On a recent rainy Tuesday, January 29, the Communities in Support for the Khalil International Academy (CISKGIA) continued its struggle for respect and justice for the Arab American and Muslim communities. They did so with a high-energy multicultural celebration with the enthusiastic support of over 200 diverse New Yorkers, performers, parents and educators.
“watching people literally sitting on the edge of their seats in anticipation of what the next speaker was going to say…glancing around the room and seeing so many pairs of eyes lit up with inspiration.”
The CISKGIA coalition, independent from the current administration of the school and the New York Department of Education, hosted the event to support the original vision of the Khalil Gibran International Academy (KGIA), which has been harshly attacked by Arab-haters and Islamophobes in media and local government, responding to the provocations of the extremist right wing group Stop the Madrassa.
After a delicious meal donated by Zaytoon’s Restaurant, Oriental Catering, and the Yemeni Café, the overflowing crowd gathered in a hall decorated with red white and blue balloons and showed their enthusiastic support during a program of passionate speakers and performers, mc’d by Mona El Khadry and Amy Shoenfeld. Event speakers and participants included noted Columbia University Professor Rashid Kahlidi and his wife Mona; the PTA president of KGIA; and several teachers of KGIA and their students. Seven diverse members of the original Design Team that created the school as an Arab language and culture public school were honored with bouquets of white roses.
Organizers also honored Founding Principal Debbie Almontaser, whose vision brought the KGIA school into existence, even though city bureaucrats forced her out of the job before the school opened its doors. Many New Yorkers followed this news story largely through the biased misrepresentation in the New York Post and the New York Sun.
“Anti-Arab and anti-Muslim groups have been obsessed with shutting this school down and have made clear their racism by depicting it as a “radical Muslim threat”,” observed Donna Nevel of Center for Immigrant Families. “They have attacked Debbie because she is an Arab, Muslim woman.and have attacked the school because the language being taught is Arabic. Rather than capitulating to this hatefulness, like the Mayor, UFT President, DOE, and New Visions did, we should be standing up for Debbie and her original vision for the school, which was based on respect for its families, for the community, and for Arabic culture and language…”
Long time civil rights activist Carol Horowitz of Brooklyn Parents for Peace added, “Instead of being divided, we should be gathering in community like at our event, which was so wonderful, I am at a loss for words. The way everyone worked together was like the 1960s civil rights movement — people just doing what has to be done regardless of what their assigned tasks may have been.”
Infiltrators from the Right wing groups may have been in the room, but security was ready for any outbursts. Instead of disrupting the packed event, the Stop the Madrassa group immediately scheduled another press conference at City Hall, to demand the closing of the school on the basis of the lack of support the Department of Education has shown since the school opened in September. They failed to note that these same problems arose directly from their own pressure to oust the Founding Principal from the school. KGIA Teachers have made it clear that bad teaching conditions, and a cut back in Arabic teaching, have been demoralizing the teachers. However they made clear that lack of support is because the original design had not been implemented after the founding principal was forced out, on the pretext of her balanced comments about the meaning of the word “intifada” printed on T shirts produced by AWAAM, a local girls’ group.
“These teachers should be protected from the attacks of the gutter media,” declared Professor Rashid Khalidi, who has himself been targeted by the far Right. And so, with the support of so many good people, the CISKGIA coalition resolved to fight on for justice and respect, together with amazing spoken word artists Leila Buck, the Spirit Song artists, break-dancers from El Puente, and many more young people whose artistry and creativity was a reminder that multicultural education must also include Arabic culture and a loving acceptance of our fellow humanity across boundaries of faith, race and ethnicity.
It was a magical moment, as co-organizer Amy Shoenfeld remembered, “watching people literally sitting on the edge of their seats in anticipation of what the next speaker was going to say…glancing around the room and seeing so many pairs of eyes lit up with inspiration…being brought to tears (collectively, I think) by Fatin’s mom, and then back to laughter again soon after.” She added that, “watching the urban word poets meet the el puente breakers…there was some serious movement building going on last night! It was just as we envisioned it…it couldn’t have happened if it weren’t for all the work that every single one of you did – and it couldn’t have happened if it weren’t for Debbie’s vision and the inspiration we’ve all taken from that.”
Seeking her reinstatement as Principal, Debbie Almontaser’s lawsuit remains in court.