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From Yemen to Coney Island; From Teacher to Community Activist


Those who give their time freely to the “We Are All Brooklyn” cause have been working for peace in many ways. Larry Clamage found one such individual, who brings people of all different faiths and cultures together through both her community activism and her professional career.

TV report transcript

DEBBIE ALMONTASER

“My name is Debbie Almontaser. I am an educator as well as a community activist. The past five years, I’ve been residing in Midwood, Brooklyn, in the Coney Island Avenue area of Brooklyn—which is a very diverse community, you know: Christians, Jews, Pakistanis, Muslims, Indians, people from all over the world. But after September 11th, this very diverse community had fallen apart.

So, I left my job as a classroom teacher, took a leave of absence, to do Islam sensitivity training; Arab culture training, as well as presentations at churches, synagogues, community based organizations…wherever there was a need.

There was such animosity and fear, that it was important for me to help people understand who Arabs, Muslims and South Asians were.

Looking at my own personal family, each and every one of us had this horrible thing called racism and discrimination happen to us because we are Arab and Muslim. It affected us, my husband and I, but the way that it affected my children was much more. It was devastating for them to think that some of our neighbors hated us so much. Not only did we feel hated, but we also felt fear.

I remember it was September 18th, that I had to come into the city to go to CBS studios for a quick interview. And people on that train were looking at me… People would look at my hijob and look at the size of my bag and the way I’m holding it. It was just a very uncomfortable feeling to have all eyes on you, treating you like you’re a criminal.

And it was then that I realized that people, the first thing they see is a Muslim woman. They don’t see a woman who had been here all her life, who is an American as apple pie. And it was very difficult for me to be seen in that light…that I’m recognized first for a religious background rather than for an individual.

The fear and the hysteria that was existing within our community also existed in our schools. There were a few family members of either teachers or parents who died on September 11th. The Arab and Muslim and South Asian communities really feared having their kids go to school. So, they kept their kids home for weeks on end.

Children didn’t understand who their peers were, only what they’ve heard and read about through the media.

In the midst of all this I realize there was a great need to develop a sense of understanding within our schools, to really better treat them as peers rather than enemies or kids to fear.

So, we were fortunate to get the Christian Children’s Fund to pay me a part-time salary. I was able to work part-time and also do this work for free in our schools.

I did this through a great deal of workshops with teachers and students as well as with families, where we looked at ourselves as individuals and shared our own personal stories in order to understand and develop a sense of respect for the culture of the other.

Through this training, we broke these barriers, where we started to make people feel comfortable to be a part of the bigger community.

And out of this we organized interfaith events around issues of discrimination, bias, etc.

And you know, those issues do come up of people feeling solidarity with Israel or people feeling solidarity with Palestinians -- but people are strong enough not to let their views be acted out in the United States. They understand that they have a lot to lose.

The Coney Island area is really a living testimony that people are working quite hard to accommodate their neighbors.

One perfect example is the peace walk—over 200 people walking side-by-side together to bear witness that people of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim background can co-exist in peace.

To see this unique diversity and people being able to coexist in a community is quite amazing. People of all different faiths and cultures can live together. I think it’s really beautiful.

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