Pushing for Eid Holidays at Schools, Muslim Voters Want More Than Promises

The rise of Muslim political involvement earns them respect with Bill de Blasio’s promise to have school days off on major Muslim holidays and the community such as Astoria restores hope crashed by the Bloomberg administration.

The newly elected New York City mayor took a very different stand on the demands of religious and ethnic groups than his predecessor. Muslims can now expect Eid al-Fitr, the end of Ramadan, and Eid al-Adha, the celebration of sacrifice, to be officially added onto public school calendars in the foreseeable future. This was an effort made by the Muslim community that Bloomberg refused to recognize for as long as seven years.

“The first press conference came up seven years ago right here in front of the mosque and it was my daughter protesting,” said Ahmed Jamil, Muslim American Society (MAS) outreach director in Astoria, Queens. “How could you give a very important test on a religious holiday?”


MAS Center, Astoria, Queens

That was the question that the Muslim community had for the New York City Department of Education in 2006 when a mandatory statewide test for third to fifth grades was scheduled during Eid al-Adha. Similar occasion happened when a specialized high school test was schedule right after the Muslim celebration. Many Muslim students, like Jamil’s daughter, chose not to attend the exam with the support of their parents and local organizations such as MAS.

“People have to choose between education and family, religion. It was very hard,” said Jamil. “So we started the campaign and had 83 organizations to protest against the Department of Education. We passed the resolution and Bloomberg promised us to sign the law, but he did not.”

That was during New York City’s mayoral election year of 2009 when the resolution passed the senate and was shot down by Bloomberg. He explained to ensure kids are getting more education not less, which would a result of having school days off for religious holidays in a diverse city like New York.

As one of the headquarters of MAS in Astoria, the Masjid Dar Al-Dawah responded by encouraging its members to be more politically active. They collaborate to speak out for Muslim kids that comprise 13% of the entire public school enrollment in New York City.

According to the NYC Department of Education 2013-2014 School Year Calendar, public schools are closed for two Jewish holidays, Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) and Passover; and two Christian holidays, Good Friday and Easter. Supporters in Astoria say adding Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha to the existing 13 holidays per school year is not likely to compromise the minimum of 180 school days that the State Education Department requires. They say the two Muslim holidays run according to the lunar calendar and are very likely to fall on weekends or existing school holidays.

According to MAS, the resolution that they submitted to senate in 2009 and the current campaign are not restricted to the Muslim community. Other communities have raised their voices for school days off on holidays such as the Chinese New Year and Dawali along with the Muslims in the 2013 mayoral election.

“Being part of the larger community doesn’t mean you lose your identity. That’s the bigger challenge for any minorities, any religious communities, it doesn’t matter,” added Jamil. “But we did specify the eid holidays in the city council resolution.”

According to Imam Abdulhalim at Masjid Dar Al-Dawah, leaders of the mosque communicated with mayoral candidates this year and received promises from both De Blasio and Lhota on recognizing Muslim holidays. MAS organized voter registration workshops and other events.


Masjid Dar Al-Dawah, Astoria, Queens

In the meantime, numbers of politically involved Muslims increased citywide featuring organizations such as New York Muslim Voter and Information Club and the newly found Muslim Democratic Club as of earlier this year. They gained the attention from both the politicians and the media in response with the coverage of Muslim rally and politicians opening supporting their demands.

“The community outreach was succeeded very much to have the largest registered Muslim voters for the mayor candidate in the history in New York City, this mayor candidate [De Blasio],” said Jamil.


The Muslim community slowly came to the realization that participation in the political process would help raising their voices and gaining attention for issues that they had in mind.

“We want to show that the community has effects on voting,” said Moustafa Rahman, owner of an Egyptian restaurant called Mombar in Astoria. “When we don’t vote, they won’t know we exist and they won’t care about us. And they don’t come to ask what the city can do for you.”


Members of MAS also aim to bridge between Muslims and the larger community to gain understanding and respect, especially for the kids.

“Some of them think this is something we shouldn’t talk about in the public school. We make them feel more confident with their Muslim identity,” said Sama Sobih, assistant principle of MAS youth program in Astoria. “No problem to be Americans but in the same time, to have a religion is not wrong. We try to let them see themselves as both.”

Public schools are being more aware of the Muslim holidays but existing policies show otherwise.

“They actually announced on the speaker right before the holiday that ‘tomorrow most of our Muslim kids are not going to be here because they are celebrating a holiday’”, said Farouk Rahman, the 11-year-old son of the Mombar restaurant owner. “But next day, they sent my dad an email saying I’m one day absent. They don’t mark me absent when I’m sick though.”

“To have this implemented, that’s our next step,” said Jamil. “Until it’s signed, it’s still a promise.”

Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief - Xue Yu (Alice)

Hero Without A Home, Still

On the ground of where a home once stood on Midland Avenue is a white tent that has become a local provider for this patch of Staten Island, still struggling to survive almost a year after Sandy. Residents of the neighborhood visit daily for not only food, but also support.

Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief - Xue Yu (Alice)

By Xue Yu (Alice): Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief

The tent is the base of Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief, a non-profit group founded by Aiman Youseff. He built this tent on the wreckage of his house to be a food hub right after Hurricane Sandy. A year later, it is the only one of its kind standing strong and providing food and supplies for the community seven days a week and 12 to 16 hours every day. After big-name organizations and non-profit groups, such as Occupy Sandy and the Red Cross, left Staten Island, Sandy victims here had nobody but local organizations like Youseff’s food hub.

Relying heavily on local donations the hub gives out hot meals, food, supplies, household needs, clothes, furniture, books, and more to anyone in need. Volunteers here also do referral services for people who need counseling. At least 150 families stop by the hub to get their necessities every day.

Donated Food at Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief - Xue Yu (Alice)

By Xue Yu (Alice): Donated Food at Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief

Donated Clothes at Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief - Xue Yu (Alice)

By Xue Yu (Alice): Donated Clothes at Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief

“Everything’s donated. People ride by, they see us, and they donate the clothes and the food. We even got a Christmas tree called ‘Hope,’” said John Childs, one of the head volunteers of Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief. “This man is like he’s unreal. He saves people. He’s doing everything he can. But donation is what we need.”

Volunteers say the number of visitors coming to the food hub has increased recently. They say it is because more people are starting to move back to their Staten Island homes. But, a lot of the visitors are trying to juggle work and fixing their homes. For people choosing between earning a paycheck and fixing their homes, the existence of the Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief is a big help for residents.

For Katrina Zeli, a Staten Island Sandy victim and a mother, the food hub has been a lifeline.

“We need diapers and wipes,” said Zeli, as she asks Childs at the food hub for size 3 diapers. “That’s the most expensive thing.”

Horse Riding at Sandy’s Halloween Hope - Xue Yu (Alice)

By Xue Yu (Alice): Horse Riding at Sandy’s Halloween Hope

Pumpkin Picking at Sandy’s Halloween Hope - Xue Yu (Alice)

By Xue Yu (Alice): Pumpkin Picking at Sandy’s Halloween Hope

Besides providing for the community, Youseff and his group also make constant efforts to bring people together with the help and collaboration from other local Staten Island organizations. This past weekend it hosted a Halloween event, Sandy’s Halloween Hope, trying to make up for the loss of Halloween celebrations for kids last year due to the storm.

The event served about 500 children in the neighborhood. The Episcopal Diocese of New York distributed 250 brand new winter coats for children. A long-time donator of the hub and sponsor of this event, Project Hospitality, provided supplies including food, a horse for children’s horseback riding, pumpkins, and 500 to 1,000 new toys and candy bags. Both Project Hospitality and the hub are members of the Staten Island Community and Interfaith Long-Term Recovery Organization.

Handing Out Toy and Candy Bags at Sandy’s Halloween Hope - Xue Yu (Alice)

By Xue Yu (Alice): Handing Out Toy and Candy Bags at Sandy’s Halloween Hope

“The grassroots are really taking charge. It’s like Aiman’s hub that’s helping people. Some dude who lost his house that dedicated everyday of his life 12 hours a day for a year to doing stuff like this,” said Karen Jackson, minister for social justice of Project Hospitality.

Jackson believes that the hub is more important than just serving food.

“Nobody helps so far. I signed up for Build It Back, Salvation Army, Red Cross. They don’t do anything. You call them and you talk to them. And you don’t hear back from them again. They say they will get in touch with you,” said Glenys Borg, a Sandy victim in Staten Island, a grandma of four kids and a daily visitor of the food hub. “[Aiman’s group] gave me stuff. It’s good. Yes, I still need it,” said Borg. “Because you know what, I had some rentals but they all got damaged. So my income went down to zero and I still had bills. I have to go into debt. I just hate to think about it.”

Staten Island Residents Gathering Outside Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief - Xue Yu (Alice)

By Xue Yu (Alice): Staten Island Residents Gathering Outside Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief

The hub becomes a communal space of psychological support for Staten Island residents.

“If I didn’t have this volunteering, my depression would be over the roof,” said Christopher Oliva, a Staten Island Sandy victim and volunteer at the hub, who has struggled with clinical depression before Sandy. “This place runs on love and sharing. This is an example of actual human positivity in effect. Half of us don’t even know each other’s name, but we come here and we are a family.”

Youseff will be moving into an apartment soon. His Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief will stay at the same location where his old house was. He is now applying to make the hub a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization. He hopes that donations can keep coming and grants can become available once the process is completed.

“I said that last hot meal will be served [on anniversary of Sandy], because I promised God one year of my life and now I am giving him all my life,” said Youseff. “I’m going to continue to do so until everybody goes back to their homes. And then with a new mission to make my community better, stronger, safer, and do a disaster relief in all the states.”

Aiman Youseff, Founder of Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief - Xue Yu (Alice)

By Xue Yu (Alice): Aiman Youseff, Founder of Midland Avenue Neighborhood Relief

Originally published at: http://nyunewsdoc.com/2013/10/30/hero-without-a-home-still/

Astoria Resident Signing Petition to Saving Steinway Mansion - Xue Yu (Alice)

Friends of Steinway Mansion Gains Support Through Music for Music

Steinway Mansion, Astoria, Queens - Xue Yu (Alice)

By Xue Yu (Alice): Steinway Mansion, Astoria, Queens

One interested buyer of the historic Steinway Mansion is backing up its plan of savior with support of residents, artists, and local businesses in Astoria, Queens. The Friends of Steinway Mansion (FoSM) is sponsoring a music festival that will run through November as they try to not only raise awareness about the mansion but the funds to buy it.

Steinway Mansion for Sale - Xue Yu (Alice)

By Xue Yu (Alice): Steinway Mansion for Sale

“Let me tell you the beautiful idea that I have for the mansion,” said Bob Singleton, the Executive Director of Greater Astoria Historical Society (GAHS), who founded FoSM earlier this year to lead a fundraising effort to save the mansion. “It is a place where we will teach the future how to build and to sail great ships. Ships are yourself, your ideas, your dream, and what you can do. It is a place where many people from different backgrounds can take something from the Steinway epic that they understand and can use it to inspire themselves to go forward in their lives.”

The mansion has been on the market for several years now ever since Michael Halberian, the former owner, passed away in 2010. The entire property, consisting of seven lots, is listed for sale as one piece of land for $3.2 million, a price its current realtor has set for six consecutive months. Paul Halvatzis, the property’s broker, has seen price reductions though of the property over the years with different realtors. Interested buyers have come to him with various plans for the mansion, many of which envisioned the property not just as a private home but also as a public space.

DeeAnne Gorman Performing at FoSM Music Fest - Xue Yu (Alice)

By Xue Yu (Alice): DeeAnne Gorman Performing at FoSM Music Fest

“The exterior is landmarked. The interior is not. It was built in 1858 and maintained. But someone will probably have to spend several hundred thousand for renovation,” said Halvatzis.

FoSM is dedicated to purchasing the property as a whole, renovating it, and preserving its rich history. Located at 18-33 41st St. in Astoria, the mansion is famous for being the former home of the Steinways from 1870 to 1926. The now very busy and commercial Steinway Street was named after William Steinway, who bought the house, created a neighborhood for his workers and relocated his now internally respected piano factory.

“Nationally, people know Steinway pianos, but living in Queens, people are like ‘we have a mansion?’ Because it was a private home for so long. So our fear is, if this house falls into the wrong hands, they can destroy the inside,”said DeeAnne Gorman, a vocalist, poet, performer and a member of FoSM who performed for the Music Fest.

Members of FoSM and the GAHS see the mansion as a treasure not only for musicians but also for Americans overall.

“The Steinways represent the American story because they are immigrants. They came to America to make their fortune and they built the best pianos right here in New York City. That’s like the American dream,” said Rosalie Kenny, fundraiser of FoSM. “And they are still here to this day, 143 years later, still making pianos here in Astoria. That’s the story we are telling.”

By having local musicians, such as Gorman, and their live performances at Astoria restaurants and bars, the Music Fest works as just one part of the whole plan to raise awareness and funds for the mansion. The FoSM set up raffle ticket sales with donated gift certificates by local businesses and held a petition signing during the events.

Astoria Resident Signing Petition to Saving Steinway Mansion - Xue Yu (Alice)

By Xue Yu (Alice): Astoria Resident Signing Petition to Saving Steinway Mansion

“I like the idea where businesses participate in their communities and being hands-on supporters in making it a great neighborhood.” said Tina Stipanovic, the owner of Rest-au-Rant, a venue of the music fest as well as a gift certificate contributor. “Because if it’s a great neighborhood, it’s frankly great for the business too.”

FoSM aims to get community support on board and urges people to write to their politicians, according to Elisabeth McAleer, GAHS volunteer who manages the FoSM website and PR. McAleer and other members of FoSM share the belief that donations and governmental support are key to saving the mansion.

“We are waiting for election season to end. Then we will find out who’s actually going to help us,” said Kenny. “Once we buy it, I’m really excited to start working on foundation grants because there’s a lot of money for restoring historic houses, reserve historic landmark buildings like this one is.”

The Artisans Guild of America, a partnering organization, has proposed using the mansion’s as a workshop teaching fellow artists historical woodworking and restoration. FoSM also envisions the mansion to be a stage for musicians and Steinway piano artists to performance, said McAleer.

FoSM Music Fest Schedule - Xue Yu (Alice)

By Xue Yu (Alice): FoSM Music Fest Schedule

FoSM Banner at Astoria Local Restaurant - Xue Yu (Alice)

By Xue Yu (Alice): FoSM Banner at Astoria Local Restaurant












“We like the idea. It is also a beautiful architectural piece,” said Cee Fate, lyricist and lead vocals with One Hot Second band, who will be performing at a FoSM Music Fest event on Oct. 31. “Also, with the city losing many of its historic music performance spaces such as CBGB’s, Roseland Ballroom and arts spaces such as 5 Pointz, it is important to preserve something as culturally significant as the Steinway Mansion.”

While Astoria artists hope their support of the Steinway Mansion with the Music Fest will help immediately boost the neighborhood’s growing art scene and music night life, the dream would be to turn the mansion into a a possible music museum.

“I mean what’s not to love about that possibility. Astoria has becoming very hot with the arts. More and more artists are moving here. I really think it’s the next Dumbo,” said Gorman. “Real estate is so packed in New York City and the fact that we have a mansion on a hill that you can walk to from the subway. This is a treasure for New York.”

The founder of FoSM sees himself leading far more than a fundraiser event or a renovation project.

“The Steinway Mansion represents another dimension of New York,” said Singleton. “It represents a place where we sleep in the cradle of creativity. It represents that we live at the addresses of ideas. It is a place that represents the spirit of the New York City epic. I want the public to look at it and to listen. That’s it.”

Originally published at: http://nyunewsdoc.com/2013/10/26/friends-of-steinway-mansion-gains-support-through-music-for-music/

Green Cabs in Astoria - Xue Yu (Alice)

Yellow for Manhattan? Now Green for Outer Boroughs

When people think about cabs in New York City, they relate to the color yellow on Manhattan streets. Now as new green cabs start popping up in the boroughs the hope is that the color green will also come to mind.

Green Cabs in Astoria - Xue Yu (Alice)

By Xue Yu (Alice): A Green Cab in Astoria

The new type of cabs, officially called Street Hail Livery (SHL), were passed into New York State law and have been cruising streets since June. These licensed vehicles are painted in apple green and can be legally hailed, just like the yellow cabs. The goal is to ensure taxi services for outer borough communities, including Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx, Staten Island and north of East 96th Street and West 110th Street in Manhattan, but not the airports. Without directly competing with the existing yellow cabs, this new type of taxi is starting slow but gradually gaining popularity.

“A lot of applications. Look at all these appointment emails that I just received today,” said Kadir Kham, owner of Bangla Car & Limo Service Inc., by pointing at his email inbox on his computer screen referring to hopeful green cab drivers.

Kham is one of the first to get a base license for his company in Astoria, Queens, and now has 25 green cabs registered and 50 to 60 new drivers waiting for the process. Similarly, Tahir Mian, the owner of American Dream Car Service Inc., another licensed SHL base in Astoria, is expecting a wave of green cab drivers in two months, once applications and utility preparation are done. They are part of a fast-growing group of 106 newly licensed SHL bases and 3342 licensed green cab drivers that joined the new system in the first four months. According to the NYC Taxi & Limousine Commission (TLC), only 6,000 green cab drivers’ licenses will be issued each year until it reaches 18,000 (See chart). Mian and Kham both agree that the green cabs are starting to have influence on the industry.

SHL Permits - Xue Yu (Alice)

“People like [the green cabs] because it’s cheap and safer. No more bargaining, go by meter,” said Kham. “Black [cars] are affected a lot. Now they cannot pick up on the street.” In fact the creation of the green cab system has increased the fines the city is giving livery drivers for illegal hails which was common practice in the boroughs. “I gave my old [black car] drivers notice, ‘don’t go without any calls’. A lot of TLC come out and [are] giving tickets, big penalty, $1,500 and $1,000 tickets.” It is just one reason Kham is encouraging his old black car drivers to apply for green car permits.

Green cabs have the same rates, layout and system as the traditional yellow cabs, such as GPS requirements, meters, and credit card machines. The green ones also have more freedom than the traditional black livery cars because besides hails they can also be called for like the old black cars.

So far the green cabs, with their cheaper permits, have been able to attract a large number of new applicants and old drivers wanting to switch. According to NYC TLC, one SHL permit for the green cabs costs $1,500 during the first year, $3,000 for second year, $4,500 for third year and after, and is valid for 3 years (see chart). There are also a maximum of $15,000 grant incentives for drivers to buy a wheel chair accessible green cab. Under the law, 20 percent of the new green cabs must be wheelchair accessible.

SHL Permits Vs. Yellow Medallion - Xue Yu (Alice)

Although the permits for green cabs are much cheaper than yellow medallions, for now drivers are facing challenges to get passengers because of how new the system is. One new green cab driver, Helnando Capada spent a lot of his first two weeks explaining to people what the green cars were and had on average 5 to 7 passengers per day. Another new driver Singh Tarcem echoed Capada’s experience in his first week but was confident “it would get better” once people got it.

“It’s funny I think I have seen them but I didn’t know what they were. And it was my sister who told me about those green cars,” said Carol Longobucco on the street in Astoria. “She really liked the idea of it because she doesn’t have a car and she goes to school in the city. And people are concerned about getting into the gypsy cabs.”

Like Longobucco, most people in Astoria had seen the green cabs on the street but did not know the difference from a yellow cab. However, they were mostly excited about the new form of transportation that’s made available to them.

“People just have to get used to it,” said Kham. “In a few more years, they will know the price and everything.” Kahn praised the program for the boroughs. “It’s good for the community, no downside.”

Originally published at: http://nyunewsdoc.com/2013/10/10/yellow-for-manhattan-now-green-for-outer-boroughs/

By Xue Yu (Alice): Vacant Store on Broadway, Astoria

Astoria Grows Younger, Old Shops Take the Hit

As Astoria, the “backyard” for Manhattan, becomes home to more and more younger residents longtime local businesses are getting caught in between hiking rents and blooming new shops.

By Xue Yu (Alice): Stores on Broadway, Astoria

By Xue Yu (Alice): Stores on Broadway, Astoria

“Everybody would say it’s becoming an issue because we can’t raise the prices according to how the rent is going up,” said Charlie Georgiou, the owner of City Cleaners, a 20-year-old store on Broadway. “Too much competition because everybody is trying to pay the rent.”

Some longtime business had to relocate within the neighborhood in search for more affordable rents.

“We just recently moved around February. The store itself has been on that location for 50 years with different ownership,” said Gary Zepp, the owner of D & F Italian Deli. “We moved because of better rates, better rent, longer leases and stability.” Zepp said his rent has been going up 5 or 6 percent a year before he moved.

Astoria’s rising popularity with younger people has caused landlords to raise rents. According to the last census, 40.7 percent of Astoria’s population is between 25 and 44 years old. As a result, the owners of older shops saw more and more shops like themselves closing down. The restaurant next to Michael’s Restaurant on Broadway was recently closed as well as the store next to Broadway Silk Store, which has been closed for 2 years.

Queens Community District 1 Demographic Profile-Xue Yu (Alice)

Chart based on data from New York City Department of City Planning

By Xue Yu (Alice): Vacant Store on Broadway, Astoria

White described Astoria as a convenient 10-minute travel for younger people, especially those who are single or just had a family from Manhattan. It is also a neighborhood of 24 hours.

According to the NYC Department of Planing, 1-2 person households are predominant among tenants in Astoria (See chart 1 below). These two types of households were the only two that saw increases from 2000 to 2010 (See chart 2 below).

“Because there’s so much youth in the neighborhood that you see more new shops opening up,” said Zepp. “If you don’t want to pay the rent, maybe somebody else will come here and open up a trendy café or a restaurant that the youth like and they will pay the high rents.”

Occupied Housing Units by Household Size in 2010 - Xue Yu (Alice)

Chart based on data from New York City Department of City Planning

Occupied Housing Units by Household Size 2000-2010 - Xue Yu (Alice)

Chart based on data from New York City Department of City Planning

Metropolis Realty Agent Steven Sokolof agreed with the trend of seeing more young people, restaurants, trendy food stores, and less retails in recent years.

Amidst the competition, local businesses had their own strategies to keep the regular customers and attract new residents besides just being themselves.

Georgiou tried to provide family-oriented service to customers and distinguished himself from the chain stores. Zepp put more emphasis on the Italian specialty products, even some Italy imported goods, and more pre-prepared sandwiches and salads for the grab-and-go. And White recently started to branch out by adding jewelry to the shop’s shelves.

Yet other longtime business owners and managers embraced the new crowd. Monte Pucci, manager of Michael’s Restaurant, was one of them. During his 10-year career at the restaurant, he saw a trend of improvement in the neighborhood.

“It’s better for local businesses because you are bringing more people,” said Pucci. “You have more young and educated people moved here. Astoria has become like Manhattan number two.”

Originally published at: http://nyunewsdoc.com/2013/10/03/astoria-grows-younger-old-shops-take-the-hit/

Muslim Community Craving for Change

Leaders and members of the Muslim community in Astoria did not seem to be surprised by the recent breaking news that the NYPD was spying on them.

In their new book, “Enemies Within“, Associated Press reporters Matt Apuzzo and Adam Goldman uncovered documents showing the existence of a Demographics Unit in NYPD that spied on people, shops and religious organizations, mainly based on “ancestries of interest” or their Islamic ethnic background. The news was not a shock to the Muslims who followed the English language news and those who worked with community organizations.

 By Xue Yu (Alice): Little Egypt, Astoria

By Xue Yu (Alice): Little Egypt, Astoria

“Everything becomes bizarre after 9/11,” said Mohammed Haque, a former youth director of the Muslim American Society’s Astoria chapter who is still involved in the organization. “Two years ago, people were phobic to Islam, so I think that made the NYPD like ‘we gotta do something.’”

Haque described the relationship between MAS and the local NYPD as “really good”. Haque had seen people from the community coming to MAS with concerns and he would explain to them while there is a fine line of Muslims’ human rights that should not be crossed, the NYPD has certain rights to investigate to some extent. Instead of being upset, he has been trying to focus more on community outreach and hopes for non-Islamic people to understand Muslims, have faith, and then love.

“I would say this is a very sensitive issue so you can’t generalize the NYPD. It has to go case by case. It has to go unit and unit. The NYPD might have racial problem but that’s in every organization,” Haque added.

Leaders in Astoria mosques had experienced more first-hand encounters than local organizations, especially on Fridays, the big day of worship for Muslims.

“We know for sure that the NYPD they are doing this. They sent some people. Sometimes we can easily recognize them through their questions. And then they will write something and send it to the NYPD,” said Salah Mahmoud, the assistant Imam of Masjid Dar Al-Dawah. He added: “Unfortunately, [sometimes] they take our lectures out of context, so they can show we are bad people and we have to be watched all the time.”

The Imams in Masjid Dar Al-Dawah usually did not do anything when they spotted NYPD’s spies in the mosques even though they typically recognized who they were. Instead they relied on human rights and Muslim rights activists to voice their discomfort and worked with local NYPD closely as well.

“Because the thing is, we don’t do anything wrong. So we are not worried about it,” said Mahmoud. “We are just wondering if [the NYPD] have the same system for churches and synagogues and stuff or just for Muslims, that really bothers us. They say synagogues and churches [they] take care of that too, but we don’t believe that. It’s not right.”

Similar scenes also took place in hookah bars, one of the most popular places for Muslims to gather and talk outside the mosques.

“He’s one of them also, spy,” said Jeffrey Faars, an Astoria Egyptian resident pointing to a white man who walked in the hookah bar. “He knows a lot, he’s here and there, but he thinks that nobody knows.” The man stayed awhile before saying goodbye and “may Alah be with you” to Faars who was enjoying his hookah. Faars responded back nicely with a smile. Faars and others stressed that despite the controversy they understood the importance of the NYPD’s action.

“We need somebody to watch the fanatic people, because those people make trouble for all of us, the terrorists,” said Faars.

In the hope for changes, organizations such as the Masjid Dar Al-Dawah have became more engaged in politics as citizens.

“We participate in all kinds of elections and votes and for the mayor,” said Mahmoud. “We are trying to change. We didn’t tell them whom to choose but we started with why we should be effective and I think this year was different. The hope is that after [Bloomberg] left the office, a new one comes and it will become better.”

Originally published at: http://nyunewsdoc.com/2013/09/26/muslim-community-craving-for-change/