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Oral history interview conducted by Liz H. Strong
September 18, 2018
Call number: 2018.006.40
STRONG: All right, so I'll start by saying that the date today is Tuesday,September 18th, 2018. This is Liz Strong for the Brooklyn Historical Society's Muslims in Brooklyn project. I'm here with Detective Ahmed Nasser. Why don't you introduce yourself and just say when and where you were born, whatever else you want to share?
NASSER: Sure. My name is Ahmed Nasser. I'm employed by the NYPD [New York CityPolice Department] as a detective. I was born in Yemen. I came to this great country back in September of 1986. I immigrated to Brooklyn -- particularly this area, actually, Brooklyn Heights. That's where I landed and made it my home.
STRONG: Tell me a little bit about your life growing up in Yemen.
NASSER: Going back a long time ago.
NASSER: I was -- I grew up in -- in a remote village in -- in the mountains inYemen. My village name is Almayanah, which is a -- a word of Mayana, it's coming from the word "spring." And Mayana happened to have a few springs. So it's 1:00called Almayanah, which is a collective of springs. I loved it as a kid. Loved climbing the mountains, hiking, and going to school in a different village. I used to walk every morning for about couple of miles. And it was great. Until the age of 15. I was drafted to the military as a child. And no one could have stopped it, my parents or anyone else. So I was in the military for approximately four and a half years. When I was in the military I actually went through a lot of trainings, became a soldier as a child, and actually went to schooling and became a ranking member in the military. At that time I was able to turn around, and I say, "Thank you, but I don't need it." I was about 20 2:00years old at that time.
I left and decided to come here. I came here as a student, where had somerelatives. The funny thing is when I got to the airport no one was there for me. You know, my family, came late. So when I got to the front of the desk they asked me, "who are you -- what is your name?" So I knew the question, and response. But they asked me other questions; I just kept smiling, [laughter] just 'cause I didn't know what to say. [laughter] So they said, "Where are you going?" I just smiled at them, and they said, "All right, just let him go." [laughter] So I said, "Oh, OK, that was easy." [laughter] But I had all my documentation to come here and, you know, had a visa to go to school etc.
So when I first got to Brooklyn, obviously we had to drive from JFK [John F.Kennedy International Airport] through East New York -- and back in the '80s East New York was not what it looks like now. So in my head I'm -- I'm imagining the beautiful city, New York, the Statue of Liberty. And what greets you as soon 3:00as you get to the airport? So we drove through East New York, and I seen burned-down houses and -- and I'm saying to my family, "What is -- this is New York? Are you kidding me? This is not what I thought of New York." They said, "Yup. Well, you will get to see it." So we drove through Atlantic Avenue, Eastern Parkway, and eventually got downtown Brooklyn, and I was able to see the Statue of Liberty, Twin Towers [World Trade Center]. I was like, "Oh, wow. This is what I came to see." So that same day, believe it or not, I walked to the [Brooklyn Heights] Promenade, just down here, just to see that view. And it was amazing sight. I took some pictures too, [laughter] to prove it. It was great. I was very excited.
And I knew that transition -- even though I had some relatives here, transitionwas a little difficult because of the language barriers, cultural barriers, and the fear of being in somewhere new. And I realized that I have to start from 4:00scratch. Nonetheless, I was determined to do something about my life. So sure enough within a couple of weeks I was, you know, acquainted by relatives, friends, family members, extended family who immigrated earlier and owned businesses here, and started looking for a job and to go back to school. So actually went to college for ESL [English as a Second Language] classes, and that's what I signed up for. Signed up for ESL classes. Within a couple of months I started to speak and understand, and it great. You know, I mean, I started to like it.
So it didn't take long for me to fall in love with New York, to be honest withyou, especially Brooklyn. It felt like I was home. I had some -- like I said, I had some relatives and community around this area in particular. We spoke the 5:00language and, you know, food and everything was familiar. So I didn't feel that strange. So I got, comfortable and met my wife. And it didn't take long after that to get married. So I got married.
STRONG: How'd you guys meet?
NASSER: Through family functions. I was introduced to this family, and they hadthe young ladies over there, so it took a little time, but it wasn't that difficult to kind of connect. So we got married. I got married at 22. And was blessed with two boys. They're both adults now. The youngest is 22, and the oldest is 26. My youngest is became a police officer just recently.
STRONG: Oh, wow! Congratulations.
NASSER: Yeah. Thank you. Yeah, so -- so it's -- it -- it's been great. I mean, I6:00-- I can't really say anything else. I mean, in my experience as an immigrant, even though the transition was a little difficult in the beginning -- you know, to understand the language, the culture, and to make it, is not an easy thing. But I think as long as you have the drive and the willingness to work hard, you -- you can make it. You know, I'm looking back, and I say, "Thank God that I made that move," you know? It changed my life totally. It changed my family's life totally. My wife is a teacher. My youngest -- like I said, is a police officer now in the NYPD, and my oldest is finishing his master's to become a psychologist. So we did well.
STRONG: Tell me about this neighborhood in the '80s. 'Cause it was a verydifferent place then than it's become.
NASSER: Well, this area, I think, in my opinion, it was a great area from theget-go. I mean, it changed somehow, you know, we have new buildings -- but I 7:00think this area's always been great. You know, when my family lived here we used to go to this area for the park by the Promenade to play. And seen some changes, like the restaurants and the -- some of the bookstores -- you know, used to have the video stores, wherever you go, to rent videos. There was some around here that's no longer the case. The restaurants changed a lot. You know, like I said before, my family had restaurants in the area. They all closed. Most of the -- not all, maybe -- most of them did close their restaurants, and they moved on to different things. So that is a change in the neighborhood, I think. Some of them still around. Not too many. But everybody moved from here to different areas. And obviously as this area became more and more expensive, people move around.
STRONG: And you mentioned that, like, initially the -- the food and the language8:00was familiar. So talk to me --
STRONG: -- about, like, some of the -- the cultural spaces, or what you --
STRONG: -- what you would do with friends and family.
NASSER: When I first came here I worked in a restaurant myself. You know, like Isaid, my family owned restaurants. So I worked in my uncle's restaurant. I started in the kitchen. I was washing dishes. And that was, like, a little difficult for me, coming from a different culture that -- I was in the military, I was a ranking member of the army, and then I'm washing dishes. And so I used to tell myself, "Why did I do this to myself?" [laughter] But I knew, it's just something that I have to do in order for me to move up. And I stuck it, and I took it. So the restaurant that I worked in was a family restaurant. It's called the Moroccan Star Restaurant. So my uncle, God bless his soul, he passed away about 10 years ago, was a chef in Manhattan years earlier, where he learned how 9:00to cook French and Middle Eastern cuisine. So he was the cook. And the food was excellent. So I felt like I was home because, you know, whenever I'm hungry, I'm going to go to my uncle, "Hey. [laughter] I'm hungry." So Moroccan Star Restaurant, that's where I started working, and then worked at my father-in-law's restaurant, for some time once I got married. The restaurant called Near-East Restaurant. In addition to that there was another restaurant that belonged to the family. It's called Almontaser's Restaurant. It was on Court Street. So the whole family owned different restaurants within the same neighborhood. Sahadi was, a big place that we used to go to and shop. And they're still around.
STRONG: They are, yeah.10:00
NASSER: And Malko Karkanni. I think they still around. They also MiddleEasterners. It's on the opposite side of Atlantic Avenue, across from Sahadi. Yemen Café. They started in 1986. I remember them when they started. The owners are distant relatives. So I still go there, and I love their food. You should try it. I don't know if you tried it.
STRONG: I haven't been there yet --
NASSER: Oh, you should --
STRONG: -- much to my shame! [laughter]
NASSER: -- definitely try it. It's very authentic Yemeni food. It's differentfrom the restaurants that my uncle and -- and the family had. It's very authentic Yemeni food, and it's really good.
So yeah, a lot of those restaurants, obviously, have closed, and they moved onto different things. People who lived in the neighborhood, eventually -- some of them owned buildings, they sold 'em because in the '90s they thought to make -- you know, they made good with their investment -- you know, they bought the houses really cheap, and then the '90s they sold them; they thought they made money. They should've waited if you ask me, but --[laughter] 'cause right now you can't even touch this neighborhood. They moved out to different neighborhoods.
We lived here from 1986 to probably in the '90s -- '91, '92? Then I moved to11:00Park Slope. And was there for about 12 years, then moved to Long Island. Came back to Brooklyn, eventually. You know, now I live in Bay Ridge. But yeah, I mean, this neighborhood has changed in a lot of ways, but it -- it's a great neighborhood. I love it. I come here to eat, shop sometimes. It's not the same exact neighborhood, but, you know, it's still great.
STRONG: So tell me a little bit about religious communities here and how theywere different from your experience back in Yemen.
NASSER: Religious communities?
NASSER: I mean, when I came here in 1986, I knew only two mosques that I wasfamiliar with. There's a mosque. State Street, is 143rd State Street, there's a 12:00Muslim community mosque that I used to go to back then. And there was another mosque on Atlantic Avenue that I knew of. I think it's 554 Atlantic Avenue. It's called Farooq Mosque. And then -- these are the only two that I knew back then.
Obviously when I became a police officer I became more familiar with theneighborhood and the community. When I joined the police department in 2000 -- March of 2000, after graduating from the Police academy. I was assigned to 76 Precinct, which covers some of this neighborhood and Red Hook. So I became familiar with the community and, you know, obviously was patrolling the neighborhood, and since I lived here for some time there was -- they were very 13:00happy to see me. So being a police officer actually gave me an exposure to the community and made my connection with the community even better. Because they were -- they felt -- you know, there's, you know, a comfort to talk to me and -- and kind of reach out to me if they need help. And in fact, some of them'll call me for every little thing, and I'd say, "Hey, listen, you got to call 911, not me!" [laughter] But, you know, they did.
So after the sad event of 9/11 I became more attached to the community because Ifelt there was a need to really connect with the community even more. A lot of the community members who -- like myself, immigrants -- came here, they were afraid, you know, "What's going to happen to us now?" Because what happened was -- was not easy for all of us.
I remember the day of 9/11 -- going to take you a little back there. I was --14:00you know, it was on my regular day off. And I just took my kids to school and came home, sat down, having my coffee. And I see the news. And immediately I called my precinct and I -- I told them, "What did happen here?" They said, "Oh, must be an accident." I said, "It can't be an accident. This is something more. Do you want me to come in?" They said, "Nah, we'll call you." I didn't wait for them to call me. I just responded, and I actually responded on my own, then eventually made my way to the precinct and started from probably nine o'clock 'til the next day, nine o'clock in the morning. You know, 24 hours. And that was the toughest day in my life, to be honest with you. And my wife was calling me. I wasn't answering. And I was afraid, "What's going to happen to them?" And was 15:00too many emotions, too many things, and, you know, didn't know what to expect. One thing I was certain that, "You know what, I'm a police officer, and I have to be there for my community." And when I say "my community," all of New York City community. So I stayed until the next day and then I, was able to speak to my wife. I told her, "Listen, I'm fine, everything is good. I'll see you later."
And then everything took a different turn from that point on. There was a lot offear in the community. People that I knew called and say, "What's going to happen, and what we should do?" And so I told them, "What you should do is you should just, live your life and do, everything like you should be doing. If you see something that you don't think is right, you make sure you call the police. If there's anything that you need, you make sure you call the local precinct." And I gave 'em the phone numbers for the local precinct. I gave them my phone number. And we moved on.
And we -- as officers, Muslim officers -- we started looking around. You know,who's -- who else is there that's going to, you know, get the community to kind 16:00of, feel a little more comfort? Because obviously there was a lot of things that was happening, and a lot of the communities were leaving the country, moving to Canada, moving to that -- you know, a lot of people may not be talking much and what have you. So there was a lot of fear in the community. And we figured, you know what, we got to reach out to them to assure them that the police department is not going to chase everybody. We're not chasing anyone. We got to make sure that you're okay. And if they see something that is affecting them or affecting anybody in the -- you know, in the city they should call 911. And we should be working as partners, as a community together. Because that was that's just -- that's what we need to do.
So myself and five others -- police officers and a correction officer -- cametogether, and we decided that we wanted to do a forum for the community to kind of educate them about law enforcement, because for the community if you're a police officer, you are the immigration officer; you are the one who's going to 17:00deport them; you are the judge and jury. That's -- that's how they look at it. And we had to really explain to them, like, "No, there's a difference. As police officers, it is our duty to protect you. We're here to serve you and to protect you; we're here to make sure -- we're not asking you about immigration issues. That's not our problem. That's not -- we're not worrying about that. We worry about the community's safety, and we want you to be with us, and we are with you." So we did a forum, I remember that -- I don't remember the exact date, but we did a forum in the school for the community, the Al-Noor Islamic School. It's on Fourth Avenue. Where we invited the community, we invited different city agencies as well as federal agencies, the FBI [Federal Bureau of Investigation], ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement], etc., because we want them to feel comfortable. We wanted to come and sit down and ask questions.
So that went well, and we decided to start a Muslim officers association. We18:00called it the American Muslim Law Enforcement Officers Association, which include police officers, corrections, and any other law enforcement. And the idea was to kind of, like, "You know what? We need to make the community feel comfortable, that they have representation within the law enforcement." 'Cause, you know, it has a great impact on the community. Not too long after that, I think, a lot of people joined us. A lot of young people who were at the fences to join the police department became police officers. And it took -- you know, it took a lot for us to kind of come out to the community and tell 'em, "Listen. You need to be part of this. You need to -- you want -- you want to make a change? Stop complaining and be part of something." And a lot of these young people, you know, they respond to the call. And when I think about it now, it really took a lot. And the result of it now, we have over a thousand Muslim officers within the NYPD alone, not to mention corrections, FBI, and all the other city a-- you know, all the other law enforcement agencies. And that's -- it took dedication from -- and not just to take the credit, you know, the five 19:00officers, but it took a lot of dedication from those five officers and then everybody else who followed through to kind of make that happen and make the community feel more comfortable.
STRONG: Some of the first meetings were in your house, Jamiel told me?
NASSER: We did. Some of the -- actually, for the -- for the first organization,which is the national organization the American Muslim Law Enforcement Officers Association, we actually did some in my house, some in my brother-in-law's house, Adil Almontaser. He was the president. We appointed him as president. He was a former marine, and he had more time than myself and the other guys. So we said, "You're going to be the president." [laughter] So he did well. And then we took turns, you know, obviously, to kind of make this happen. Until 2002. I was working -- like I said, I was working in the 76 Precinct. In 2002 through my 20:00interaction after 9/11 with the community I felt there was a need to kind of, like, Somebody need to be part of this connection between the community and the police, and it has to be done at a certain level." Adil, my brother-in-law, was assigned to community affairs, but he was there for a short period of time. He said, "I'm going to be going to the Port Authority, and you guys -- somebody should come for an interview." So I said, "All right." We all go in for the interview, and whoever's get to be picked up -- to be picked. We don't want it to make any problems. [laughter] So it was myself and two others who went to an interview with -- back then, deputy commissioner of community affairs. And the next day I got a call. So I told the guys, I said, "I won." [laughter]
So I became the Arab Muslim community liaison to the police department inNovember of 2002. And right away I knew I had a big task to do. The outreach to 21:00the community and building this bridge that we wanted to build with the community. So it took a lot of work and a lot of hours going in and out. I was there at every mosque in the city, every Islamic school, every house of worship, every community-based organization. And I made the connection between the two. Sometimes, you know, I'll tell 'em, "Hey, listen, did you know about this organization there?" And I make the connection among themselves, but by the same token for me to know, you know, where the community lives. So I know that the community was big down here at the borough. Around [Brooklyn] Borough Hall, Brooklyn Heights, Carroll Garden, Park Slope -- but the majority of the community would -- were in Bay Ridge, in Brooklyn. Then Coney Island, that area. The Pakistani community, the Bengali community. And then when I went to Queens I 22:00realized there was a big community in Astoria. And then, you know, the rest of -- of the city. I went through all the five boroughs. I made a list of all these -- you know, houses of worship, the community-based organizations, and I started to call 'em. Gave them my number and I tell 'em, "Listen. If you need anything, you call me." So when they call me I made sure that I connect them with the local precinct in their neighborhood. Because the police department has a Community Affairs officer in every precinct. I'll make sure they connect with the community affairs officers and they get to know them. I actually took some of the commanding officers to visit the mosques and houses of worship -- you know, the mosques and the schools and make the connection. Because that -- that was a big step in kind of bring the community and the police together.
You know, the truth has to be told. I mean, there -- there was -- there was somefears on both sides, in the police and the community. And we needed to do something to kind of bridge that gap. So it took some time, but eventually we became better and better. And though we had some times where, you know -- there 23:00were some ups and downs in the relationship between the community and the police, but we made sure that, we balanced it. Sometimes people thought, you know, we -- we spy on them here or did something there, and then we had to kind of explain to them, "This is -- this is something that we have to work together as, you know, the police and the community, hand in hand. 'Cause our mission is not to go and spy on the community. Our mission is to make sure that you are, being protected. And if we have any calls, it comes from the community, and we have -- and we have to investigate everything, just like everything else." So when you explain to the community like, you're not focusing on them 'cause people may think, you -- I tell 'em, "Listen, I -- I became a police officer for one thing: to serve the community. And the community includes everyone. But I care about you as well. I'm one of this community. I'm a member of this 24:00community. And it's very important for me that you feel comfortable, that you feel safe." And that was my -- my message the whole time. And it took a lot to prove it to them [laughter] initially, that we're not there to spy; we're there just to help. And it paid off. It took a lot, but it paid off.
STRONG: I want to go back a little bit and get specifics on some of your experiences.
STRONG: First of all, what led you to be a police officer? We didn't get thatstory on the record yet.
NASSER: [sighing] Let's see. While in college I -- you know, I was studying foraccountancy. I actually went to New York City Technical College. I got my associate degree in accounting. Then I decided to get my bachelor's, so I went to Baruch College and started studying there. And about the last year we had a recruiter that came and giving applications. "Hey--" I looked at it, and I walked away.
And my brother-in-law was a police officer already at that time. And he was25:00always telling me, he said, "Oh, you should take the test, you know, you should take the test, become a police officer. It's a good job." I'd tell him, "I'm making more money than you. What's -- what's good about it? [laughter] 'Cause you were making less than me." He said, "Well," he said, "You're going to see. If you take this test you -- you will not be sorry." I said, "You know what? We'll see." So he kind of, like, put it in my head. I took the test -- took that application, filled it up, and I took the test.
And sure enough, wasn't long after that I became a police officer. And I givehim credit because, you know what, I think if he didn't tell me about it and didn't push me a little bit I probably wouldn't take the test. 'Cause, you know, my past experience in the military kind of put that in my head: I was taken against my will; I don't want to be in that kind of military -- paramilitary or military -- organization, because it was too much for me as a child. But I'm 26:00glad I did that. It really changed my life and gave me the opportunity to help my community and help myself.
STRONG: Did you find when you were in community affairs that immigrant familieshad had similar experiences to yours, that law enforcement was not at all like it is in the United States, and how did you help bridge those gaps?
NASSER: Definitely, without a doubt. I mean, I -- I actually was part of an -- a-- a unit that dealt with immigrants from all over the world. And I was miss-- was -- excuse me -- I was the person in charge of dealing with a community of Middle Eastern and Southeastern Asian communities. So I knew as an immigrant that law enforcement might not necessarily have -- that law enforcement in different countries might not deal with the community like we deal with the community here. So the fear of law enforcement was rampant in our community, especially after 9/11. But that's -- that's true with almost every immigrant community. Their relationship with that law enforcement in their countries or the countries they came from may not be necessarily the same as dealing with the 27:00police here. Corruption, abuse of authority, etc. And you don't go to the police -- where I came from -- for anything. If you go to the police, I mean, you in trouble. So you got to pay off.
And so knowing that, I -- it gave me an advantage to deal with the community andtell 'em, "Listen, I understand what you -- you know, that you're afraid of approaching the police or coming to the police. But I can assure you that I was -- you know, I came the same way. I grew up in Yemen, and I had the same experience. I was afraid to go to the police. But in this country you have your rights." And we explained to them, you know, on their rights and responsibility with interacting with the police, educate them on their rights. In fact, we did translate a lot of the materials -- as far as, the rights and responsibilities when interacting with the police, safety issues, and safety tips -- into various 28:00languages. And that actually opened the doors for us to kind of reach out to these communities and build trust with these communities.
STRONG: Was part of your job to take NYPD messages to the community, or was --obviously that was part of your job -- but was part of your job also to instruct and catch up, you know, cultural competency within the department?
NASSER: Of course.
STRONG: What was that side of your job like?
NASSER: Now, this -- that's actually -- I mean, I -- I had to multi-task. Andone is educating the community about law enforcement. Second is educating the law enforcement about the community. Because there was obviously a -- a lack of understanding about communities that we dealt with. And my main concern was dealing with the Muslim community. So in the academy I would go and lecture about who the Muslims are and why they do -- they pray to Allah. Oh, and who's 29:00Allah? Sometimes you have to explain things -- easy terms, but people sometimes don't understand if you're not familiar with. So we had to educate officers about cultural differences, cultural norms, behavior, etc. 'Cause if you see somebody praying -- I'm just giving you an example -- you see a Muslim praying, and they obviously do certain moves and certain things that for someone who don't know what a Muslim does they're going to think, "Well, This guy looks suspicious. Why is he doing this?" So I used to go there, and I'd tell 'em, "Listen, this is how -- what I pray." And I'd stand right in front of the class of 300-plus officers in the academy. I'd tell 'em, "This is how we pray." And I will, you know, do the -- all the movements, and I'd tell 'em, "This -- if you -- somebody in the street and they doing this, they only praying. Do not panic."
So it just, you know, kind of, like, explained what is it that you going to haveto deal with. And I thought that the -- having that opportunity to explain that to officers, you know, meant a lot for me, because, you know what, they -- now 30:00they know who this community is, and they know this is my community, and I belong to that community, and I'm a police officer. So the new guy who just came from -- living in Long -- I don't know, Westchester, wherever they are, now they're familiar with the city that we live in. We live in a city that has multicultural, multi-religious. And -- and we get to do better than just, you know, thinking about ourselves. And we had to be bigger than ourselves. And we have to look at the whole picture. And that's -- that was the main thing for me.
Now, in addition to that I used to -- obviously dealing with Muslim communityleaders -- and I used to hear a lot of complaints from them. And at times I would carry directly to my CO [Commanding Officer], and then my CO will take it to the police commissioner himself. In fact, we did a lot of community leaders and the executive commands in the -- in the police department, including the police commissioner. We sat down and talked about issues that concerned the Muslim community. One of them is talking about that report that came -- I think, 31:00if I remember correctly, it was 2007. There was a report that was done by someone who was an analyst. It's called the Radicalization on the West -- in the West report, and it talks about certain things that somebody will do and how they become radicalized. And he was talking about cases that happened overseas. At any case, that didn't sit well with the community. And we chatted directly to the police commissioner. We asked him, "Can we sit down with the community leaders?" He said, "By all means."
So we sit down with the community leaders, and we gave them the opportunity tosit down at several times, actually. And they talked about some of the terms that were used; maybe this is -- should not be used. And they came to an agreement to make some changes. And in fact there were some changes that were made as a result of sitting down and talking. And I thought, that's the way to go. I mean, no matter what -- and no matter who [laughter] and what you have to deal with, if you sit down and -- and talk about it, we could all work together. So -- yeah. It was a little tough time for me because I got to deal with this, and I got -- with that -- I got to deal with the community, and I got to deal 32:00with, you know, the executives in the -- in the police department.
STRONG: Yeah, and stay on message in both places --
STRONG: -- and it just --
NASSER: Got it.
NASSER: But you know what? I -- I thought, as long as you stay true to themission, it doesn't really matter. And the mission was to serve and to protect. That's my mission. And I -- I really kept that in my head. You know, I might have some difficult time getting across to some people, but the mission is to serve and protect all. And I felt like I need to serve my community when I have the opportunity, and my community have to be heard, because we are a part of this. You know, we all live in this city, and we care about this city, and we care about everyone's safety. And if we prof-- you know, profess that then you know what? We have to include everybody. And thank God, you know, we were able to do a lot with the community back then. And -- yeah, things got better.
STRONG: They got better? How.33:00
NASSER: I -- I think it got better. Because the communication between thecommunity and the police has changed tremendously. I could guarantee you that now, if you ask anybody in the community, "Where's your precinct?" I think they're going to be able to tell you, "My precinct is located at there." They're more familiar with the police. They know that they could reach out to the police and, "Hey, listen, we need help. Our holiday's coming up, and we're going to have people coming to pray." If you go to this mosque down here and you ask them --
STRONG: State Street?
NASSER: -- you know --
STRONG: Is that where you're pointing?
NASSER: State Street --
NASSER -- yes. And ask them, "Do -- how's your connection with the precinct thatcovers your area?" they'll tell you, "The 84th Precinct is excellent. They provide us with additional security when we need to." That's because that connection is already there. They made the connection themselves. We started that a long time ago, and now the community themselves have the ability to kind 34:00of reach out to them directly and have that relation, that engagement. And I think if the department didn't really invest in -- in reaching out to the community, this would not have happened. So that's why I say that the community's a lot better than what it used to be.
STRONG: I want to ask you also specifically about AMLEOA [American Muslim LawEnforcement Officers Association] and the [NYPD] Muslim Officers Society. 'Cause the Muslim Officers Society is a fraternal organization --
STRONG: -- within the NYPD.
STRONG: And AMLEOA is outside -- or was. Is AMLEOA still around?
NASSER: AMLEOA was a -- supposed to be a national organization. And it's not afraternal organization recognized by the NYPD because we have members -- when we started we had members from the NYPD and corrections and other agencies. The NYPD Muslim Officers Society actually is a organization that is recognized by the NYPD. And that came actually out of the AMLEOA because -- the American 35:00Muslim Law Enforcement Officers Association was the same founders when we started in 2001 -- December 2001. It was right after 9/11, so we started really early.
And 2006 we started talking about, "You know what? We need to be recognizedbecause now we have the numbers within the NYPD." We have -- at that time I think we have about 100-some officers that we knew of. And we figured, "You know what? The department requires 70-plus people to be recognized as a fraternal organization." So we started talking about it. So we started meetings in my house [laughter] for the second organization. And then we went to the mosque, actually. We sat down a few times, and we decided that we going to go with the NYPD Muslim Officers Society. We actually -- we came -- have to come up with a name, MOS, which is Muslim Officers Society, but it also means "Members of the Service." So if you say "NYPD MOS," it said NYPD Members of the Service. So in 36:00the name in itself when we approached the department they said, "Wait a second. You can't have that name." [laughter] People said, "Yes, we can. We can change the email but, you know what, we're going to have the same name. Because we're still members of the service." So we decided on that name, and it's -- and we took a vote on it, and we approached the department, put an application, and January of 2006 -- it took us some time to get recognized. I think 2008 we were recognized by -- officially -- by the department. And I served as the first president for the society, from 2006 until 2012. So.
STRONG: So what were some of the benefits of being recognized versus the agilityof sort of being outside?
NASSER: I think the benefit of having a fraternal organization, one of thethings we -- we try to focus on is to educate others who we are, in -- in the city and also in the department. Obviously it has its benefits when you have 37:00somebody from -- who could explain to you the community that you probably could be assigned to. Okay? For Muslim officers it benefits them by getting some religious accommodations. It gets them, you know, the -- the camaraderie and also the -- to be part of something that is going to link them to other things and help them in -- you know, with their getting to a place where they, you know, are not able to go on their own. Because the society will advocate on their behalf. God forbid something happens, a tragic or -- event or anything like, we could come together and help each other. We had somebody who had a fire in their house, and they lost everything. So even though the department is great -- you know, they give 'em time off -- but, you know, we were able to get together and collect some donations from each other and help the person. Put 'em 38:00in a -- you know, in a house. So a lot of things that the society could do for each other.
I think as an organization when we started -- like I said, we have about ahundred. Right now we have over a thousand. The society in itself within the department benefited the officers and the police department. I think it benefited the police department even greater, because the number of Muslim officers in -- you know, could -- could just explain what it -- what the society did for the police department and for the city. Because our presence there means a lot to the police department. You know, we are in every rank. So far we have from a police officer to detective to sergeants to lieutenants to captains. And we aspire to go even further. Because maybe someday a Muslim officer will become the police commissioner. There's nothing wrong with that. We live in New York City. So -- in fact, the last meeting we had a -- just a -- [laughter] we had a meeting for the Ramadan Conference -- and I'm going to talk about that a little 39:00later, how we started. Somebody got up on -- they had an opportunity to ask a question to the police commissioner, and they said, "When we going to have the next Muslim to become a police officer -- to become a police commissioner?" He said, "Hey, they are here. Whenever they're ready they should -- they should take the opportunity and push for it."
Yeah, but talking about some of the events that we focused on is recognizing theMuslim holidays and -- and it's actually a good way of -- of building relationship with the community. So we started back in 2002. The Pre-Ramadan Conference, which is a -- a forum where we invite community leaders and religious leaders to come to 1 Police Plaza and to have the opportunity to sit down and meet with the police commissioner and all the executive staff with the NYPD and talk about plans that the police department is doing for the Ramadan. Ramadan, obviously, we fast all month, and the Muslim community tend to go to 40:00the mosque more often, and they spend time even -- you know, until the -- late at night, and midnight and beyond. So the police department usually have police presence around the mosques. If not a car parked in front of the mosque, usually we'll have a sector that always patrol the area and make sure that nothing's happening, that everything is -- is okay, so people could worship in -- in peace. To assure the community that we're there for them. We also organize community visits by the executive staff. Every commanding officer will visit a few mosques in their neighborhood to kind of break, you know, fast with the community and talk to the community. "Listen, we here for you if you need anything from us." And that also kind of, like, meant better relationship between the community and the police. So when we did the first event for the Pre-Ramadan Conference, we may have had, like, 50 people. And now when we do an event we have about 400, 500 people. And that -- that's a plus. And it shows you 41:00how the community responds to that, you know, interaction.
STRONG: What were some of the specific considerations that Muslim officers mightneed, and what kind of support? You know, was there recognition of holidays? Was there time given for prayer?
STRONG: What kinds of special needs did they have?
NASSER: Well, as Muslims, you know, obviously as -- as you know, may not know,is that we pray five times a day. As a police officer, obviously, if you were working during the day and you happen to be, you know, somebody who observes -- not everybody -- no -- no judgment here -- but if -- if a person observes and they wanted to pray, they need some accommodation. And they need at least their direct supervisor -- or they need a supervisor -- to know that, you know, if this person need five times to do a prayer, you know, have some understanding that they could do it. Not on -- I'm not saying that, you know, you're in the middle of emergency, "Oh, I got to stop and pray." That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about if you have the opportunity to give the -- the Muslim 42:00officer an opportunity to do their prayer, just, you know, be accommodating. And understanding. You know, to understand that this person may -- may do -- you know, need to do that.
And during the month of Ramadan, some of the officers fast the whole day. So asa society we try to let our colleagues in the police department to know, "Hey, listen, some of us will be fasting. So if I need a break, please understand that I'm not trying to take advantage; I'm just -- you know, understand that I'm fasting." I'll give you an example of myself. I -- thank God, I practice, I pray, and I -- I fast. Back in the days before we started the [laughter] organization, I used to fast, and people would look at me. "Why -- why don't you eat?" "Well, I'm fasting." "So what does that mean? So you staying -- you abstaining from meat?" I said, "No. I'm not eating anything." "So you're not drinking?" "I'm not drinking either." So you had to explain to them. Now if you ask a police officer, they know better, because there's a lot of Muslim officers within the police department that they all do the same thing. So, you know, people understood in my precinct that "You know what? This guy does this thing, and he doesn't eat at this time, and he eats after sunset." So they -- they knew 43:00how to deal with me.
But now the general idea, or the general understanding within the departmentnow, almost every precinct knows that as a Muslim officer you may be fasting; you may need to -- you know, just to give you a, you know, hand, you know, to give you a break every now and then. But, by the same token, we tell our members, "You know what? If they're giving you a break for five minutes, you make sure to go above and beyond." And that's -- that's our message. Because you know what? We're not trying to advocate, you know, that -- to have advantage, to take advantage of anything. And now a lot of members, you know, they understand that, and they try to be the best they can.
STRONG: Were uniform requirements accommodating for women?
NASSER: Yes. We have -- I think back in 2006, maybe earlier, we had a -- anofficer who -- a Muslim officer, a female officer -- who decided that she wants to wear the hijab. Obviously prior to that it was not -- you know, no -- there 44:00was not -- nobody talked about it. But we approached the police commissioner, and we asked, you know, "How can we do this?" He said, you know, "She has to go through, you know, the -- some steps, and if -- if it works then that's fine." So we decided to -- trying to find a way how could we work this out. And we asked her, "You know, what do you -- what do you think we sh-- how are you going to do this? You know, obviously the uniform has to be, you know, one way, and has to fit correctly, and that's for your own safety." So we had a sister who actually designed a hijab. She designed it in Velcro, which you could put it on, puts her hat on, and if she has to take it out she just pull it down, you know? And that was -- the main concern for the department was safety. And they didn't want it to have somebody getting choked or getting -- you know, by the hijab or anything like that.
So she designed that hijab where it could breaks down and also pull it off ifshe needs to. And the department said, "All right, that's fine." And that was the start of it. And then now if any female who observe -- you know, observant 45:00Muslim and wanted to put the hijab on, they could do it. And, you know, it -- it took these -- somebody who was really wanted to do something about it, and it was that, you know, female officer that started it. And now there's a few of them that wear it. And I give her credit for that. She started it. I mean, the Society pushed for it, but it was her work. You know, it was her, you know, dedication to her faith, and thank God the department was able to accommodate.
Now we have officers who wear the turban too, you know, who Sikhs are. And theyreached out to us. They said, "How can we do this?" It was the same thing. "Just make sure that it's -- doesn't affect, you know, the safety, or doesn't change the uniform." In fact, the Sikhs, you know, is more elaborate because they have to put the, you know, everything on -- in their turban. You know, like the -- I forget it now -- the insignia, and they have to put it up and everything also. And they were approved. And the going through the same process, the color has to 46:00match, and it can't be too big. It can't be a certain way. And I think the police department is very accommodating, to be honest with you. I am very proud of the NYPD for accommodating their member of the service and actually reflecting the city. And the city has different people from everywhere, and the department is trying to do, you know, match to the community they serve. Which is great.
STRONG: How do you think the NYPD or other law enforcement agencies in the citycan continue to improve?
NASSER: I think they have to realize that -- and as they did, NYPD did -- is welive in a multicultural city. And we live in a very, you know, it's open society, and it's people from all over the world. And they just have to realize that they have to -- they might have to change some of the things that we're accustomed to, for example, the uniform. You know, we can't stick to it, you 47:00know, like saying, "Oh, you can't wear a turban; you cannot wear a hijab." No, you know, as long as it doesn't affect the safety of the officers, then it should be. Understand what's -- what's the purpose? The purpose is to serve and to protect and make sure that everybody's safe. Have everyone to be part of this for safety reasons, meaning we cannot -- a police department themselves cannot, you know, address all the safety issues. We have to have partners. And I think the greatest partner is the communities that you serve, whether they're from East or West, whatever background they came from. They're here now, they live here, they're a part of this city, they're a part of this society, and we got to work with everyone. And as long as you have that in the back of your head, and as -- as the -- you know, as a police, then you'll succeed. If you think, you know, "It's us against them," then you lose. Because we're only 36,000 members 48:00of the service, and the community is over eight million people, so -- I think they'll win. I think you have to include everyone to serve everyone.
STRONG: So same question about the borough of Brooklyn. What do you hope for thefuture here? What do you hope for the people; what do you hope for --?
NASSER: To be honest with you, I think Brooklyn is home for me in a lot of ways.And when I think back -- I don't know why I'm choking [up] -- [laughter] That's weird. [pause] I know why. [clears throat] I think when I first came here, even though it was -- was strange and starting new, I felt as if it was home. And I 49:00used to think, "You know, I'm going to be working here for a couple of years. I'll get my education, make my money, then leave." But then it didn't take too long to realize this is home. This is what changed my life [for] the better. [clears throat] This is what I ma-- moved -- [clears throat]. Excuse me.
STRONG: Of course.
NASSER: I don't believe it. Wow. I guess I love New York. I love Brooklyn![laughter] Yeah. I mean, this is -- I mean, I -- I look at it, like, really more -- more than home. Um -- [pause] [sighs] this is where I met my wife. This is 50:00where I have my kids. This is where I lived most of my life. Even though I tried to live somewhere else. I think Brooklyn is -- is home for me. And I think it's going to continue to be home, even when I retire. Like I said, my son now is a police officer. And he serves in Brooklyn, so I think -- I think Brooklyn is part of us, as we are part of it. And I wish the best for Brooklyn. That's how I see it.
STRONG: We're right at an hour. [laughter]
NASSER: Are we? [laughter]
STRONG: We are.
NASSER: Okay, good. Wonderful.
STRONG: Thank you so much for your time --
STRONG: -- and for your stories. It -- it flew by.
STRONG: And -- yeah. I -- I wish you the best.
NASSER: Thank you.
STRONG: Thank you so much for coming in.
NASSER: Sure. My pleasure.
STRONG: Is there anything I should have asked you about or that we should have51:00talked about?
NASSER: No, I think we -- I think we did good. I mean, if anything else comes uplater on you could always ask me.
STRONG: Okay, great.
NASSER: Or stop by again.
STRONG: All right.
NASSER: All right?
STRONG: Well, take care. Thank you.
NASSER: Sure. Thank you.
NASSER: -- but I -- I looked at people that came from Yemen, and most of them --most of them are male, who immigrated here -- males, who immigrated here, and -- for the purpose of, you know, making it better for their families. So they will come here, stay for six months to a year, work seven days a week for 12 hours a day, save their money, and then go back to their families for a couple of months -- six months, a year -- and then come back again and do the same thing again. And I felt that they were living as strangers within the society and within the community. And that, to me, didn't make any sense. I said, "I don't want to live like this." It's like a bird, you know, you're traveling every now and then. 52:00You're never really settled. You -- you live between different worlds. And I didn't want that to happen to me. I wanted to be able to live with my family, steady, and make a better family. And, you know, the -- the commute back and forth didn't sit well with me in my head at that time. And I realized it early. 'Cause I think you live a stranger -- here and live a stranger back where you came from, if you keep to do that. And that made me realize that, you know, I need to settle and make the change. You know.
STRONG: When did you realize that Brooklyn was --
STRONG: -- home?
NASSER: Like I said, it didn't really take much. I think it was a few monthslater, once I, you know, got to meet people and speak to people who came here 53:00before me and what they do and how do you go about it and what they do. And the story of the stranger, like, you know, living here for some time, and then you stuck in the store for seven hours a -- I mean, seven days a week, 12 hours a day. And then you really don't know much. And I think -- you know, my -- my exposure to people who were living here for -- you know, traveling -- immigrated here years before me, and when I asked 'em about things -- and actually, that's what opened my mind to it, is I asked 'em about "Did you go to the World Trade Center? Did you go to Empire State Building?" And, you know, just touring the city. They don't know what it -- what I'm talking about. And I said, "Wait a second. So what do you do?"
So when they explained to me, like, you know, "We come here, we work 12 hours aday, seven days a week, and we save our money, and then we go back, spend time with our families, and we come back, and then we do the same thing again," I said, "That's not what I want." And it made me focus on my education. Went to 54:00school in the morning and worked at night, or vice versa. And I did this for a couple of years, all the way until I got myself, you know, together. And I realized, "You know what? I can't be living like stranger like this." Because you don't know anything about your society, you don't know anything about the community that you live in, and you don't know anything about your family. Because when you go to your family you're a stranger. After a year away, your kids don't remember you the same. Your kid's going to look at you like you're just a visitor. So I didn't want that to happen to me. And I decided this is going to be home for me.
STRONG: Did you have the opportunity to mentor anyone or help them makeconnections the way some of your family did for you?
NASSER: Actually, I had the opportunity to work with a lot of young people inthe community. And some individuals who came here and, you know, didn't know 55:00which -- which way to go. I used to get a lot of questions from people that I'd come across about "So, how were you able to become a police officer?" Especially when I -- after, you know, I became a police officer. That actually -- people look at you in a different way. And especially being a police officer in New York City. Said, "They allow you to be a police officer? I said, "Yeah. You allow yourself. That's the main thing. When you allow yourself to do things, you can do things." And a few people ask questions about "What do I need to do to become a police officer?" Or "What do I need to become -- to do to continue my education?" And there are a few people that obviously will tell 'em. And the other thing is a lot of young people that we dealt with through our outreach to the community -- I don't know if anybody talking about the -- some of the programs that we had. We had a lot of programs for the youth. We started a league for the -- you know, a soccer and a league for cricket. And those were 56:00programs that were focused on reaching out to the youth within the Muslim community. And that actually gave us an opportunity to work with a lot of youth in the community where some of them became police officers afterward through that interaction.
STRONG: That's really neat!
STRONG: You know, and as you were talking about just the workweek --
STRONG: -- and how hard people who come to Brooklyn work when they're firstgetting started, the Yemeni [American] Merchants Association was really active in Brooklyn too. Did you have any connection with them?
STRONG: Talk to me about that.
NASSER: I mean, they just organized recently --
NASSER: -- as an organization. Or they became -- as a -- you know, an activeorganization. But prior to that, individually -- I mean, you -- I came across a lot of the community where I actually did lectures on safety and fraud and scams and how to be aware of, you know, some of this cons that go on and on. So we did 57:00a lot of work with them as far as, you know, like, educating about, you know, what need to do. But a lot of them used to, you know, complain about people that come in and harass them, and "What can we do? Sometime we call the police, and the police don't show up." I said, "When you call the police, you have to give 'em the address, the location, what happened, if somebody has a weapon. You have to tell 'em -- 'cause when you call -- "I need 911 --" and you don't explain, it may take a little longer for them to come. But if you --"
So some of these little things, I mean, it doesn't really -- but for somebodywho was not familiar what to say and what to do, especially immigrants, it could be, you know, a difference between having a response right away or a response to come to take care of it later on. So some of the things that we did with the community is educate them, "This is what you need to do: one, two, three." Explain and -- and -- you know, in a language they understand. You know, we spoke to them in their language, and it does, you know -- it goes a long way, to 58:00have somebody who speak to you as a law enforcement who understand you, understand your culture, understand your language, and what's need to be done in order for you to get, you know, attention. But I think there's a huge difference between the community that -- like I said, prior to having officers who would speak their language to now. I mean, they're more active, they're more engaged, and I think they're more organized. The community itself. And I think it takes -- just like everything else. Every community goes through a process, where, for the Arab community, the Muslim community, when we started, I mean, there were things that -- foreign to us. Even though we here it's foreign to us, because we're not familiar with these things. As the new generation comes up and -- and, you know, go to school, goes through a process of assimilating and becoming 59:00aware of your city and what do you need to do and what has to be done, I don't know, you can see it. You can see in the community. The community's more organized; they're more aware; they're more involved. And it's a positive thing. You know, it's a win-win for the -- everyone. The -- the Arab and the Muslim community, I think became better, became better citizens. And it's for the benefit of all of us.
STRONG: When you say "better citizens," do you mean in terms of --?
STRONG: Involvement, organized --
STRONG: -- what about cultural institutions?
NASSER: Yes. Yes. Cultural institution. I mean, they have organizations; theyhave opportunities. I think back in the '80s when I came here, I mean, there was no such thing as the Arab American Family [Support] Center where you go to and they have, you know, ESL classes; they have programs, employment opportunities. All these things makes a difference. So now I think as the community organizes 60:00more and more, it's better for -- for the community. So if they had that when I came here, it would have been great. [laughter] But I'm glad now that it's happening. And it's -- and it's a positive thing.
STRONG: Any advice that you would send yourself back in time if you could?
NASSER: Yeah. Join the police department earlier. [laughter] I would haveretired already. [laughter] Yeah. But it was great. I mean, it was -- it was a good thing. And I'm glad I did.
NASSER: And -- yeah. That's all I could say to myself. I mean, I don't know whatelse to say to myself. 'Cause -- think -- not to blow my own horn -- I think I did all right for myself -- so far. And I'm glad I have my boys doing all right, my wife, my family doing good. And we live in this beautiful city. And we feel 61:00like we're home.
NASSER: I have to say, my kids always remind me, [laughter] "We're fromBrooklyn." So can't argue with that.
STRONG: What's -- what do you think is the difference between your generationand your kids, where your kids are sort of born and raised Brooklyn and you are, you know, claiming Brooklyn --
STRONG: -- partway through life?
NASSER: I think the -- they're better off. But I think I have more passion forit. 'Cause I decided to come here. I decided to make a home, where they were born, and this is their home. I think for me to make that decision and then to claim it, it means a lot. And it's big. It's a life-changing decision. I mean, you -- that's it. I came here. I decided to be here and stay here and make it. Where for -- for my kids, even though this is their home, they were born to it, 62:00and they feel entitled to it. But for me I had to fight for it. I mean, there's a difference.
STRONG: Yeah. I could talk to you all afternoon, but I want to be respectful[laughter] of your time.
NASSER: Thank you very much. I appreciate it.
STRONG: So, once again thank you and take care. I guess I'll be in touch.
Oral History Interview with Ahmed Nasser
Ahmed Nasser was born in 1966 in the village of Almayanah in Yemen. He immigrated to the United States in 1986 and settled in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. He worked in family-owned restaurants and earned undergraduate degrees with New York City College of Technology in Brooklyn and Baruch College in Manhattan before joining the New York City Police Department (NYPD) in 2000. As a detective and member of the Community Affairs Bureau, he worked to improve communication between Muslim immigrant communities and the NYPD in the years following the September 11 Terrorist Attacks in 2001. He also cofounded the American Muslim Law Enforcement Officers Association in 2001 and the NYPD Muslim Officers Society in 2004.
In this interview, Ahmed Nasser speaks extensively about his career as a Muslim detective in the New York City Police Department (NYPD), which he joined in 2000. He elaborates on his work to build relationships between law enforcement and Muslim immigrant communities across the city, especially following the September 11 Terrorist Attacks in 2001. In addition, he talks about educating his fellow police officers about Islam and his efforts to secure accommodations surrounding religious customs and practices for Muslims serving in the NYPD. He also touches on his family, immigration to the United States, and attachment to 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.
CitationNasser, Ahmed, Oral history interview conducted by Liz H. Strong, September 18, 2018, Muslims in Brooklyn oral histories, 2018.006.40; Brooklyn Historical Society.
- American Muslim Law Enforcement Officers Association
- Nasser, Ahmed
- New York (N.Y.). Police Department. Muslim Officers Society
- Police-community relations
- Religion in the workplace
- September 11 Terrorist Attacks, 2001
- Brooklyn (New York, N.Y.)
- Brooklyn Heights (New York, N.Y.)
- Red Hook (New York, N.Y.)
Finding AidMuslims in Brooklyn oral histories