Tag Archive | "Bay Ridge"

Two States: Two Solutions

By William Denselow, Palestinian Beat Reporter-

“Little Ramallah” in Paterson

There are two distinct Palestinian neighborhoods in the New York area. While both cling fiercely to their shared Middle Eastern heritage, their approaches are fundamentally different.

In Paterson, N.J., cultural pride seems to revolve around what goes into ones mouth. In Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, it is more about what comes out.

“Paterson is more of a culinary culture. It’s the food, the hookah bars,” said Tahani Salah, 25, a Palestinian-American poet born and raised in Brooklyn.

If Paterson is the stomach of the Palestinian community, then Bay Ridge is certainly the mouthpiece. It is no coincidence that groups such as the Arab-American Association of New York are based in Brooklyn. Advocacy groups such as these may serve pizza and soda instead of Middle Eastern meze at their meetings but that does not make them any less connected with their roots. Salah agrees that Bay Ridge is the Arab-American capital of New York. “Bay Ridge is a base of Arab Communities.”

Location plays a large role as to why there is such a different feel to each community. Paterson, which is often referred as “Little Ramallah,” is an isolated society. It lies roughly 30 miles from Brooklyn and isn’t even in the center of Paterson. It is about a mile down the road from the main part of town and is largely introverted. As a result it has a distinctly Middle Eastern vibe that Bay Ridge simply doesn’t share.  Business is conducted in the various coffee shops and hookah lounges over a cup of chai or ahwe (tea or coffee). The pace of life is slower and the hummus tastes better.

No one speaks of “gentrification” in Paterson, although it is part of the lifeblood of Bay Ridge. It is, after all, part of New York City. Yellow cabs frequently trundle down Fifth Avenue (New York’s other Fifth Avenue) and Times Square is just a subway ride away on the R train.

Salah has witnessed the impact of gentrification on the Arab community in Brooklyn first hand. “Atlantic Avenue was full of Arab-Americans. Now there is a Barney’s and Trader Joe’s.”

Widad Hassan, 23, from Sunset Park, describes Bay Ridge as a culture clash. It is not just a clash between the various Arab communities or the other ethnic groups that live in the area. There is a generational clash too. “You see a mom in traditional dress and daughter in jeans,” Hassan said. “Paterson is more isolated, it sticks more to the culture.”

It seems that the terms Arab-American or American-Arab can be interchanged more readily in Bay Ridge. There is a far greater degree of assimilation and at face value it does seem that some of the culture is lost. Although, as Hassan says, Bay Ridge is about pizza and saying “wazzup,” that does not mean the Arab heritage is gone. You just have to dig a little deeper.

The fact that Muslims in Brooklyn flock to Nablus Sweets in Paterson on religious holidays doesn’t mean they are any less devout. It simply means that Paterson does better Baklava.

Both communities were hit hard by the terrorist attacks in 2001. The war on terror and “Islamophobia” shook Arab-Americans regardless of whether they were from Bay Ridge, Paterson or anywhere else for that matter.

What is interesting is how both groups responded. As non-Arabs stopped going to Paterson to eat their hummus (and it really is good hummus) the community became withdrawn, relying on fellow Arab-Americans to keep businesses afloat.

Partly due to extenuating circumstances such as gentrification, the Arab community in Bay Ridge has responded to 9/11 differently. It appears more of a concerted effort was made to integrate into American life.

The cultural pride of Arabs living in Bay Ridge is no less strong than for those living in Paterson, though; it is simply hidden. In fact, because much of the hate that has been directed at Muslims manifested itself in Brooklyn — NYPD spying for example — the Arab-American community there has proven itself to be incredibly resilient.

It seems that the phrase “you are what you eat,” does not always apply.  For them, it might be, “you are what you say and think.”

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Language Barrier Creates Problems for Arab American Voters

Written by Jay Devineni

Reported by MaryAlice Parks, William Denselow, & Jay Devineni 

For many Arab Americans voting on Tuesday in Brooklyn, language barriers made it harder for their voices to be heard.  Despite Brooklyn’s large Arab population, there were no ballots available in Arabic.  However, the New York City Board of Elections does provide translations in Bengali, Chinese, Korean, and Spanish.

The Arab American Association of New York has been campaigning since the summer to increase voter registration among Arab Americans.  But members of the organization have found that even registered Arab voters run into problems when it comes to reading the ballot.

“We found that we would either have to write it out or interpret it for them,” said Aber Kawas, 20, a voter registration fellow for the association.

In addition, the voting process in many Arab neighborhoods proved to be difficult on Election Day.

“It’s confusing and people are not very nice,” said Kawas, who voted Tuesday for the first time.  “It can be intimidating for immigrants.”

Kawas grew up and works in the area of Brooklyn known as Bay Ridge, where an estimated 35,000 Arab people live.  Kawas and other Arab Americans in the area were told to vote at Public School 200 at 1940 Benson Ave.  They arrived there Tuesday afternoon, only to find that the polling site was closed.  The school had a sign that directed them to St. Finbar Roman Catholic Church about two blocks away.  Upon arriving there, they were directed to a third polling site, Regina Pacis Housing Corps, which was over 15 blocks away.  The process was confusing for many Arab voters who didn’t speak English, and some couldn’t even take the extra time to vote.

Before Election Day, the Arab American Association’s staff tried to find out if election materials could be translated into Arabic.  In order to do this, they talked to the Kings County Board of Elections, which serves the borough of Brooklyn.  But when they asked if Arabic ballots were available, the Board of Elections was not very helpful.

“People would give you different information,” Kawas said.   “You never really knew if you could get it.”

Upon further research, the group found that translations were available in several languages, but Arabic was not one of them.

“Hindi was the closest we found,” Kawas said in reference to certain areas of Queens that have high percentages of South Asian people and have been granted Hindi interpreters.

Kawas said that if the South Asian community in Queens can get voting assistance in Hindi, then Arab Americans in Brooklyn should be able to get help in Arabic.

“There might be racial undertones,” she admitted, but she doesn’t want to jump to any conclusions.

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Syrian Protest Unites and Divides Bay Ridge

Families gather in Leif Ericson Park before the protest. Photo by MaryAlice Parks.

MaryAlice Parks, Syrian Beat Reporter~

“One, two, three, four. Bashar Assad out the door.” Their chanting could be heard blocks away. “Five, six, seven, eight. Stop the killing, stop the hate.”

Over 200 people gathered on Saturday in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, home to one of the largest Arab-American communities in New York City, to show support for the rebels fighting against the Assad regime in Syria.  Although the revolution is thousands of miles away, the march demonstrated how outrage over the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Syria is uniting people here in New York.

In the crowd there were people from Lebanon, Yemen, Egypt, and other countries across the Middle East. Linda Sarsour, director of the Arab American Association of New York, addressed the group before the march began. “I am Palestinian-American, and I am today a Syrian. I have always been a Syrian,” she punctuated. “We are all Syrians here today.”

Bassam Maalouf, a Christian Syrian who participated,  explained that the revolution has brought Christians and Muslims from the country together. “At first, a lot of Christians were scared. Is it an Islamic revolution? But month after month people saw what this criminal is doing.” According to Maalouf, people who were skeptical are coming around. “They’re convinced now that this regime is the obstacle.”

The group’s message was clear; they were pro-revolution and anti-President Assad. Young and old, everyone gathered seemed to have a sign, some displayed graphic images of children who had died in the fighting, others called President Bashar Al-Assad a terrorist. One showed President Obama and read, “How much Syrian blood will it take to buy your election?”

The event began at Leif Ericson Park, near the corner of Sixth Avenue and 67th Street. A series of impassioned speakers, including volunteers and leaders from the Arab-American community in New York City, addressed participants in front of a Syrian opposition flag that hung on the park’s chain-link fence. They called for the U.S. to get involved in Syria. They lead prayers for the children who have been killed in the fighting.  A representative from UNICEF collected checks for a fund for Syrian children. She estimated $300 was raised at the event, though a number of people said they donated online.

Around 5 p.m., event organizers lead the walkers from the park to Fifth Avenue, a busy, commercial street. The group marched south along Fifth  Avenue for over a mile before looping back to the park. When they arrived at the park again, it was getting dark. Many participants stayed and sang national songs from Syria in Arabic until dispersed by the police.

The march revealed ongoing discord and skepticism, both within the Arab-American community and Bay Ridge. During the march, police broke up a small fight between demonstrators and a bystander who made comments supporting the Assad regime.

“There are also some divisions,” said Donna Moustapha, a 31-year-old Syrian-American. “That is going to be the case any time you have something as big as a revolution. But ultimately, we have to be on the side of humanity.”

Despite the large Arab presence, Bay Ridge is diverse. People in the neighborhood live close together, yet some remain worlds apart. Markets offering halal meat are crammed between Irish pubs.  Italian-Americans, with strong Brooklyn accents, make up the single largest ethnic group in the area.

“Islamic spring? More like terrorist spring,” asserted one man, who introduced himself as Micky V. and watched the group go by along  Fifth Avenue. “They think they are supporting democracy, meanwhile they are supporting the terrorists. They are just trading one regime for the other.”

Another middle-aged man from the neighborhood, Steve, who declined to give his last name, watched the march from inside a bar a few blocks away. He did not understand why it was being held in Bay Ridge. “They should take it up to somebody who would care. Go to the U.N.,” he said. “No one really cares. Maybe down further in the other part of the neighborhood, where the other Arab community lives.”

But other onlookers expressed sympathy. Among the headscarves and Arabic chatter, Janine Louqet stood out. She is not Arab. She is a school bus driver from New Jersey. She was moved by images of violence in Syria. “You see a number and it is easy to glance over it. When you see pictures, you can’t glance over.” Hesitating, she removed her glasses and pressed the corners of her eyes to stop the tears. “I drive children and it got to me. I am picking up children in their frilly little dresses, but there are other kids that are being murdered and it got to me. That’s why I’m here.”

Those walking, Arab or not, Syrian or not, were dedicated.  A young woman who wore a long, austere, black Islamic robe for the walk, but when she moved, there was a glimpse of glitter underneath. “I have to go to a bridal shower right after. I am going to be so late, but I don’t care,” she explained. “I have my heels in my bag. I am going to walk in my dress and Converse.”

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