Debbie Almontaser, former head of New York's Khalil Gibran School, talks to Tahira Muhammad for The Middle East.
Debbie Almontaser is the daughter of Yemeni immigrant parents who envisioned a better life in America. After the 9/11 attacks she had her own dream – of establishing an Arab-American School in Brooklyn, New York, that would help ease the cultural tensions between Jews and Arabs as well as educate people to the culturally sensitivities of Arab-Americans. "I grew up in a small suburb in Buffalo, attending public school with my siblings. My father worked at the Ford Motor Company factory," Almontaser explains. Like the children of many immigrant families, her parents were keen that their children should 'fit in' with their new culture. "I was encouraged by my parents to assimilate as others did. However, my peers always reminded me I was different. It was difficult going to a predominantly white public school system."
I wondered what inspired Almontaser, as an Arab-American woman, to go into education?
"I initially found my way into education by volunteering in my children's public school. I began as an assistant teacher hired to work with just one child who only spoke Arabic. I was in the right place at the right time to be offered this opportunity … there wasn't anyone else to fill if after several months of searching for someone who spoke Arabic."
Outspoken, professional and firm in fighting for justice, how did Almontaser encourage other Arab-American Muslim women to be career oriented and confident? "I was determined as a young woman to find a way to be able to walk in my skin as an American and an Arab who finally found her way to being an observant Muslim by choice. To my fellow sisters, I say education is power no one can take away from you. It allows you to pursue your lifelong dreams, whether big or small. In 2003 I attended an Asian Heritage event at the Mayor of New York's home celebrating Asian Heritage, determined to make sure that Arab Heritage was also recognised and celebrated by New Yorkers. I cornered the Mayor of New York about doing it. This process required patience and perseverance in a post 9/11 world but in 2005, Arab Heritage Week became a reality. "The same thing happened with my spearheading the creation of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, many thought it would never get approved, but it was."
Tell me about your inspiration to start the Khalil Gibran School: what was your vision?
"I declined to continue the cultural diversity work I began after 9/11 building bridges of understanding among people. By 2005, I started to explore other career options following my Revson Fellowship at Columbia University. "The idea to start an Arabic language school was brought to my attention the last year of my fellowship in 2005, by a gentleman who worked for New Visions For Public Schools. A week or so later, the deputy Chancellor of Education, Carmen Farina, recommended I start a small school specialising in Arabic language and culture. Conversations continued with New Visions to create a school that would develop critical thinkers who saw themselves as global citizens aspiring to make a difference locally and globally. It was to be a school where students would learn to value and celebrate diversity; a school where everyone felt they had a place at the table; a school where students were going to become experts in Arabic language and cultural studies."
What inspired you to name the school after Khalil Gibran?
"It was Gibran's writing and his philosophical understanding of life, love and freedom. Gibran was a humanist at heart who devoted his life in America to building bridges of understanding between East and West. He eloquently did this through his writing. The quote that was at the heart of developing the school was, 'The human tribe is my family and the universe is my country'." I wanted every student to live their lives with this motto at heart as global citizens."
Sadly, not everyone agreed with Almontaser's aims. Certain sections of the community were outspoken about their concerns that the school was – rather than a bridge between the cultures of the East and West – divisive and antisecular in its aims. After an encouraging start, a series of events – in which the ethos and credibility of the school were challenged – led to Almontaser being asked to resign. She is currently proceeding with a decision to sue the Department of Education. The topic became an inflammatory issue, which was prominently featured by the prestigious New York Times newspaper.