Rashidah Ismaili-AbuBakr is a poet, playwright, essayist, and short story writer born in Benin and based in New York City. “New York is like my country. It is a place that I first came, 60 years ago to go to school,” she says. “This is a kind of home for me, in a way that West Africa is not. West Africa is a foundational memory, if that makes sense. My active life, for me, is here. My sense of being an African, my sense of being a woman, my sense of being a Muslim really comes from here. Because it was those three elements that allowed me to survive.” Ismaili-AbuBakr has been in the creative arts for the past 60 years and lived among the artist communities in the Lower East Side, Battery Park, and Harlem. She was part of the Black Arts Movement and has been awarded the Sojourner Truth Meritorious Award and the Puffin Trade Award and has been recognized by PEN America. Her published books include Autobiography of the Lower East Side: A Novel in Stories and poetry collections Missing in Action and Presumed Dead, Rice Keepers, and Cantata for Jimmy. Ismaili-AbuBakr has taught at Wilkes University and University of Ghana; worked at Rutgers University and Pratt College; and served as an executive board member of the Organization of Women Writers of Africa, Inc. Ismaili-AbuBakr continues to host a Salon d’Afrique, an informal space for the exchange of ideas uniting Africans and African Americans, in her Harlem home. “People think that whatever religion they were back home, that was back home,” she says. “And when you come to NYC, you forget all that. [But] that is what held me together. I think if I wasn’t a Muslim, let me tell you, I don’t know where I would be.”
Moustafa Bayoumi is a writer in New York City known for his creative nonfiction, such as How Does It Feel to Be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America and This Muslim American Life: Dispatches from the War on Terror, both winners of the Arab American Book Award for Nonfiction. An avid contributor to public life through his writing, Bayoumi regularly writes for The Guardian as well as other mainstream presses. Influenced by his former advisor and mentor Edward Said, Bayoumi sees himself primarily as a literary journalist, but also breaks disciplinary boundaries by writing across fields. He has responded to the need to address local and domestic issues in the Muslim community in NYC since 9/11 in particular, before which many local organizations focused on international issues. “The continuing challenge I face in my work is how to balance writing about local issues that are specific to what Muslims in New York City face with writing about the international issues that we all must confront,” he says.
Melanie Elturk is CEO and founder of Haute Hijab, the leading hijab brand in the United States. She founded the company with her husband in 2010, and they both now work at the company full-time. Previously, Elturk had a law career where she specialized in civil rights. She chose to enter the field of fashion because she felt that there was no hijab brand out there geared specifically toward American Muslim women. She sees her biggest contribution through Haute Hijab as providing a product that allows women to feel beautiful—not having to compromise on style while adhering to their faith. In 2017, every Gap store in the world featured a hijabi model wearing one of Haute Hijab’s products. But Elturk and Haute Hijab are based in New York City for good. “There is a Somali saying that says you travel and travel until the soil suits you,” she says. “I left Detroit, moved to Chicago, went to Dubai—I hated Dubai—and then came here. And now I don’t even feel the need to travel; I don’t want to travel. I had this travel bug, especially in Dubai. Every month or two we would leave. But now that we are here, I don’t want to go. Like, where are we even going to go?!”
Ali Abbas is an American Muslim writer, filmmaker, and New Yorker of Lebanese descent. He’s the creator and producer of The Ridge, a series about a group of Brooklyn Muslim youth with superpowers, and the current diversity fellow at the Upright Citizens Brigade. “I’ve never had so many opportunities. I [couldn’t] do what I’ve been doing the past couple of years had I not moved to New York. I feel like no other city drops the[se] opportunities in your lap. Once, I was walking down the street and a friend called me. She was interviewing Tawakkol Karman at the UN, and she was like, ‘Do you want to come do a photo series for the BBC?’ In Chicago, no one has called me to do a photo series. Just the other day, I was going through my photos and found a photo from two years ago, and the creator of Fresh Off the Boat was at the party. A friend of mine threw me this birthday party and some guy who I think is an amazing chef and writer showed up. That doesn’t happen in Chicago [where Abbas lives part time]. I love Chicago, but that just doesn’t happen. This city, the opportunities, and the amazing and horrible things it throws at you … this doesn’t happen anywhere else. The first time my mom ever visited, my neighbors were getting into an argument and one of them decided the best way to win this argument was to strip off all of their clothes and stand in the hallway. My mom was like, ‘What is going on?,’ and I was like, ‘Don’t think about it, just keep moving.’ I think it may be genetic. My mom was here recently, and she said, ‘Man I love this city.’ She loved the craziness and hecticness. I adore this city.”
Founder of the Malik Law Firm (Boutique Immigration and Criminal Defense Law Firm), Merium Malik is both a female attorney and a business owner. She has worked pro-bono for the Immigration Defense Project and The City University of New York immigration clinic, and she conducts complimentary immigration workshops throughout New York City. Growing up in Pakistan and living in Iran as a child during a time of war, Malik fully understands the plight of immigrants, which is how she deeply connects with her clientele.
Zainab Ismail was born and raised in New York City. She worked as a celebrity trainer for years before converting to Islam and beginning her work, Fit for Allah, which takes on prophetic traditions regarding health, medicine, and food, and melds them with fitness practices. Ismail has traveled the globe teaching others how to be personal trainers, as well as post-rehabilitative techniques in universities and Olympic centers through which she became a world-renowned teacher of trainers. Ismail currently works as a personal trainer at a gym in Manhattan. She also spends time doing charity work with small pockets of Muslim communities in Chiapas, Mexico, and rural provinces outside of Havana, Cuba. In her work with diverse communities, she explains, “I don't need to tell people about Islam. Our manners and behaviors show people, wow, you do all that: that’s what your faith teaches you.”
Dr. Farah Alam, DDS, FSD, is director of the Dental Unit of the Rose F. Kennedy Children’s Evaluation and Rehabilitation Center, which is part of Montefiore Medical Center. Dr. Alam provides special care dentistry for medically complex and behaviorally challenging dental patients. She is also the director of the Rose F. Kennedy Fellowship in Special Care Dentistry, which is one of the few fellowship programs in the country that trains dentists to work with patients with special needs. Dr. Alam trains approximately 50 residents per year. She is the first Muslim director of this center. She was the first female Muslim member of the national Special Care Dentistry Association. “I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. I moved to New York City 24 years ago, and there was no looking back. I just dropped my parents off at the airport this morning, and my brothers said, ‘When are you coming back?’ And I said, ‘It’s been 24 years; it is not happening.’”
Faiza Ali is the co-director for outreach at the New York City Council, working with the community engagement division. This division focuses on connecting disenfranchised communities to the government. Ali directs the Council’s Participatory Budgeting (PB) Initiative. PB is a democratic process in which community residents decide how to spend part of the public budget (up to $2 million per district) in order to directly impact their playgrounds, schools, and other brick-and-mortar issues. Ali explained, “this is a small aspect of a huge budget and gives the money back to the people. They walk the streets, they know how to spend it.” She was previously employed by the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) NY chapter and has focused on public safety, anti-gun violence, and working with youth since becoming an activist in the post 9/11-era. Ali also worked extensively on the successful campaign for Eid holidays to be recognized as public holidays by New York City public schools. “It was a lesson in many ways. If you organize, you win,” she explained.
Mohamed Bahi is one of the founders and director of Muslims Giving Back, a volunteer effort in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, located at the Muslim Community Center. Bahi began organizing around his Muslim heritage and identity after 9/11. Today, Muslims Giving Back has three student chapters on the CUNY college campuses. They hand out food bags to 75 non-Muslim registered families in the community after every Friday prayer and serve 150 hot meals per week. Muslims Giving Back has also collaborated with Love Trumps Hate and Action Corps of NYC, as well as State Assemblyman Felix Ortiz. It further organizes an annual health clinic day at the Muslim Community Center to serve the diverse local community with fourth-year medical students. “I am not a fan of anyone taking the easy way out and moving to Texas,” Bahi says. “It’s tougher here, and I feel like wherever it is tough is where you should stay. It’s what the Prophet did as well. He could have gone anywhere in the world, but he stayed put and struggled. There is so much work that needs to be done here. In the end, when you go home before you go to sleep, you can feel like there is a purpose here, not feel like a robot.”
Tayeba Shaikh, PsyD, is a practicing clinical psychologist who serves patients of various backgrounds with neuropsychiatric counseling and also conducts research in the mental health field. She has specialized in treating women with trauma and anxiety and has been a strong voice in identifying the need for mental health care in the American Muslim community. Dr. Shaikh is a member of the American Psychiatrist Association and New York State Psychiatrists Association. She is credentialed by the National Registration of Health Psychology and the New York University Islamic Center. Dr. Shaikh previously developed curriculum for mental health courses related to stigma, prejudice, health psychology, and the psychology of women, taught in the University of Cincinnati; she continues to serves as an affiliated faculty in their psychology department.
Hisham Tawfiq is an actor born, raised, and based in Harlem. He has been featured in a number of TV shows including 30 Rock, Law and Order, Nurse Jackie, and currently, The Blacklist. His father was a student of Malcolm X. Tawfiq is also involved in other personal projects. One of these is called Jinn, written and produced by a Black Muslim woman, telling the story of an African American teenager’s mother converting to Islam. Tawfiq wanted to be a part of this project because it “giv[es] a window into the African American Muslim home.” His second project is a documentary that Tawfiq is producing with his wife about his own life. “Originally, it was about the fire department. But now, it’s basically going to talk about just my whole life, the Marines, the fire department, corrections, being the son of an imam...being born Muslim and the trials and tribulations I went through as a teenager—and I dealt with the same things in public school, I dealt with the same things in the Marines, the same issue with corrections, you know the common denominator in all my phases of life, so I wanted to tell the story, especially after 9/11. After all that stuff was heightened, there was more of the need to speak on my experience and talk about the contributions that Muslims, and specifically African American Muslims, made to New York City and all cities across the country.”
Zahra Rehman is a first-year science teacher at an inner-city high school in Brooklyn. She was hired to develop an anatomy and physiology curriculum through New Visions for Charter Public Schools, aiming to better incorporate STEM education into their curriculum. Education is a new field for her. She says, “This is my first year. It has been overwhelming in good and bad ways. There are moments, because I work with teenagers, we always describe them as having a pituitary storm going through them. Every day I walk in, and I don't know what will happen. But learning from them and talking to them, I feel like they teach me more than I teach them. It’s been good. But don’t tell them.” She holds a master’s degree in anatomical and translational sciences. After the 2016 presidential election, she questioned what field she wanted to enter and asked herself how she could be of value to society. Rehman is passionate about not only teaching high school students the importance of the body, but also helping them to develop skills and abilities to build their own narratives when they leave high school. Rehman particularly strives to encourage the girls at the high school level to become powerful leaders in the STEM field.
An epidemiologist, Nur studies the determinants of and risk factors for disease and health factors. “I didn’t know [epidemiology] existed until I went to graduate school. However I was introduced indirectly to public health from an early age. As a young girl, I was really inspired by a man named Jonas Salk. Not only did he develop the vaccine for polio, he then championed to make it a mandate to vaccinate children.” A marriage of her three passions of math, science, and public health/medicine, her specific focus is breast cancer epidemiology. “Cancer really appealed to me because it is such a huge burden in the U.S., and it was very poetic in the sense that it is a disease of overgrowth of cells, [cells] growing out of control. It kind of reminded me of society now. What is it that is killing us? It is all this excess. If you looked at the top ten diseases 200 years ago— the majority were infectious diseases. These diseases became less prominent with advances in medicine and public health, introduction of antibiotics, and improvements in sanitation, housing, and nutrition. Now, it is all this excess that is killing us and killing the planet.” As a population scientist, Nur is afforded the opportunity to really focus on the big picture and use a “cell to society” approach to address different public health challenges. “I feel like scientists are like artists because we have to take so much rejection. It’s creative; we have to think outside the box. In medicine, you get a patient and you have to follow different algorithms to find out what they have. But for scientists, we have a problem that we haven’t solved yet [and] society hasn’t solved it yet, so we need out-of-the-box thinkers.”
“I’ve been living here for 11 years,” says Aman Ali, a performer and film producer. “My brother lives here too and we work together on a film company. One time, we met for a meeting. It ran really late; it was 11:30 at night, and we were like let’s go get bubble tea. We’re cutting through Central Park, and there is a bubble tea place on the other side. We go up these stone stairs, and then there [are] bushes on both sides of the stairs. I’m going up the stairs and all of a sudden this guy pops out of the bushes and says, ‘Excuse me, did you just see a blind man that walks by?’ I’m like no. And he says, ‘Well, he didn’t see you guys either!’ And then goes back into the bush. What just happened? So that is why [I live in New York City]. Why would I leave? It’s like free entertainment here. The diversity especially. The vibe. The energy. Everyone is doing dope things. Everyone is doing incredible and awesome things. In my friend circle, it’s not that we get competitive in a catty, want-to-one-up-each-other way. But when someone is doing well, I am happy for them, but it makes me feel like I need to step my game up. I gotta get back and do something else. It is always just that vibe and energy is creative and inspirational, and I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”
Ahsia Badi works at The New York Academy of Medicine as a senior policy associate, focused on projects associated with creating healthier communities and improving aging policy. “I love the city, I love it, I love it,” she says. “I grew up in Ohio. Suburban Ohio. I never thought I would live in New York City. My husband and I moved here because of his work. We thought we would live here for a few years, have kids and move to the ‘burbs. But I love NYC! What I love about it is it’s a village, a small town. Everybody knows each other. My pharmacist knows me, knows my kids, asks me how my kids are. My librarian knows us. In a more intimate way than I have experienced at the Walmart in Ohio. People are friendly. They will chat with you. I love being on the subway and seeing people from every walk of life, race, ethnicity, religion, socioeconomic status. I had my kids on the subway the other day, and I had to sit them away from me. And, you know, you want to be careful about who they are sitting next to. And everyone was so nice! And then you have these random experiences, and you are constantly reminded of your own biases and having to remove them when you have these interplays on the subway. … And everything gets delivered!”
Nicole Najmah Abraham
Nicole Najmah Abraham is a Brooklyn native, mother, spoken word artist, and fashion photographer. She is also project manager for Green Earth Poets Café; workshop facilitator for New York State Senator Jesse Hamilton’s The Campus, a technology and wellness hub in Brooklyn; project contractor for the Center for Community Alternatives, which promotes community-based alternatives to incarceration; and visual marketer, producer, and social media manager for Halalywood Entertainment, an international halal production company. Abraham is a resident speaker and guest lecturer at the Fresno Kremen School of Education and Human Development, where she teaches master’s students. She additionally teaches hip-hop, poetry, and fashion design to youth within the juvenile detention system, as well as prisons in and around New York. Abraham has worked in the New York City fashion industry for almost 15 years, having designed for Walmart, Ecko, Rocawear, U.S. Polo Association, Jordache Jeans, Children’s Apparel Network, and House of Deréon (Beyonce’s fashion line). Abraham founded a forum and storytelling project known as “I Am More Than a Scarf,” featuring Muslim women. “People believe Muslims don’t connect to everyday issues,” she says. But as a human being living every day in America, these are our issues too. So, don’t call me to be your token and give a statement about terrorism. If my son walks out the door, is he going to come back home, because he may get shot and killed, being a Black teenager walking around in a hoodie? Or gentrification that’s changing my neighborhood that I’ve lived in for over ten years in Brooklyn. These issues directly affect me. I’ve realized the power of the arts and using my platform and spotlight.”
At the intersection of civics and technology, Mohammad Khan has been the campaign director at MPower Change, a Muslim grassroots social movement, since January 2016. The Occupy Wall Street movement was Khan’s “aha” moment, giving him a clear vision of how to reimagine society and political life. Khan previously focused on electoral organizing, supporting political campaigns in Muslim communities throughout New York City. On the STEM front, he has a burgeoning web app currently in beta-testing, which will support communities impacted by profiling in airports by automating safety processes. Khan is interested not only in security issues but also in the local challenges faced by Muslim communities.
Abeda Khanam has been a biology teacher at Robert F. Wagner High School for 20 years. “Kids see me as someone who looks at science as a universal language,”she explains. She also serves as the faculty advisor for the school’s chapter of the National Honors Society. She further founded and serves as the faculty advisor of both the diversity and garden club. Two years ago, Khanam created a program that matches high-achieving students with students that need academic support based on emotional intelligence and personality traits (as opposed to traditional programs that pair high and low scorers). Khanam is also a teacher leader with the American Federation of Teachers, a chaplain with the New York State Chaplain Task Force, a Mental Health First Aid trainer collaborating with the ThriveNYC initiative, and a board member of the LIC Roots Community Garden. “In 2015, when the Daily News named me a Hometown Hero in Education, it emboldened me to work directly with the community in capacities such as teacher leader, mental health advocate, and parental engagement columnist. Even though I was born in a village, my village is now Jamaica Queens, and I must serve my village if I am to serve God. The lessons I have learned with my family—including the joys as well as the heartbreaks—I offer to my community. For a collection of resilient families in resilient communities make a great nation. After all, isn’t the welfare of the country the true concern of the patriot?”
Dr. Debbie Almontaser is a community activist, advocate, entrepreneur, and educator who works across sectors in New York City. Among her numerous roles, Almontaser is the founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, the CEO of the Building Cultures Group Inc, founding board member of the Muslim Community Network and the Yemeni American Merchants Association, and is on the board of Micah Institute. Dr. Almontaser is an advisor on cultural and religious diversity issues for Public Advocate Tish James, Borough President Eric Adams, the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, the NYC Commission for Human Rights, and New York City Council members. She is also a member of the NYC Department of Education Diversity Advisory Board. “What keeps me in New York? I don't know, there is something about New York that is like a magnet for me. I grew up in Buffalo, New York, and came here in 1980, and I’ve never left. I can’t imagine myself living anywhere. Every now and then I get homesick and visit my family, but I get homesick for New York right away. The thing that I love about it is public transportation [that] is very accessible, especially when it is running smoothly. I was just on a train ride, and there was a very interesting book conversation; I just had to ask these two people who were talking about a book, two complete strangers talking about the book, ‘Alright, before you two leave, I need to know the name of the book because this is far better than any New York Times’ book review!’”
Shazia Choudri is the founder of Beetbox, a turn-key STEM and nutrition education solution for schools. A monthly box contains lesson plans, fresh ingredients, and materials for teachers; they remove the barriers to teaching by sending everything a teacher needs to deliver the lesson. Each month’s box revolves around a different seed-to-table food theme. The first box focuses on apples, including scientific questions related to food (e.g., what happens to water when we put an apple in it?). Students also get to grow apples from seeds and monitor what happens to the seeds over time as they put them in soil. Cooking, growing, food anatomy, recycling, art, and science are themes covered in every box. Choudri came up with the idea for the company after learning about food deserts in the U.S. and committed to a mission of connecting young children to healthy food. Beetbox is currently in many Head Start, New York State’s Universal Prekindergarten Program (UPK), and early education schools in NYC and across the U.S.
Saffet Catovic has a very long and distinguished history of service and activism in the New York City and New Jersey Muslim communities. In recent years, his specific focus has been interfaith environmental justice. He began his faith-based activism in 2009 with Green Faith, the leading interfaith organization on environmental activism and education. He also worked on the Green Ramadan Initiative, a mosque-based project across New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania aimed at modifying environmentally related behaviors during Ramadan, i.e., local procurement of food, community-supported agriculture, reducing water in ritual washing and consumption, and “leftars” (distributing iftar, Ramadan fastbreak, leftovers to soup kitchens).
Zeba Iqbal has a diverse background in for profit, nonprofit, and start-up management, with a focus on project management, market research, marketing, and strategic communications and business development. In New York City and the metropolitan region, she worked for 15 years in the real estate sector to build public-private sector partnerships between governmental agencies (and other public and private sector landowners), and real estate developers. These innovative partnerships promoted the monetization and development of vibrant public spaces using private sector resources. More recently, Iqbal worked for a major start-up accelerator, and currently assists and advises an early stage tech start-up. In the nonprofit sector, Iqbal led and restructured the nonprofit CAMP (Council for the Advancement of Muslim Professionals) from 2007 to 2011, transforming it from a networking platform to an inclusive and dynamic space for professional dialogue among American Muslim professionals. Iqbal is also a co-founder or founding member of several organizations including Muslims Against Terrorism (2001), South Asian Real Estate Professionals (2005), and the Muslim Democratic Club of New York (2012).
Azra Khalfan is the CEO of Plaques by Azra. The company was started by her father 43 years ago after her family immigrated to New York from Tanzania. The company specializes in engraving, digital printing, and laser cutting. Her clients range from government offices to schools, nonprofit organizations to corporations. Her products have been sent internationally to prime ministers and Nobel Prize winners. “We have seen more rough times then better times,” Khalfan says, speaking of difficulties the company faced during recessions and after Hurricane Sandy. “But there has always been determination. I say a lot of it is because I saw what my parents did and how much it means to them. For me, it wasn’t what I was doing, but why I am doing it, and that is what kept me going.” Khalfan highlights the importance of mentorship for women in business, citing how mentorship programs through the Tory Burch Foundation helped her to become a more effective saleswoman. “They [the Tory Burch Foundation] also provide financial support, mentoring, education, peer-to-peer support. It’s an interesting [thing] when you’re around other women business owners who face same challenges as you do. To know that you’re not alone, and if they can do it, you can do it.”
Dr. Zain Abdullah teaches religion and society and Islamic studies at Temple University, and he is the author of Black Mecca: The African Muslims of Harlem. Abdullah is working with film crews for a three-part PBS special on Muslim Americans and a six-part series on Malcolm X for Netflix. “New York is filled with energy,” he says. “When I was a graduate student living on 33rd and 3rd, after studying all night, the morning energy would pull me, like, ‘All right, let’s go!’” As an anthropologist studying cities, Abdullah is inspired by the stories he finds in New York. His 93-year-old father, Bobby Lewis, is a rock-n-roll singer whose 1961 song Tossin’ and Turnin’ made history on both the Billboard and R&B charts. “About three years ago at BB King’s in Times Square, we went to his show, and all these rock-n-roll legends were coming up to him. We were like, ‘To Dad?!’ Growing up, we would see him on television, on American Bandstand, and were like, ‘Okay, that’s just Dad.’” The incident reminded Abdullah how little we know about our own families and how crucial it is to capture their stories before it’s too late. “I’ve been interviewing him, but I remember hanging out with him in New York as a little boy and everyone would wave and greet him. It was magical. I guess I imagine New York through these early memories with my father, and that has shaped my consciousness of the City. He is a wonderful storyteller and a consummate artist. As a writer, that’s a marvelous gift to inherit. I write stories about the Black experience and the human condition, and storytelling is what makes us most human. It is also what makes us both Muslim and incredible New Yorkers.”
Alexandra Owens works in the external affairs department at LaGuardia Community College (LAGCC), City College of New York (CUNY). External affairs centers on community, government, and public relations. Owens works on community relations, specifically focusing on outreach to Muslim, South Asian, and Arab communities. Her main end goal is educating the community in Queens about available educational opportunities, including recruitment for programs at LAGCC such as English as a new language and workforce development programs. After the publishing industry in which Owens worked faced major cutbacks, a friend convinced her to take the civil service test for CUNY as an administrative assistant, where she eventually moved into her current position. She also serves on her local community board. Previously, Owens participated in community organizing and logistical planning around Park51 and helped to produce the New York Arab-American Comedy Festival.
Priya Chandra, MSW, has been a licensed clinical social worker for the past two years but has worked in the field of crisis counseling for almost 12 years. Following the sexual assault of a friend, she began looking for volunteer opportunities as a sexual assault counselor and domestic violence survivor advocate in New York City hospitals. While her passion and work previously has been with survivors of trauma, Chandra currently sees patients of all backgrounds and ages, and her patients include those facing all types of mental health issues. Chandra works with the community health center at the Institute of Family Health. There, she focuses on integrative practice. “I have to say, that [New York] is a city I swore I would never live in,” Chandra says. “But it is now the city I have lived in the longest, and now it’s hard to see myself anywhere else. We went to Montreal for a weekend, and I was like, ‘This is beautiful, there is great food, but people stare at me.’ I want to be so abnormally normal in New York. Nobody stares at you because they are like, ‘What? You are like one of 10 million to stare at. You are nothing unusual.’ And that is nice. It is a city where I can be me. In Michigan, I felt like I had to be white, and I can’t be white. But New York is home for now.”
Dr. Sarah Sayeed, a prominent example of a Muslim woman in democratic practice, is a senior advisor in the Community Affairs Unit of the New York City government. She was appointed by Mayor Bill de Blasio in June 2015 to expand outreach to Muslim communities across the five boroughs. Prior to attaining this position, Sayeed was a trailblazer in interfaith work and activism. Her interfaith work included running the Rabbi Marshall T. Meyer Retreats for Social Justice at the Interfaith Center of New York and being a board member of Women in Islam Inc. Sayeed has been instrumental in uniting religious leaders from diverse backgrounds in NYC, helping them to cooperate on solving prescient social problems. She also previously worked as a professor in public affairs at Baruch College in New York City.
Citizens Against Recidivism was founded in 1992 by Mika’il Deveaux who is also the current executive director. He has over three decades of experience working on issues affecting the incarcerated. Citizens Against Recidivism serves both Muslims and non-Muslims, filling a gap by providing services not usually available to ex-prisoners. Its re-entry program provides clothing, emergency cash, MetroCards, art intervention programs, counseling services, and anger management training. Citizens Against Recidivism has been able to forge a pathway for ex-prisoners of all backgrounds to successfully contribute to their communities. Deveaux received a Soros fellowship to undertake outreach in the Muslim community, and Citizens Against Recidivism has been recognized by Scott Stringer, the Manhattan Borough President. In the words of Deveaux, “You serve Allah by serving the community, by helping your fellow human being.”
Aizzah Fatima is a writer, playwright, and actress based in New York City, who works in TV, film, commercials, and theater. She is a graduate of The American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Fatima wrote and produced a one-woman play, Dirty Paki Lingerie, touching on themes of Muslim identity, sexuality, bullying, and racial profiling, performed at over 30 college campuses nationwide and reaching over 6,000 people. She also had a role on The Good Wife and other HBO shows. “I remember when I first auditioned for this HBO show, High Maintenance. They had some scenes that just didn‘t portray Muslims in a good light. The writers, after I got cast, came to me, ‘You know we’d like to hear about your life, and where you come from, and what that’s like for you, so we can tell a better nuanced story.’ I feel like that was a true collaboration, and it was the first time on HBO that I heard people speaking in another language, and it was not ‘terrorist-y.’ We spoke Urdu; a lot of our scenes were in heavy Urdu mixed with English, which is how people would usually talk. And, so, we got to say things like‘Assalaam alaikum’ and ‘Khuda Hafiz,’ and it was a regular family living in New York.” In addition to acting, Fatima was also commissioned to collaborate on four original children’s musicals and write the book for one of them through a grant from the Doris Duke Foundation for the Brooklyn Children’s Theater. The musicals feature Muslim protagonists. One of the commissioned works, The Ten-Year Test, traces how Eid became a public holiday in New York City public schools after a decade of campaigning by the Muslim community.
Dr. Rizwan Naeem has been a Professor of Pathology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine for the past seven years. He was previously employed by Baylor College of Medicine in Texas. Dr. Naeem concurrently works as a consultant at Sunrise Medical Laboratories where he researches genetics and genomics clinical testing. He was also the president of the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America (APPNA) from 2012 to 2014. Dr. Naeem has published widely in many journals and started a mentorship program at Albert Einstein to train future physicians who specialize in the field of genetics and genomics research. He is a member of the American Board of Medical Genetics and Genomics and is a board-certified doctor in the states of New York and Texas.
Sahar Alsahlani has been on the interfaith scene in NYC for six years, in myriad roles that promote interfaith social justice. She is a member of the Community of Living Traditions, an intentional multi-faith community, and co-chair of The Fellowship of Reconciliation, the country’s oldest interfaith organization geared toward peace and non-violence. Alsahlani is also on the board of Religions for Peace, USA, a United Nations-affiliated NGO; a fellow at Greenfaith, an interfaith environmental network; and a board member of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR). Alsahlani perceives her work as a way to encourage civic engagement with people from different backgrounds in the five boroughs. She has been involved in justice activism as a representative of CAIR and the broader Muslim community, including environmental justice causes, such as Standing Rock, and racial justice causes, such as Ferguson and Charlottesville. “My passion is learning about other faiths to help discover things about Islam that I might have missed,” Alsahlani says. “As a child I never really learned that Islam was justice and that the Quran was a roadmap to justice. It was through other faiths that reminded me what the purpose of the Quran was. After 20 years of being a TV producer in LA, I decided I was lonely. A single mom with four kids who all left for college. The rabbi said, ‘We are forming this interfaith community and it is geared towards social justice. Why don’t you pack up your camerawork and come out?’ So it was like Alice in Wonderland or Mary Tyler Moore—all of a sudden I’m on a farm picking carrots out of the ground. You never know what Allah will bring you to. Ever since then it was hanging out with the Presbyterians, Zoroastrians and Sikhs, Sushis, Sunnis, Shias, Salafis—we have everyone. We travel around the country. [We] went to Standing Rock, Charlottesville. I do miss being creative but I keep my camera with me ready to go.”