Muslims praying at the No Muslim Ban rally and vigil in Foley Square, New York today. Photo by Stella Levantesi
In New York’s Foley Square, Muslims, Jews, Christians and people not affiliated with any religion, came together tonight to rally for “No Muslim Ban Ever.” But behind their prayers and lamp-lit banners was so much more than just a policy protest.
“There’s that sickness of bigotry of thinking that you can keep somebody out,” said Rabbi Marisa Elena James at the Lower Manhattan protest. “Nobody is immune to being drawn into a hateful ideology.”
It’s three days before the latest Muslim Ban is expected to take effect. The executive order prohibits travel to the US from six Muslim-majority countries: Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Chad, North Korea and Venezuela were added to the list, while Sudan was removed.
Muslims living in the US are fighting a double battle, nationally, to secure their life and protect it from islamophobia, and internationally, in their country of origin, which is, in many cases, shaken by violence, conflict and terrorism by extremists of their very own religion.
The pattern the protestors see of prejudice towards Muslims is destruction on many levels.
“It’s counterproductive, because it alienates the only people who, if one really wanted to fight terrorism, you could turn to,” said Priscilla Read of the Westchester Coalition Against Islamophobia.
Today, Somalia was hit by one of the most lethal terrorist attacks of its history when a truck bomb in the country’s capital, Mogadisciu, caused more than 500 casualties.
Fadumo Osman, 21, the President of the College Democrats at NYU, is the daughter of Somali refugees who came to the US with nothing.
“I grew up in a post 9/11 world where I was viewed differently just because I wore a hijab in high school,” said Osman. “Now, my people are getting killed on their own land by those terrorists that a lot of people in this country are accusing them to be.”
For some, the ban is a reflection of the tendency to attach Muslims to the stigma of terrorism.
For others, national security prevails over human rights.
“This isn’t even a ban, it’s so people can be vetted properly, it’s not targeting Muslims,” said Karen Braun, a Trump supporter from New York. “There are two non-Muslim countries involved. This is the objective, to stop terrorists from coming in.”
For the activists of the mobilization however, the presence of two non-Muslim countries in the ban doesn’t invalidate its intrinsic anti-Muslim motive.
“This is a Muslim ban, regardless of other non-Muslim countries involved,” said Osman. “Beyond that, there’s a very deep, rooted issue when it comes to white supremacy, when it comes to what it means to make America great again.”
But today’s mobilization wasn’t only about a national conversation.
In Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims are being inhumanely tortured by the country’s military; villages are ravaged and burnt, children are set on fire, women are raped, gang-raped. The mass persecution has forced an exodus from their homeland to Bangladesh, a predominantly Islamic country.
“It’s ethnic cleansing,” said Begum Hosheara, a Bangladeshi woman who moved to the US 21 years ago. “They’re killing people, piling them up in open pits, covering them with petrol and burning them. They’re cutting people’s limbs, women’s breasts and letting them die.”
Amnesty International has accused Myanmar of crimes against humanity, but critics wonder if international law terminology makes a difference.
“I can’t sleep at night,” Hosheara said. “My nephew is in Bangladesh and sent me a video of a desperate man shouting ‘If they want to kill us, just send us a bomb and kill us all together’.”
Since August 25th, more than 400,000 Rohingya have fled Myanmar and are now refugees living in barbaric conditions with nothing, often gravely injured and mourning the atrocious deaths in their families.
“These people are powerless, they have no voice, they are getting killed only because of their ethnicity, only because they’re Muslim,” said Begum. “We need to forget about religion, we need to be human again.”
Protestors said in the US, Trump’s policies have created a vicious cycle.
“The terroristic acts that are committed by Islamic extremists are being instrumentalized,” said Read. “For example, 9/11 fit perfectly into a neo-conservative framework and now we’ve got people absolutely terrified all the time.”
According to a 2017 Pew Research Center survey, 75 percent of respondents said, Muslims face a lot of discrimination in the US. Only 3 percent said it is easier.
The fear of being vulnerable to verbal or physical assaults is so high, some Muslims said they avoid reporting acts of hate towards them.
“One day I saw two girls push an old Muslim lady into the street, she risked being run over by a car,” said Begum. “‘She can’t wear this dress [the hijab] here’, the girls said. “Before, when anything happened we could call the police and report, but now we’re scared of being found and attacked again.”
But Osman said the twilight-lit crowd reminded people of hope.
“The thing that has kept me going is solidarity, in the form of showing up physically,” she said. “Just seeing you guys out here, reminds me that I shouldn’t give up.”
Today’s Donation drive for Mexico and Puerto Rico on Southern Blvd & Aldus St in the Bronx was filled with supporters. Photo Credit: Stella Levantesi
The line of vehicles was long, but patient. Cars and vans were overflowing with food and basic necessities. People worked as a human chain, shouting enthusiastically at each other to pass on boxes of supplies towards the huge container trucks parked on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx.
Today’s donation drive hosted by the New York Hispanic Clergy Organization was about the community coming together to aide victims of hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico and the earthquake in Mexico.
And the Bronx Latino community is large. The Bronx is a borough of more than 1.4 million people of which about 56 percent are of Hispanic descent which makes up more than a third of New York’s Hispanic community. Puerto Ricans are the majority of Bronx Latinos.
“We’re having a lot more (supplies) than we’ve expected and we possibly will need more trucks,” said Liza Galletti, a local activist.
The island of Puerto Rico, nearly wiped out by Hurricane Maria, is suffering from one of the greatest humanitarian crises of the last decades. Power grids are down, roads are blocked, bridges have collapsed and there’s a shortage of food and water.
“That’s why we keep telling people ‘please donate, please donate.’ This can’t be a one time thing,” Galletti said.
Southern Boulevard was swarmed with volunteers and community members who flooded the street to show their support. Music blasted from the speakers, whistles blew and speakers rallied the crowd in Spanish.
“We’re done with another container. All six containers are full,” yelled volunteer and Queens resident Darlene Free, flashing a smile.
They were not even halfway through the relief operations.
“And we have six more coming,” she yelled, trying to raise her voice over the applauding crowd.
For volunteers and donors, it was all about getting help to the victims as they struggle and work together to stay alive.
“In my family if one person can cook then all the other members go to that home so they get at least a meal once a day,” said Jadeling Chavez, an ESL middle school teacher in the Bronx. “We have a motel down in Santa Isabela and my father provides gas and a place where people can stay. At least at night people have light because the area is not safe and it’s dangerous.”
In hospitals, generators have broken down and medications are running low.
“I have an aunt who is in dehydration,” said Erica Morales, 33, of the Bronx. “She hasn’t had water in days. But she hasn’t been able to get to the hospital. Other people are stuck in their houses because of flooding. The water’s contaminated and people are getting sick.”
For Puerto Ricans on the mainland, communicating with their families is one of the biggest issues. Most people have to leave their towns to get an antenna signal that allows them to send even a short, quick message.
“The first days I wasn’t able to talk to my parents for a week,” said Sofia Tollinche, 20, a student at Manhattan College and a Puerto Rico native. “Now they call me if they have a signal, but I can never get through to them.”
Many of the supporters were not happy with the response of the US government.
“The government hasn’t stepped up the way they should,” said Rebecca Ramos, 43, a native of Puerto Rico. “I’m beyond angry, our president’s priority is going golfing this weekend while people are literally dying.”
Some community members pointed out that many Americans don’t realize that Puerto Ricans are American citizens.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo flew to Puerto Rico immediately after Hurricane Maria hit, emphasizing the need for a collective and urgent effort to face Puerto Rico’s paralysis.
The Mexico earthquake seemed to take a back seat to the dire issues of the island.
“I was born in Mexico, so what happened there for me is a great deal,” said Christian Valero, of the Bronx and a graphic designer. “But I’m here to express solidarity with anyone who’s affected. It’s not just Puerto Rico or Mexico, it’s everywhere and it’s good to see people come together to help.”
Volunteers are also headed to the island to help.
“We are seeing the very best of humanity here. I’m proud,” said Ruben Diaz Jr., president of the Bronx Borough. “We’ve felt this pain for the last nine days, but we’re channeling that in a positive way. This response is just amazing.”
South African artist Esther Mahlangu at the unveiling of Imani Shanklin Roberts’ mural in Tribeca yesterday. Photo credit: Stella Levantesi
An ordinary Citi Bike Station in Tribeca was transformed into a celebration of South African artist Esther Mahlangu as a mural inspired by her colorful iconographic work was unveiled on the street yesterday.
Mahlangu, 81, regally stood over the work painted on the corner of Tribeca’s Franklin Street and West Broadway. She wore her native Ndebele tribe garments and traditional rings around her neck and ankles.
Mahlangu’s art, commissioned by world-renowned brands such as BMW, Fiat and British Airways, represents large-scale contemporary graphics inspired by her heritage. Now Citi Bikers will get to park their bikes literally on a mural that embodies a celebration of South African culture. Citi Bike partnered with South Africa Tourism and South African Airways to fund the mural.
Standing on the mural, representatives of Citi Bike and South Africa Tourism delivered a lively press conference to a small group of people that gathered round to listen and politely cheer when the artists were introduced.
“This is the third mural we’ve painted at a Citi Bike station through the Department of Transportation art program, but it’s the first one we’ve done with the support of a partner, who gave us the opportunity to share Esther’s traditional artwork with the people of New York,” said William Bissell, director of Sales and Partnerships at Motivate International Inc., which operates the Citi Bike program.
The mural’s artist, Imani Shanklin Roberts, stood by Mahlangu beaming.
“Bringing bright colors allows us to be joyous, a lot of the hues I used I’ve seen in Esther’s work and I really wanted to stay true to that design,” said Roberts.
A brief ribbon cutting by Mahlangu was marked by most people holding their phones up in the air, slightly tilted towards the ground to get a better perspective of the mural’s patterns.
Mahlangu, who artistically follows traditions inherited by her mother and grandmother, said the idea of passing on female imagery is something that she defined as “transforming her skin.”
“I’m proud of seeing other women taking these things forward,” she said.
And Roberts’ art is Afro-centered and revolves around the African American culture fueled by her parents. It reflects an ambivalent struggle, first as a woman and then as an African American. Although Roberts’ work is what she called “Afro-conscious”, it’s also charged with a strong feminine identity that in being amidst race is not necessarily a racially connected experience.
“To be a woman in the world is a battle that everyone can relate to, something that surpasses race,” said Roberts. “Now I have a young daughter and I feel I have to put out images in the world that allow her to feel empowered and that push her to be the best she can.”
In 2009, Roberts moved from her hometown, Washington D.C., to New York, where she now teaches social studies at the South Bronx Community Charter High School. It was in this city that, for the first time, race became relevant to her both as a woman and an artist.
“My inspiration came when I moved to New York, when I found myself entering spaces where I was the only black woman, where the majority of people doesn’t necessarily reflect your own journey,” said Roberts. “I felt an unheard voice. I was always challenged to document the African American experience.”
A quote on the wall of St. Paul’s Chapel. The Lower Manhattan Church is steps from Ground Zero and was a haven for rescue workers and volunteers following the attacks. Photo by Stella Levantesi
Since the collapse of the World Trade Center 16 years ago, “The little church that stood,” also known as St. Paul’s Chapel, has become a beacon of hope for many. It served as a relief center for Ground Zero recovery workers until May 2002. And it’s mission is what Rev. Dr. William Lupfer, the rector of Trinity Church, called “the healing of memories” through physical and spiritual relief.
For years, people have been coming back to St. Paul’s Chapel on the 9/11 anniversary to remember. It stands just steps from Ground Zero, and miraculously, suffered no damage.
Chester Johnson is a poet who served on the governing board of the Trinity Church, which operates the chapel. He worked as a volunteer during the aftermath of the attacks.
On 9/11 Johnson was downtown, trapped for hours in his consulting firm not far from the south tower.
“What St. Paul represented to us and to the recovery workers was the reverse of what happened at Ground Zero,” said Johnson. “There was so much hate and evil in the attacks and St. Paul’s was a fountain of hope.”
During the 8-month cleanup the chapel was open 24/7 to workers who came to sleep in the pews and have a warm meal. The pews, scratched from the tools of rescue workers and volunteers are a memorial to the men and women who spent days and months at Ground Zero, searching for survivors amid the rubble and clearing the catastrophic site.
What these recovery workers needed more than anything were boots and foot care. The pit in Ground Zero was still burning as they worked and the scalding heat of the pile melted their shoes.
“I remember a high school sports coach from Alabama, he would gather up boots, put’em in his truck and drive up to New York City to bring them to St. Paul’s,” said Johnson.
Among torment and loss, St. Paul’s Chapel served as a sanctuary that brought people together.
“Seeing the big burly guys – these are tough guys – and just seeing their foot care, how their physical souls were taken care of, I think was an outward sign of what it meant,” said Lupfer.
After 9/11, the fence around St. Paul’s Chapel was emblazoned with pictures of people who died in the attack, poems and even pieces of clothing. Johnson wrote of a “litter of the heart” in his “signature poem called “St. Paul Chapel” which has been used as a memento card of the memorial since 2002.
During the months of recovery, more than 10,000 volunteers worked at St. Paul’s. Doctors were giving out aspirin, helpers were offering parkas and head warmers if it got cold, priests were saying prayers and music echoed in the chapel, lifting spirits up. And as “a rescuer reaches for a stuffed toy to collect a touch,” Johnson’s poem reads, people kept bringing in tokens to commemorate the tragedy, making St. Paul’s Chapel a symbol of resilience and harmony.
“People think ‘can I reach closure?’ But the scripture doesn’t say we need closure, coming back every year is our form of being comforted,” said Johnson, referring to the passage in the Bible that reads “Blessed are those who mourn for they shall be comforted.”
“It’s a never-ending healing process, for the memory will never fade away,” he said
This morning, as the Bell of Hope resounded through the air, “The little church that stood” reminded passersby of its survival. And Johnson recited his poem. “It stood. Not a window broken. Not a stone dislodged. It stood, when nothing else did. It stood when terrorists brought September down.”