Tag Archive | "Brooklyn"

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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Nightmare commute between Manhattan and Brooklyn for thousands

By Shaukat Hamdani

Brooklynites are notoriously tough characters, but the post-Sandy traffic mess got to many of them. “Nightmarish transfer” and “I ain’t doing this tomorrow” were just a few comments passed by thousands of commuters at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn as they waited in line for a special shuttle bus to Manhattan on Thursday.

Hurricane Sandy had stuck New York City earlier in the week and had sent the public transport system into chaos. While limited service had resumed across the city by Thursday there was still no subway between Brooklyn and Manhattan. To add too that the New York state government, fearing a gridlock in the City, had announced that only cars with carpool would be allowed to cross from Brooklyn to Manhattan through the bridges.

This meant a lot of people would be using the free shuttle service from multiple locations in Brooklyn to Manhattan to get to work. The scene at the Barclays Center confirmed that notion. It took me around three and half hours to get from South Beach, Staten Island to Columbia University. The major point of delay was at the new Barclays Center where I had to wait for more than an hour to get onto the bus. The line extended a full circle around the stadium and three-quarters of the way back.

The huge line frustrated many commuters who were already getting late for work.  A man who identified himself only as Victor was commuting from Bay Ridge Brooklyn to 59th Street in Manhattan. “I am about to give up on the line, I am frustrated” Victor, 41, exclaimed. But he understood the situation that the MTA was facing. “What they gonna do, their trains are flooded,” Victor added. He arrived in his car but he was not allowed to cross the Manhattan Bridge because he was alone. The police were only allowing cars with three or more people to pass. Victor made sure he had pictures to show his boss. “When my boss asks me why are you so late, I can show them to him and say this is why,” Victor joked.

Another frustrated commuter was overheard regretting that he hadn’t thought of picking up  “ two random people” and driven over the bridge.

Most people in the line patiently, or impatiently, waited their turn, others tried to push ahead or cut the line. This lead to some explosive situations with a lot of colorful language being exchanged between the annoyed travelers. Eventually more police and MTA officials had to be deployed to ensure that people do not skip in front of the lines.

While the chaos and increased travel time was bothering many commuters, Dayshawne Sullivan said that he expected this to happen. “You can get mad but you know it was going to happen when the hurricane came,” said Sullivan, 22.  Sullivan was commuting from New Lots Avenue in Brooklyn to Grand Central station. He wasn’t happy about the wait, but he did express appreciation for the MTA’s decision to waive the fare for Thursday and Friday.

“It shows consideration for the city’s people and it’s their way of saying sorry,” Sullivan said. “ They are saying go through this and you can ride the bus for free.”



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The Last Italian Market on 18th Avenue

A typical afternoon at Frank and Sal’s in Bensonhurst

by Yvonne Bang, Italian Beat Reporter — 

“It’s not for this store!” Francesco “Frankie” Casamento repeated, a little more emphatically this time. Casamento, a 35-year-old co-owner of the Frank and Sal Gourmet Market in Bensonhurst, was standing in front of the dairy display case arguing with one of the vendors who serviced the store. The young, dark-haired vendor was trying his best to push another order of three-pack mini muffins. But he’d sold the store a bunch the week before, and many of them had come in expired.

Casamento later said of the product, “It’s a cheap, inexpensive item. This store—we have good quality.”

In Bensonhurst, where 99-Cent Stores have proliferated in recent years, a store that refuses to compromise on quality has become a rarity. Frank and Sal’s is one of the last remaining businesses in the area to stubbornly refuse to substitute quality for lower prices. Cathy Casale, who has lived in Bensonhurst for 49 years, grumbles that she can’t buy well-made items on 18th Avenue anymore.

“A lot of these [99-cent] stores put other stores out-of-business,” she said.

Eighteenth Avenue, the main thoroughfare of Bensonhurst, still has a butcher shop, a pastaria, a couple of fish markets, and plenty of fruit stands that cater to the area’s historic Italian population. Even ten years ago, there were still many Italian-owned businesses. But with that population shrinking, the number of places where you can buy authentic ingredients for traditional Italian dishes like the Sunday sauce—a meat marinara gravy—has shrunk down to one: the Frank and Sal Gourmet Market. Frank and Sal’s is the last Italian market on the street.

The market has been in Bensonhurst for over 22 years, since Casamento’s father, Franco, opened the store with two butchers, Frank Gassoso and Salvatore Civiletti. Hanging from low-slung rafters are baskets and Italian flags, bags of pasta, and over the deli, strings of sweet, dry sausages and rounds of cheese. The store specializes in Italian products and produce, like fresh green olives the size of kumquats, ample bouquets of dried, imported Oregano, and Sicilian eggplants, which are bulbous and as large as cantaloupes. Products like salted, dried capers will be difficult to find in most markets, and containers of sundried tomatoes won’t come as cheaply elsewhere. Some shoppers say they have the best Mozzarella in the area—fresh, hand-stretched, and made from cow’s milk, the way it’s supposed to be. But for all its success so far, the future is uncertain, as Bensonhurst has been changing over the last 10 years.

A large demographic shift and a general unwillingness to spend have weakened the competitive capacity of specialty stores that once catered to a solely Italian population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there has been a 57 percent increase in the number of Asian-Americans in Bensonhurst. Chinese-Americans make up almost 32 percent of the neighborhood’s entire population. Nancy Sottile, who runs the Federation of Italian-American Organizations main office six blocks north of Frank and Sal’s, agrees that many Italian-owned small businesses have closed. But she believes it’s because other ethnic groups do not shop at Italian markets.

“Chinese-Americans do not go to [Italian] markets,” she said. “I guess we did the same thing when we first came to America.”

And people don’t spend like they once did. A store called Exclusive V.I.P. Fashion, has been on the avenue for 26 years. The business—selling and designing elaborate wedding dresses for brides and events—has been affected as much by a changing culture—more people nowadays rent dresses or prefer to purchase them online—as by a relocating clientele base. Seated behind a jewelry display case in her store, the owner, who identified herself as Sally, was surrounded only by dresses. She acknowledges that many of her clients, of mostly Italian descent have moved either to Staten Island or New Jersey.

“This in itself is a dying business,” she said. “It’s an item that people just don’t have the money for—a luxury, not a necessity.”

But stores on 18th Avenue have also closed for other reasons. Second generation Italian-Americans opt out of taking over the family business when their parents reach the retiring age. A longtime favorite, Trunzo Brothers Meat Market and Salumeria, which remained rooted on the street for over 30 years, shut its doors in 2009; a Grocery and 99 Cents store took over the location. In an online rumination, Brian Trunzo, the son who pursued law instead of a life behind the meat counter like his father wrote, “I never wanted to be a butcher in the first place; it’s just not my vibe.”

On a recent Tuesday, Frank and Sal’s was busy well before the traditional afternoon rush most grocers expect. Shoppers with carts greeted Casamento on their way in; some shook his hand and patted him on the back. He picked up a jar of Nutella for a customer in line who’d dropped it on the floor.

Despite the fate of other shops along the street, Frank and Sal’s does well these days. Casamento remarked, “We still do good. There has been a drop off. People have moved out of the area. There is competition in the neighborhood. But we have our own niche.”

Later that afternoon, up the street at the Avenue Fruit Market where the owner Tony sells only produce, a sharply-dressed elderly gentleman with bronze-tinted Hunter Thompson glasses and white hair sleekly combed back inspected and pinched red peppers displayed in boxes on the street. The products were displayed on a corner, where auto and foot traffic easily kicked up dust and where flies were free to roam and land. The man, who declined to state his name, described Frank and Sal’s products as first class. When asked why he was browsing at the Avenue Market instead, he replied, “Convenienza di prezzo”—the low price, and nothing more.

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Seeds, Spices, and Rare Family-Business Success

MaryAlice Parks – Syrian-American beat reporter

Last Monday, for the first time in 64 years, Sahadi’s Importing Co. in downtown Brooklyn did not open for business.

Although the closure was temporary – just a week for remodeling – the gourmet food store’s owner, Charlie Sahadi, was nervous. As the patriarch of his family’s 117-year-old business, he is preoccupied with continuity.

“Some businesses close for vacation over the summer. We never do,” said Charlie Sahadi, 68. “You have to be careful with people’s confidence. People have routines.”

Perhaps the family’s humility and slight paranoia has contributed to their rare success.

New York City is home to a number of time-honored companies, primarily banks and bars, that lay claim to continuous service since before the 19th century. However, there are only a few family-owned businesses in New York City older than Sahadis.

“It’s an institution,” said Jennifer Baron, who runs a cooking store nearby.

The century-old market has spanned three generations of the Sahadi family. After immigrating from Lebanon, Charlie Sahadi’s great-uncle, Ibrahim Sahadi, opened the family’s first store in 1895, on Washington Street in lower Manhattan. At the time, the neighborhood was referred to as “Little Syria” and was a hub of immigrants from the Middle East.

In 1919, Charlie Sahadi’s father, Wade Sahadi, came to the U.S. to join his uncle. He became a partner in the store but eventually parted ways. According to the family, Wade Sahadi was bought out in “chickpeas and lentils” and opened his own store just a few doors down. Shortly after, he moved his business to the Atlantic Avenue location. The Brooklyn store opened in 1948 and has been in the same space ever since.

Today, six family members work full time for the business: Charlie Sahadi along with his wife, younger brother, two children, and son-in-law. Beyond the retail store, they own a manufacturing plant and wholesale warehouse in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which ships their products as far as Denver, Colorado.

Each generation of Sahadis has grown the business. Charlie Sahadi said he urged his father to expand the store on Atlantic Avenue in the 1960s and the recent remodel was the brainchild of his daughter.

“We all wanted it. I just wanted to see it happen now,” said Christine Whalen, Charlie Sahadi’s daughter.
In May, the family began construction into the adjacent storefront they had previously used as a holiday gift shop. Monday, their retail store opened in the new, larger space.

The project is far from done. This week, construction workers were still installing refrigerators as customers navigated half-empty shelves and stacks of boxes.  Charlie Sahadi was not pleased with the state of the store.

“Dirt and dust and food do not mix well,” he said.

Now occupying three storefronts, the new Sahadi’s retains much of the original store’s design. Customers still approach the bulk-foods section first: tiers of simple glass jars, with homemade labels, and employees filling personal requests for dried nuts, seeds, and spices.

The expanded layout includes a new coffee bar (but no seats), a bakery, and a sliced-to-order cheese section. The walls are fresh and white. The old exposed-brick and archways remain.

What do shoppers think of the new space? “It’s fabulous,” said Franklin Stone, a middle-aged woman who lives in Cobble Hill. “I found things I didn’t even know they had, like four different kinds of feta cheese.”

“And I got to talk at length with the guy about what coffee I wanted,” Stone continued.

But for others, the ongoing construction was a bit of a distraction. “It’s too early to tell,” said Greg Kiss, from Greenpoint, Brooklyn, who rode his bike to the store and was unsure about the remodel.

Plus, any change comes with trepidation. “It will lose a bit of its charm,” Kiss added. “You used to be able to see the decades, things stuffed in every corner.”

Still, there is no denying that Sahadi’s is among a rare set of family businesses. According to John Ward, a professor of family businesses at the Kellogg Business School at Northwestern University, only 13 percent of family businesses survive until the third generation and less than five percent make it to the fourth.

Often speaking over each at their adjacent desks above the store on a recent day, it was clear that a sense of shared ownership and teamwork permeates the family. The importance of relationships extends to the customers too. Take hummus for example. Day to day, the store offers two kinds, regular and spicy. But after a sampling with customers during a recent street fair, they are now rotating specialty flavors through too, like black olive and roasted red pepper.

“In the Middle East, there is only one hummus,” said Charlie Sahadi. To him, the different flavors in the U.S. incorporate different kinds of people. He said he enjoys when customers give suggestions or share recipes.

The Sahadis pride themselves on being a communal store. “A food supplier is a real part of people’s lives, in the good times and the bad,” said Charlie Sahadi, adding that people need food for funerals as much as for birthdays.

“I can be there for so many people at so many times.”

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Slideshow: West Indians Celebrate Trinidad’s 50 Years of Independence

by Stephen Jiwanmall, Trinidadian Beat Reporter —

The Republic of Trinidad and Tobago turned 50 on August 31, and festivities in Brooklyn marked the occasion.

In addition, Labor Day Weekend was full of events celebrating West Indian culture. The main event was the West Indian American Day Carnival, the 45th annual Labor Day parade down Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn.

Check out this photo slideshow for coverage of three of the weekend’s events:

  • Labor Day Carnival: More than two million people came to Brooklyn to be part of the biggest parade in New York City.
  • Steel Band Panorama: Steel band music originated in Trinidad, and local steel band orchestras competed in an annual “battle of the bands.”
  • Brass Fest: Musicians from all around the Caribbean celebrated Trinidad’s Independence Day with an unforgettable concert.
The events were organized by the West Indian American Day Carnival Association (WIADCA).

Created with flickr slideshow.

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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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Arab Stigma Towards Mental Illness

Many Arabs in the Middle East are uninformed about the existence of mental illnesses and how to live with them. But one organization is trying to change that in New York City’s Arab Community. Jaslee Carayol reports from one such center in Brooklyn.

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In Brooklyn, Gospel Raises the Spirits of Marathon Runners

by Elaisha Stokes

For years, the New York City Marathon was seen as something of a nuisance for Emmanuel Baptist Church in Brooklyn. Located on the corner of St James Place and Lafayette Avenue, at the nine mile mark of the marathon, the church suffered with noise from the runners on the streets and the crowds of onlookers who came to cheer them on. But instead of letting the annual event get the best of them, the church decided to use it as an opportunity to praise the lord’s name. And so, Sunday services were cancelled on the first weekend of November, and a new tradition was born.

Each year on Marathon Sunday Total Praise, the gospel choir of the church, raises its  voice in song above the noise of the screaming fans.

“We sing on the steps,” said Shareka Newton, the executive pastor of the church. “It gives us an opportunity to come out of the church walls and into the community.”

On Sunday, the steps of the church were flanked with women dressed in bright orange, the official color of this year’s race. The 80 members of Total Praise sing in rotations to raucous crowds while the hopeful marathoners speed by a crowd estimated at 2 million. Volunteers hold out bottled water and bananas for runners who need a moment to refuel. Others make it their business to call out the names of participants who need a little extra encouragement.  But it’s the gospel choir that takes center stage. Mic’d up and amplified for all the neighbors to hear, members flail arms and raise their voice to the high heavens.  Exclamations of joy and halleluiah are made to lift the spirits of runners, who raise their hands towards the sky and wave along with the gospel choir as they speed by the church. For Juny Francois, a Haitian American and veteran marathon runner, the vision of her church’s choir gives her an energetic push early on in the race.

“There’s nothing like it,” said Francois. “I’ve run marathons all over the world. The hometown crowd, the music from my church’s choir. It connects me with God.”

This year, the church has four members participating in the race. Francois is the best runner of the bunch. She is what’s known as a local competitor, pacing an average mile in about 7 minutes and 30 seconds. At 10:52 AM she speeds past the steps of Emmanuel Baptist. Her son, Samuel Mahlangu, doesn’t even have time to snap a photo.

“I tried to record her, but I couldn’t even get a clip,” said Mahlangu. “She was running so fast.”

Francois’ love affair with long distance running started as what she called a “fluke.” She ran track in high school, eventually completing a five-kilometer race. Next she participated in a half marathon, and finally a full marathon.

“Then,” said Francois, “I became addicted.”

She has since run marathons all over the world, including Berlin and Madrid. For Francois, part of the passion of running is raising money for a good cause. This year, the cause hits close to home. Francois has raised $25,000 to benefit Haiti Green Home, a non-profit organization that develops eco friendly homes for displaced victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Francois said dedicating her run to Haiti gives her the strength she needs to reach for her personal best.

“Haitians are not really runners,” said Francois. “Not like Africans. But running comes naturally to me. If my passion can benefit my country, then all the better.”

At Emmanuel Baptist, the parish has been resolute in their support of Francois’ efforts. Many of the members of the parish helped Francois fundraise for her run. Still, the church believes that their music remains their largest contribution to the event.

“When the runners hear our voices, it cheers them along,” said Claudette Williams, a 16-year veteran of the choir. “It’s always good to sing the praises of the Lord to raise the spirit.”

As the runners stream by the sun-filled church steps, even the most cynical fans can’t help but have faith that a little bit of hometown spirit can go a long way. Maybe a full 26.2 miles.

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