I started volunteering in the school; every school they go to, I was there for them. Volunteering on the PTA [Parent Teacher Association], school leadership, learning leaders -- I was there for them for over 15 years.

Then I was looking -- I don't want my kids to be alone, since they live in a 3:00different culture, different religion, different -- so I was looking for a place for them to be involved with the Arab community, and that's when the school found out, it's like: There's an Arab American Family Support Center if you'd like to go and check it out. Then I found out they have a youth program here at the center, and I start bringing my kids here on the weekend every Saturday to be involved with the community kids and with the program here. And I started volunteering every Saturday. And that was 2001. 2003, I was hired here to work.

STRONG: Tell me more about raising your kids in Midwood and what you wanted to do in the schools -- anything like that.

ATTIEH: In school, I found my kids -- back then, we were the only Arab and Muslim family in the schools. My involvement with the PTA -- I start volunteering, educating other communities about -- and other parents about our 4:00religion, about our culture. I remember one year, all religious holidays came in one month in December, between Ramadan and Eid for the Muslim community, Christmas, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah -- they all came in one month. That was my chance to educate others and connect all religions and cultures together. There's walls on the schools -- it was created with information about all religions, all about holidays, Christmas tree, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, you name it. Decoration was there. The kids were exposed -- my kids with other kids -- they were exposed to all religion, all cultures. And they had like a multicultural celebration school that month, and that was my chance to involve the culture of Arab American and Muslim community in schools.

And when September 11th happened, it was a devastating event for my kids. Some 5:00of them were in elementary school; some of them were in junior high school. I ended up writing a poem for the kids in the yearbook for, because we did the yearbook, and the graduation for the students for the elementary schools, like "A September to Remember" poem. Like we all together. And my kids, they aren't the same before September 11th and after September 11th. Being Muslim kids in a school, they start hearing that Muslim kids are terrorists, so my kids, they were so scared to go to school. I started picking them up with the help of the principal and dropping off my kids, escorting them in and out of schools -- I didn't want them to miss any day of school -- and I started going from one classroom to another to educate the kids. In junior high school, it's like, "These are my kids. They are the same friends before and after September 11th." And I started discussing the issues: why people, they hate Muslims. Do not 6:00assume every Arab American is Muslim, and do not assume every Muslim is a terrorist. Don't let the media affect your lives. And I started building a bridge between the students; I tried as much as I can. Even discrimination is still there until today about Muslim communities, but we will go over it.

STRONG: Did you get support from the teachers and the principal --

ATTIEH: All the time.

STRONG: -- or was there any --?

ATTIEH: All the time.


ATTIEH: It was a big support, and even the kids who were discriminating my kids, it's like, they let them do a research. How many communities were discriminated before -- the Koreans, the Japanese -- go -- African Americans back in the '50s and '60s. Find out what happened to them. And the students, actually they start 7:00doing research -- not just Muslims were discriminated around September 11th; there were other communities who were discriminated. And that's why they stopped the hatred between students.

STRONG: That's wonderful.

ATTIEH: It's all politics.

STRONG: When you started taking your kids to the Saturday programs here, how did that change their experience of the city or their outlook.

ATTIEH: They started being exposed that there is Arab American families around here. We're not alone in the world. And that we could celebrate our holidays together. They used to sit down and discuss their experience. The staff were great here, and they were discussing: What's the difference between the Arab and the American? Are we Arab or are we American? Why are we being discriminated? And we did -- they were discussing between other youth the subject of, like, who we are. And until today, it's like, my kids -- they telling me, "We know we are 8:00Arab American. But we are American more. We are more Americanized more than we are Arab. Even we celebrate the holidays -- we fast the holy month of Ramadan; we do celebrate the Eid, the Muslim holidays -- but we are living our American life, here."

STRONG: Tell me -- or give me an example -- of what that means to be more American than Arab.

ATTIEH: Actually, my oldest son -- he was in Brooklyn Tech College. Third year; he had one more year to go. And they started recruiting before the War of Iraq, young men and women to, to join the army. And my son was one of them. And after September 11th, he felt it's like, "I am more Americanized. I want to protect my mom. I want to protect my family. I want to be there for my community." And they drove the dream for him that you're going to finish your education; you and your brothers will be okay -- you're going to have your dream house. And he felt, 9:00"This is my dream for my family. And I want to protect the United States and my family." And he ended up joining the army; for four years, he was deployed to Iraq, South Korea. He finished the four years and came back with an honorable discharge.

STRONG: What was it like for you and the family while he was away?

ATTIEH: It was very difficult and tough time for me. Couldn't even sleep. After September 11th, the whole community were against us. It's like, "Why your son join the army? He's Muslim; he's Arab American. He's going to Iraq. He's going to kill Muslim people like us." That's the mentality of -- the thinking of the community. It was very difficult, and the only way to stop them -- I said, "If my son comes back dead, I don't want you to be at the funeral. I will grieve for him alone, so leave us alone. He made his choice. He made his decision. It was 10:00his choice. And I had nothing to do with it." And he came back and thank God, he served the country, and he's living -- he's living his life now.

STRONG: Did he ever share with you what his experiences were in Iraq and South Korea?

ATTIEH: He's 35 years old; he never got married. He's still bringing -- his best friend, his roommate. One week after they were deployed in Iraq, he was -- he died in a suicide bomb. He died right in front of his face. Since then, it's like, "I want to go back. I want to protect my brothers. Why did this happen to my best friend?" He's afraid if he gets married -- what if he dies like his friend? Who's going to take care of my family? So he refused to get married. But now he's working a security job. He has a good job now. It's so sad.

It was a devastating time for me as a mom. I'm so proud of him; he served the 11:00country -- I don't want to cry. But thank god, he came back in one piece, but -- mentally, he is not the same. He feels very close to me, sometimes, after midnight, it's like he just wants to sit down and talk. And I have to be his mom, his psychologist, his nurse. I just want to sit down and listen to his stories, how -- how he dealt with the war. Even some things, it's like, he can't even discuss for security reasons, he sworn in. But he was there for the country. But so sad about all what I went through with my family. Nobody called him to say thank you. He has no benefits; it's like, he's all alone. Nobody offered him a job. And I had to look for a job for him. I said, "This is your option." For two years, he doesn't want to eat, he doesn't want to leave the house; he was so depressed. I was so scared he was going to go into deep depression. And I feel so bad for veterans; when they come back, who's really 12:00catching them at the airport and giving them an arm and holding them tight to let them know that we are here for them? Why do they have to go to the veteran's hospital to receive all these benefits?

And now, it's like he's waking up. It's like, "I'm going to apply for the loan. I'm going to buy a house. I -- I'm a veteran. I served the country. Why I can't get these benefits?" I went to, now, here -- if you used to go to veterans -- any veteran's hospital to get his veteran's ID -- 10 years after. He was finished in 2006. Two thousand and -- it's 12 years after, he doesn't have his -- his veteran's ID. He refused to have it. And that's when I do advocacy, I wish I wish our council members -- it's like, to add, somehow, on the driving license -- state ID -- this is a veteran. Whenever they go, they show their ID. We need to be proud of them.

STRONG: I'm curious -- sorry --


ATTIEH: It's okay.

STRONG: -- through your work here at Arab American Family Support Center, have you had the opportunity to provide services to veterans and what has that been like?

ATTIEH: Sometimes, some of them, they come to apply for health insurance for their spouses, but to -- we rarely have them because we already have veteran's ID with the veteran's hospital, they're receiving their benefits over there. I had a couple of veterans came in, but wherever I go, whenever I see a veteran, I speak to them. It's like, "We're here for you. What can we do for you?" We always listen to their issues. Whenever you are in the community, there is somewhere -- a veteran there -- they could come and discuss things with that issue they have in their lifetime.

STRONG: So, tell me more about starting your work here in 2003. How did they --


STRONG: -- reel you in?

ATTIEH: I was volunteering, and we used to have a psychologist -- therapist here 14:00on staff. Then after September 11th, the -- FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] decided to give a grant to the center for mental health services here, and they needed counselors who could interview clients and see what mental health issues they have, what services they need. At the same time, immigration started registration for Muslim men from Arab and Muslim countries, and since we have a legal lawyer for immigration here, they start coming and asking questions, "What's going on? Why this registration? Are we going to get green card? Are we going to be legal here? Why after September 11th?"

So we have legal service -- free services for them here. And actually I was one of the counselors here with the FEMA program; there was six of us who started translating for them. We used to escort them, actually, to 26 Federal Plaza to Immigrant Service, because it was the law -- we don't want them to break the law. And whoever -- some of them, they had options; somebody petitioned for them to have the option to stay. Some of them, they have removal conditions. So to 15:00us, scary time for our men. And we knew that was discrimination against our community, because they are not doing it to any other community except for Muslim men. It took us a year with the advocacy to stop that law from going on, but I witnessed lots of discrimination at 26 Federal Plaza against the Muslim men -- lots of them, they handcuffed and deported right away. Some of them didn't understand the law; some of them, they overstayed their visa but didn't know about it -- they didn't know they have to leave after to get the -- their visa expired, and -- and we try-- we tried. We tried to help as much as we can, but we saw so many sad stories. So many sad stories.

But thank god that the registration stopped, finally. They had lots of volunteer 16:00lawyers, I remember, back in 2003, actually. Then around October, they started the Medicaid program here, and the staff who was supposed to take over the program, she was pregnant -- she didn't know, she had premature baby and she had to leave. And they requested someone from our FEMA group to stay, and they ask me if I could take over until she gets back. Sixteen years after, I'm still here -- [laughter] -- because she never got back. I guess her son is 17 years old now -- [laughter] -- or 16 years old. We started the Medicaid program small, then I noticed the community, they need more services than receiving the Medicaid card; they need to access healthcare -- they need someone to translate for them to help them receive services in their own language.

So we started expanding the program; we started running by the hundreds. In 2013, the Affordable Care Act -- Obamacare -- started, and actually our agency 17:00-- the only Arab American agency and the only Arab American navigator statewide for the community. We started doing lots of outreach to explain to them the Affordable Care Act. And we started small, and now we're enrolling over 1,400 people -- 1,300 people a year now with the Affordable Care Act and the Medicaid with the New York State of Health.

STRONG: What are some of the major barriers to accessing healthcare in your communities that you serve?

ATTIEH: In the community, the first one is language. The second one is the culture. Immigration status. The proof of income, since most of our clients, they get paid in cash; they are self-employed. That makes it sometimes for them difficult to prove their income. So all these barriers -- and now the Muslim ban 18:00-- there is in the news now, there might be a public charge for people receiving Medicaid and food stamps. If that happens, lots of our clients will be dropping out of our health insurance programs, because they have to choose either to be healthy or petition for the family members who are coming to the United States. Because it's going to affect their citizenship.

STRONG: What do you think the consequences of that will be for --?

ATTIEH: We're going to have blood on our hands. People with pre-exempting -- thinking about the people especially with pre-existing conditions. What's going to happen to them if they can't access healthcare because if they deny to -- if they are green-card holder, they're petitioning for someone -- what's going to happen to them? How long is it going to take us to explain to them who's affected, who's not? And by then, people -- lots of people -- they're going to be sick.

STRONG: Are there any plans within your organization for advocacy around this issue? Like, how do you move forward?

ATTIEH: We already doing -- we're already working with other groups like 19:00Immigration Coalition, commissioner of public health -- we -- they're trying to get material ready. Town hall meetings. We're not -- informing the community yet, because it's a rule that the White House -- they just put it a couple of days ago for the public review. But actually, October 10th is going to be for -- they're going to put it on site for public comments, and we're going to have 60 days to complain about it. And lots of groups and lawyers and coalition getting this information ready to complain for the [United States] Senate to review it. Hopefully it doesn't go three -- through, like they almost wanted to include WiC and Child Health Plus, even, for children. That will be a disaster, okay? Enough what he wants to include Medicaid and food stamps -- even [Medicare] part D for seniors, they want to include it in public charge. Imagine seniors without 20:00medication. There are growing babies, now; they need more care, more attention, more medication than before. Who's going to take care of them without medication?


ATTIEH: That will be a disaster for our seniors too -- not just our youth or our adults.

STRONG: You told me that healthcare became a major focus for you, so tell me about your other areas of involvement around healthcare advocacy.

ATTIEH: Advocacy, we try. We always advocate for Access Health [NYC] on the city level. There were lots of advocacy for healthcare for all New Yorker and to get one plan for all New Yorkers regardless of their immigration status -- that will be great if we could have it. Working with the healthcare for all New Yorkers and expanding the Child Health Plus from 19 to 26, or the federal age -- 29 for 21:00New York state. This way we could have even the undocumented expanded under their parents' insurance; if-- that -- if we can expand that, that's mean more kids will be insured up to the age of 26 until they stand on their feet and finish college and find a job.

STRONG: Talk to me about the benefits for society as a whole when you find ways to get health insurance coverage for everyone.

ATTIEH: Oh my God, it's a big deal for our community. We have a community with lots of health disparities, from overweight to diabetes to cancer. High blood pressure. We have all these health disparity issues; without insurance, they will never be saved. I know everything is in God's hands -- our age, our life. But there's preventative services. Without health insurance, nobody will be 22:00screened. So health insurance -- it has a big, big impact on our community.

STRONG: On a -- on a slightly related note, you were active here when Khalil Gibran International Academy was being founded.

ATTIEH: Yes. Yeah.

STRONG: Tell me about the initial conversations about that -- that school, and that idea.

ATTIEH: It was a great idea, because remember, our children -- they never talked the Arabic language in public schools. Until the school -- Khalil Gibran -- started, it's like the main language after English is going to be Arabic, which is great for the Arab community and other kids to learn. Remember, we are a multiculture people; it will be great to learn second language, not just English and Spanish. It will be great to add the Arabic language. We were so proud to have, but remember the media played a big part of our lives. And learning 23:00Arabic, it tends like, "You are Muslim. You are terrorist." But this is not for our children to become terrorists. This is for any child to learn the Arabic language as a second language. But communities and the media, they don't like that -- especially after September 11th. Now it's like it's eased out; nobody's bothering Khalil Gibran. But at the beginning there was big tension. Big problem. Yeah.

STRONG: Tell me -- I mean, since you alluded to the controversy, did it surprise you? Have you been --

ATTIEH: It was shocking.

STRONG: -- as an organization -- prepared for it?

ATTIEH: It was shocking. No, it wasn't. We were -- we thought, like, we're starting the school. This is the right for -- this is right thing for our community, for our children. We were in shock when we found activists against the school. It was shocking, but too much politics, and I have to step aside -- it's like, they start going after every community leaders, like, "You are a 24:00terrorist." But I don't want to be called terrorist, and -- after -- it took them a couple of years, now, they calmed down. Yeah. Yeah.

STRONG: Yeah. Let me pause for one moment; we're picking up the vacuum cleaner from outside -- just --

ATTIEH: Ooh. Yeah.

[Interview Interrupted.]

STRONG: I'm sorry --

ATTIEH: No, it's okay.

STRONG: So when we -- when we paused, you were saying the media -- the media controversy around the academy had taken everyone by surprise, and you hadn't prepared for it.

ATTIEH: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.

STRONG: So elaborate on that a little bit. What -- what were some of the first indications that things were kind of going to be controversial?

ATTIEH: It's like they were accusing -- when we choose a principal -- that she was wearing the hijab, she's terrorist, she's going to teach the kids to become terrorists in public schools. And even ran after every community members and our CEO -- they spoke about them in person too. But all this was -- they responded 25:00back in a nice way to tell them, "We're not terrorists; we're just par--" you know -- "parents and community leaders that want -- we wanted to have the Arabic language taught in public schools."

STRONG: Did you have a role in this project personally at this time?

ATTIEH: I -- I was there for a couple of meetings and I stopped after when I saw all these politics, and I -- we stopped attending these meetings. Yeah.

STRONG: You were worried about having your name attached to it? Or --

ATTIEH: Of course, because -- I'm not up to fight back with politics. I hate to be recognized as terrorist. I don't want that to happen for the sake of me and my children -- especially when they are in schools. I don't want my name to be in the media, being the bad person. So I left it up to the CEOs and the leaders 26:00of our community to fight back.

STRONG: Yeah. Do you think they were successful in fighting back?

ATTIEH: Oh yeah. It -- look -- still open. The school's still running, thank God. And we have more kids enrolled in it now. They are by the hundreds. It used to be, like, couple of tens -- 50, 60 -- when they started. Now, almost 300 and more now.

STRONG: Now, the organization did eventually switch principals, right? Do you remember their reasoning for that?

ATTIEH: There was one, then they switched. And we still have the same one -- I forgot his name -- the same principal. He's great. I think he knows what he's doing, and kids, they love him there in school. Yeah. Yeah.

STRONG: Yeah. Okay. So tell me more about these other organizations you're involved in -- the New York Immigration Coalition, the language access committee for New York City -- all those things.

ATTIEH: For -- for MOIA -- for the Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, our 27:00agency was one of the members to join the committee, because language is very important to access to our community -- especially the Arabic language. And it actually -- we had the voter registration a couple of years ago translated into Arabic. Part of the MOIA's office, which is -- was a big deal for us then. I'm part of Immigration Coalition; I'm part of the commission of public health; the School of Public Health at Downstate Hospital; Arthur Ashe Institute [for Urban Health]; Downstate Hospital; and NYU Langone Brooklyn. I'm part of all these communities as a member. Just put in our voice, the agency, the community voice there, to provide service for our communities.

STRONG: I'd like to ask a little bit about your experiences of Brooklyn, 28:00generally. You've been in Midwood this whole time; is that right?

ATTIEH: Yes. Since 19--

STRONG: Tell me about how it's changed since you've lived there.

ATTIEH: Wow. It's -- it's a big difference for 30 years apart -- since '81, and now [2018], it's like -- it was much quieter; the business was quiet, used to walk around. And now it's like more business in the area, the neighborhood changing. My kids grew up with other children; it's like, when they see each other, wow -- they are married with children now, the other kids. It's like -- it seems like ages ago, but it's only like 30 years apart. It's different. The neighborhood is growing. There is more houses, more -- look at Downtown Brooklyn. It's more high-rising building. We never had that before. It's like the second Manhattan. Downtown Brooklyn here, it was big -- different, it is big change in the neighborhood, in the community. I think the Barclay Center created all these buildings and surrounding buildings and the hotels in the neighborhood. It changed the whole area. In Brooklyn, look how many malls and -- 29:00the waterfront, in Park Slope area. It's a big change for the community. I think it's growing -- more expensive. Large families. People, they're working so hard to make ends meet, that's how I see it. Either you're rich or you're poor. Before this it's like, middle class -- everybody was middle class.

But now it's different: either you're rich or you're poor. Too many shelters, too many homeless, wherever you go. We used to take the train with a quarter; now it's like, "Oh my God, it's $2.75 now." [laughter] And people, they can't afford it no more. Everything's growing so expensive. Education's so expensive. I know for my kids, it's like, it wasn't like this before. And it's hitting families very bad; some of the lower income, low-- and middle-class families, 30:00it's hitting them very bad. And sometimes, lots of kids, they drop out of schools and colleges because they can't afford it no more. We don't want that for our children. But I would love to see everybody educated, so they could make a better life for them. As parents, if we want to -- we want what's best for our children. I want my kids to finish their education, and thank god I have the last one in college now. She'll be done in December. And I have five of them. [laughter] The thing of --

STRONG: Congratulations.

ATTIEH: -- thank you. So they're all grown up, and I want what's best for every family.

STRONG: Another thing I wanted to ask you is when you moved here in the early '80s, there were very few mosques around to practice --

ATTIEH: Oh yeah. Yeah.

STRONG: -- so tell me about your experience in your religious life.

ATTIEH: All I knew is one or two mosque only. But now wherever I go, it's like every neighborhood, there is a mosque, which is -- they're increasing, 31:00especially in Brooklyn. The Muslim community is growing. The immigrant -- the Muslim community immigrating more. We start to see by neighborhood, actually; Downtown Brooklyn, here, there's a couple of mosques in Downtown Brooklyn. Midwood area, there is a couple of mosques there. They're migrating by groups in areas now; they've been zoned by zip code now. You can see it. It wasn't there in the '80s, but now wherever you go, there is a mosque. It's like, Wow. The Muslim community is growing.

And we don't want to forget the Christian community, which is -- there is more in Bay Ridge area; there is a couple of churches for them, and there is Syrian -- even there's like the Syrian, the Lebanese; they've been here since the 32:001800s. They've been here for a long time, and they make their own communities here, their own business, and you see the second or third generation of Syrian, Lebanese, they live in Brooklyn for a long time. They're born here in the United States. Even their ancestors moved here -- immigrated here -- to the United States.

STRONG: I'd also like to ask about you personally. How was practicing your religion different at home in Jordan where you grew up and when you came here?

ATTIEH: In Jordan it's like -- it's an Islamic country. We grew up -- every corner there, we had a mosque that we could hear the call for prayer there. But when I came here, it's like, unless you go to the area where there was a mosque -- it's different for me. And I only practice religion or go to the mosque -- you have to look for one, which neighborhood you're going to find one -- it took us a while to find one. I only celebrated the holidays, the Eid, but now I could 33:00go to any mosque now in the area and do prayers and celebrate the holidays and meet with friends and families. We go for funerals at the mosque; we see families there.

But now, these days it's like, we're all busy with our own lives. It's not like you take the day off, and everything's shut down in the country because it is a religious holiday of the country. But here, it's more difficult. Business will go along, but now thank God, in New York City a couple of years ago, they announced there's no schools around the Muslim holidays -- which my kids, they missed out on that, but it's okay if it's for the rest of the generations. The Muslim kids, they could celebrate; they could say, "Yes, we are part of New York City. We have a holiday to celebrate with our children, with other children. Just like Christmas and Hanukkah and any other religion."


STRONG: What was religious education for your children like?

ATTIEH: What's that?

STRONG: What was religious education for your children like? Did they go to mosque, or did you teach them at home?

ATTIEH: Actually, at the beginning of the lives up to the age of junior high school when they turned 10, 11, every weekend on Sundays I used to take them for -- to the mosque to learn Arabic and Qu'ran, the religious. But when they went to high school, it's very difficult to take them because they were very busy with their own lives; they had to join sport teams, they have homework to do, and they're old enough to say, "No, I'm not going to the mosque anymore." [laughter] But at the beginning, they did learn because, as I said before Khalil Gibran, there was no school to teach them Arabic. And with five kids, it wasn't easy for me to sit down and teach them the language one by one. We tried as much as we can -- now they speak it, but they can't read it and write it. It's so sad 35:00because they didn't grow up learning -- there is no schools for them back then to sit down, read, and write the Arabic language. But they practice the religion. They fast. Whenever they can, they go to the mosque. It's difficult -- it's difficult for them. Living their own lives, working 24 hours, and colleges -- you know, it's not easy for them. It's not easy.

STRONG: Did you speak Arabic as a family at home?

ATTIEH: We communicate in Arabic and English -- both languages, actually. [laughter] But more in Arabic. That's what they understand, and they speak Arabic more. Yeah. But I didn't have the time to sit down, being a working mom, to teach them. I feel so bad; I feel guilty about that. I wish we had school before, because I went to school all my life -- 20 years -- just to learn how to read and write Arabic. We didn't have that chance here, for my kids. And I feel guilty that -- I feel so bad. Like, we didn't send them back home every summer 36:00-- we couldn't afford it -- just for them to lean-- to learn the Arabic language, you know. But we kept them connected with the family. Every once in a while we used to take them overseas to see their families and learn some language and tradition issues, you know? Yeah.

STRONG: So just to wrap up, tell me what you are looking forward to working on in the coming years. What do you think will be most important to you?

ATTIEH: I'm looking forward -- I would love to unite all our agencies, all our community, doesn't matter what religion we have. I would love to see a councilmember from our Arab American community to work and speak on our behalf at city hall. I would like to see one of our Congress or Senate from the Arab American community one day; hopefully it's a dream will come true. Hopefully. 37:00Maybe our sec-- next generation will -- will have that chance. And that's why our youth movement, we would love to push them for more education, to finish their college, to go for political career -- would love to see that. But we need to do lots of outreach, lots of work with our kids, to educate them. It's okay to finish your education. It's okay to be political person for our communities. And hopefully that dream will come true one day for us.

STRONG: What do you think -- what do you think it will take to encourage not just the next generation, but this one to become civically involved, registered to vote, any number of things. What's the strategy?

ATTIEH: We're trying. We're trying. As I said, for a couple of years ago with the mayor's office, we translated that voter registration in Arabic hoping 38:00people would read it even if they said, "I don't read English." "Okay, but it's in our language." But I think our community, they have the fear even of voting. Because we came from warzone countries, from the Middle East, we fear the government. We never had the chance to vote in our countries; we don't know what voting mean. So when they came here, it's like, "Why I should vote?" They have no idea when you vote on the city and state and the federal level, you will have a voice. You -- we will have funding to help our communities. We will have more schools to teach the Arabic language. When you explain to them, this is like -- we don't know that. Nobody's educating, nobody's reaching out to our community to help them understand what's your voice mean in the community. We try; 39:00everyone becomes citizens, it's like, "Here's the voting registration. Are you registered to vote? Let's do it." And -- but we can't follow them home at -- when there's an election, we wish we could encourage and escort each one by hand to go vote. We just -- I just would love to zone the community and find out how many votes we have out there. Yeah. And hopefully one day with the census in 2020, we'll be counted. Hopefully.

STRONG: You would like Arab Americans to be counted on the census?

ATTIEH: Yes, I worked so hard in 2010 just to put -- because they want us to put ourselves under White, and we aren't White; we are Middle Eastern, Arab American. Put us under any category, just -- we need to be recognized. We need to be counted. On the city -- we need data on the city and state level, and hopefully in 2020, we'll be counted on the federal level when we have the 40:00census. People, they used to come to me, "Help me with this form." And I used to help them; I used to put them under Other race to write down "Arab American" or "Middle Eastern." Because we need to be counted. But we don't want to be under "Other" too. We need to be recognized.

STRONG: Tell me, what are the specific benefits of being counted? What does that help you with?

ATTIEH: For me, personally, I'll be proud to see how many Arab American in every state -- in the United States. I would like to know how many in our city, in our state, in our country. Because we brought a lot of heritage and history to United States. I think we should be proud of it. I'll be so proud to know -- and I'm so proud to say I'm Muslim, but I'm still an Arab American living in the United States. And I am a citizen; I pay taxes. I vote every time. And I want 41:00every immigrant who became citizen to be proud too. Of themselves. We accom-- we need to say we accomplished something for our lives. Not just for us, for our next generation -- for our children's sake. Because we're not going to be there forever.

STRONG: Well, I want to be respectful of your time, which I know is short --

ATTIEH: Yeah. Yeah.

STRONG: -- but is there anything I should have asked you that we -- we didn't get to talk about today?

ATTIEH: I think that -- I think you did a great job -- [laughter] -- asking all these questions, and I think you did personal and agency and community questions. And I'm -- I think I'm okay. I'm okay. I'm fine. And thank you so much; I really appreciate for you taking the time and asking me to be a part of this history.

STRONG: Thank you so much for sharing your --

ATTIEH: No problem. [laughter]

STRONG: -- stories; you're very generous with your time and with the memories you shared today --


STRONG: -- and I just really loved talking with you, so thank you.

ATTIEH: Okay. Thank you. Thank you.

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Interview Description

Oral History Interview with Maha Attieh

Maha Attieh was born in 1958 in Amman, Jordan. She immigrated to the United States in 1981 and raised her five children in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn. She began working at the Arab American Family Support Center in 2003 to improve Arab Americans' access to healthcare, particularly among non-English speakers. Her commitment to providing Arab American communities with health and education services also led to her becoming involved with other initiatives in New York City, including the State University of New York Downstate Medical Center community outreach committee; the New York Immigration Coalition; the New York City Language Access Committee; and the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn.

In this interview, Maha Attieh talks about immigrating to the United States; settling in the Midwood neighborhood of Brooklyn; and raising her five children. She expands on her involvement in her children's education, particularly following the September 11 Terrorist Attacks in 2001, and on her son's military service in Iraq. She speaks at length about her work in healthcare with the Arab American Family Support Center. She also touches on Americanization, Islamophobia, and changes she has seen in Arab American communities since settling in Brooklyn. Interview conducted by Liz H. Strong.

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.


Attieh, Maha, Oral history interview conducted by Liz H. Strong, October 08, 2018, Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories, 2018.006.47; Brooklyn Historical Society.


  • Arab American Family Support Center (Brooklyn, New York, N.Y.)
  • Attieh, Maha


  • Americanization
  • Arabs
  • Child rearing
  • Education of children
  • Health services accessibility
  • Immigrants
  • Islamic religious education
  • September 11 Terrorist Attacks, 2001
  • Veterans
  • Women political activists


  • Amman, Jordan
  • Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Downtown Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
  • Midwood (New York, N.Y.)


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Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories