Muslim community turns to private education to retain Islamic culture

ASTORIA, New York City – Sherin Aref’s 5 year-old son learns Arabic and American History in the same day.

Aref is one of many Muslims in Queens who’s struggling to maintain her religious heritage despite generations spent marinating in America’s melting pot. To ensure their values remain intact, many Muslims here are turning to Islamic private education as an answer.

“It’s our religion, it’s what we believe in, he’s going to be the man of the house, if he doesn’t know it, how can he lead his family,” said Aref about her son who’s attending El-Ber, a local Astoria Islamic school.

Aref said she didn’t have the advantage she is giving to her son. She grew up in Long Island, she said, like “an ordinary American lady.”

There were no Islamic schools around her home, so she attended non-religious private schools. Then she went to college. Then she got a job. It wasn’t until young adulthood that she undertook a more in-depth education in Islam.

“Going to a private school, I didn’t practice religion. So what did I know about Islam? All that came later,” said Aref. “If I could go back, believe me, I would have done it the same way as my son.”

According to the Allied Media Corp., American Muslims have a family size 25 percent larger than the national average of 3.2. Also, the Arab American Institute reports that the Arab population in New York has grown 50 percent, to around 150,000, since 1990. That means more kids growing up in a land where the public educational system boasts of a stark divide between church and state.

Despite the interest and growth in the Muslim population, the economy has made it difficult for some families to send their kids to full-time Islamic private schools, which, on average, cost between three and four thousand dollars a year. As a result, some of these Islamic schools – all of which demanded that the name of the school not be mentioned in the story in exchange for an interview — admitted that they have been seeing a drop in enrollment and donations. Still the interest in Muslim education remains high with families finding creative ways to offer it to their children.

Abdell Semmane brings his 9-year-old grandson, who probably knows more Spanish than he does Arabic, to the local Mosque on weekends for free lessons in Islam and Arabic.

His grandson is third generation Egyptian and attends public school in New Jersey. For Semmane, he said his grandson’s occasional study at the mosque is not enough, though.

“I don’t want him to blame me when he’s 18, 19, 20 and he can’t read the Koran,” he said. “If I do that for him and he keeps the culture, he will do the same for his sons.”

Semmane has hopes to enroll his grandson in Steinway Street’s fledgling Foundation For Knowledge, a small private school that opened in 2006 which offers kids part-time, intensive weekend classes in Arabic and Koran studies.

“Memorization of the Koran is of utmost importance,” said Fauzan Plasticwala, an employee at the Foundation. Plasticwala stressed that teaching fluency in Arabic and Koran memorization to kids is the best thing older generations could do to preserve culture. He added: “That way in the future, if all the books are lost, or society disappears, Islam will remain because our culture will be in the minds of the children.”

Weekend classes at the Foundation cost a fraction of normal full-time schools at $99 a month. The Foundation has plans to open a full-time, 35 thousand square foot private institute near Jamaica, Queens. Administrators plan the school to be K through 12, and will seek accreditation from the New York State Education Department, teaching typical subjects of Math English and History in addition to the Koran and Arabic.

“We are American, American, American, and Muslim,” said Semmane. “[My grandson] needs to practice our religion, yes, to preserve our Islamic tradition, but he also needs to mix with American tradition.”

“Mixing” often means preparation for college and eventual entrance into America’s professional workforce, as much a concern for parents as manners and religion.

“These schools are like regular public schools, they teach the same exact way academically, except a lot of it is in Arabic, so they teach him ABC’s in two languages,” said Aref. “To have two languages, to have the education, to have the values…” she trailed off before continuing, “and if he has all that, think of what he can do for the community.”