For Arab-Americans living in Brooklyn, stigmatizing post-9/11 attitudes toward their community are slowly improving again, say several residents. But still others say there’s still a long way to go.
The , located at 150 Court Street in Cobble Hill, serves as the community’s nucleus, dealing with issues across the board from helping new immigrants assimilate to providing SAT prep classes for teens. The center opened its doors 17 years ago as a resource for the local Arab immigrant community, but since 9/11 it has served as the face—and voice—of a diverse group sometimes lumped together into one negative stereotype.
“Our job is to dispel that stereotype,” the center’s executive director Lena Alhusseini said. “We’re very active in talking about who we are and what we believe. There’s still a lot of ignorance and fear out there.”
As the largest Arabic-speaking social service agency in New York, the center offers six primary programs: preventive services like family counseling, domestic violence intervention and counseling, adult education and English as a Second Language courses, an after-school youth program, healthcare referrals and legal services. They see more than 4,000 individuals annually from all five boroughs. All the services are free, funded annually through several public and private grants. And staff members are quick to note that their services are available to anyone who comes in, Arab or not.
Arab immigrants have settled in South Brooklyn for decades. In particular, is home to a vibrant string of Middle Eastern halal shops, restaurants, bookstores and a barbershop.
The center has seen a notable increase in cultural clashes with other communities in the decade since 9/11, said Alhusseini. One of their staff members was the victim of a hate crime in 2004 when a man pulled a knife on him and started yelling anti-Muslim slurs. Another staff member had her Islamic headscarf pulled off her head while she walked down the street.
In terms of its clients, the center has heard from several women who’ve been visited by New York police during the day seeking information on their husbands who weren’t home. Families who send money to relatives in their home countries have been questioned by law enforcement officers suspicious they were wiring money to terrorist groups.
In particular, the center has seen several women decide to stop wearing their Islamic headscarves to avoid stares and whispers of people who don’t realize the head covering is a personal choice, rather than oppression by men.
“I think things have changed and gotten better, but there’s still a long way to go,” Yasmeen Hamza, director of preventive and domestic violence services at the center, said. “I think it’s changing slowly but there’s still that stigma.”
Others’ worlds have barely changed since 9/11. Anas Moustapha, owner of at 170 Atlantic Ave., has been in the neighborhood for 16 years. In that time, he says, residents’ attitudes toward him and the Arab community have remained the same: friendly. On a recent Saturday he greeted longstanding customers—Arab and non-Arab alike—with hugs.
“New York is a melting pot,” said Moustapha, who is originally from Syria. “It’s not like some small town in the Midwest where people associated us with terrorists after 9/11.”
But the opening and subsequent closure of Khalil Gibran International Academy, a New York City public school affiliated with the center, shows that the ‘Arab terrorist’ stereotype permeates a city still hurting from the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
The middle school, which was not religiously affiliated, opened in 2007 as the first Arab-English school in the country and one of nearly 70 dual-language schools in New York. It first opened in Boerum Hill, then moved to Fort Greene, and has dealt with protests calling it a ‘madrassa’ teaching extremist religion. It’s as a high school in Boerum Hill at the current site of Metropolitan Corporate Academy on Schermerhorn Street.
The post-9/11 backlash against Muslims has brought some unexpected, but very welcome, changes for Arab-Americans in the area, said Alhusseini. A diverse community from different Middle Eastern countries has bonded together against discrimination. The attacks were an opportunity to join other cultural and religious organizations—Asian, European, Christian—to promote inter-cultural understanding.
“We’ve had a few people come in here and offer to walk with women who wear the hijab so they won’t be stared at,” Alhusseini said. “You really see the best in people in times like this.”
The center works hard to stay visible in the community and increase awareness that Arab-Americans come from all different countries, religions and walks of life. They often hold cultural workshops at hospitals, schools, police departments and courthouses. The hope is that awareness will bring peace and understanding in the wake of the attacks.
“A lot of it is about education,” Hamza said. “It’s getting people to realize we’re just like everybody else.”