x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

'Intifada high' struggles for acceptance

Despite its secular educational philosophy, a New York public school that teaches Arabic has been accused of promoting Islamist values.

Lena Alhusseini, director of the Arab American Family Support Center, crosses the street ouside the organisation's office in  New York.
Lena Alhusseini, director of the Arab American Family Support Center, crosses the street ouside the organisation's office in New York.

NEW YORK // Lena Alhusseini laughs when she remembers a couple of years ago being called a "jihadist" who was supposedly bent on violence to impose Sharia law in the United States. Her main crime in the eyes of her opponents, including some prominent Jewish American campaigners, was to support the creation of a public school focused on the Arabic language in New York City. But since the Khalil Gibran International Academy opened its doors almost two years ago, the attacks have calmed down, she said. "The whole controversy was manufactured and it got very nasty," said Ms Alhusseini, the executive director of the Arab American Family Support Centre, which provides social services and was a founding partner in the non-religious school. "But we still opened the school and that was the best way to reply to the attackers." Although there are private schools offering instruction in Arabic, the Khalil Gibran academy was the first public school in New York to do so and it falls under the supervision of the city's education department, which strictly supervises the separation of church and state and ensures the public curriculum is followed. The school's website says its aims are "to foster an understanding of different cultures, a love of learning and a desire for excellence". These goals are what "our president is asking us to [strive to achieve], so it's a perfect fit", said Ms Alhusseini, referring to Barack Obama. But two years ago when planning was under way, the school was targeted by a small but vocal group of protesters led by Daniel Pipes, who heads the Middle East Forum, a conservative research group that also runs Campus Watch, which has targeted professors around the country for their supposed anti-Israel and pro-Islam bias. Even though the Khalil Gibran academy was named after the Christian Lebanese poet in order to emphasise the school's focus on Arabic culture, protesters claimed the real goal was to disseminate Islamist ideologies. The opposition was taken up in the media, particularly by the New York Post tabloid, which printed a front-page article in 2007 accusing Debbie Almontaser, the school's principal, of having ties to a group that produced T-shirts with the slogan "Intifada NYC". She was forced to resign before the school even opened and has filed a lawsuit against the city. Ms Almontaser and the education department would not comment on the lawsuit or the academy, which would not allow The National to visit, mainly to protect the pupils' privacy. The school was dubbed "intifada high" by the New York Post, which closely covered its turbulent first year during which pupils were reportedly unruly and badly disciplined. The school had since calmed down and was on track for expansion, said Ms Alhusseini. "I had to send in some of my counsellors during the first year because the children were traumatised by the whole controversy and all the reporters hanging around outside," she said. "Things are much better now and we've had 1,700 students put their name down for 90 places next year." The school currently teaches children aged 11 and 12, grade six and seven, and it plans to add a grade each year up to grade 12. The current mix of pupils is about 15 per cent of Arab heritage and the rest are from a wide variety of backgrounds. The goal of 40 per cent with an Arab background should be reached in the academic year starting in September, said Ms Alhusseini. She emphasised that the school had received backing from the wider community, including Jewish American groups. "Daniel Pipes is not representative and we've had support from the Anti Defamation League, Jews for Peace, all sorts of groups," she said. "There are many Jewish Americans who speak Arabic and understand what we're trying to do." There has also been some opposition from conservative Muslim Americans to the school and the wider work of the Brooklyn-based Arab American Family Support Center, which provides a wide variety of health and social services, including helping Arab and Muslim victims of domestic violence. "Some people say we tell women to get divorced but our priority is safety as well as the well-being of the family," said Ms Alhusseini, 44, who is part of Jerusalem's aristocratic Husseini family, which has historic ties to the Dome of the Rock. She was born in Jerusalem and has lived in Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Jordan, where she established the child protection unit for Queen Rania's Jordan River Foundation. "Domestic violence is the number one cause of homicide among women not just here in the United States but across the Middle East," she said. "Here, what often happens is that new immigrants end up being much more conservative than they are back home. "We try to act as a bridge and translate cultural expectations. People feel we understand because we act as their advocate and try to open their eyes to new things." She was thankful there had been no cases of "honour killings" in the city. Sometimes families would rush a girl back home if they felt her honour was at stake and force her into marriage and there was nothing her organisation could do, she said. "Obama's talk of change is helping enormously and comes as we're starting to see a different outlook from Saudi Arabia to Morocco, particularly in terms of women's rights," she said. "It's definitely a good time to be in the US." sdevi@thenational.ae