On a Thursday afternoon, the Yemen Café and Restaurant in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, was unusually packed. Ahmed Alsubai, a 21-year-old Yemeni order taker and his co-workers were working flat out to cater to back-to-back orders from parents and children. The clients were Muslims from Egypt, Syria, Palestine, and Yemen.
Just a step out of the restaurant, a group of American and Muslim children were playing together on the sidewalk of Fifth Avenue. They were chatting affably with one another, enlivening an otherwise placid, normal weekday.
Those kids were seizing their day as New York City for the first time closed more than 1,800 public schools on Sept. 24 in observance of Eid al-Adha, one of the two most sacred Muslim holy days. In March, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that starting this year New York City’s public schools would close in honor of Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, which fell during the summer, besides major Christian and Jewish holidays.
“It’s amazing. They have started to recognize it,” Alsubai, the Yemeni restaurant order taker said, fondly looking at the diverse gathering of school kids on the sidewalk. Now a community college student, Alsubai recalled having to choose between staying home and attending school on such holidays in the past. “Over time, they are going to start and get to other things too. It’s very good.”
Against the backdrop of several anti-Muslim developments across America in mid-September, such recognition might seem of modest importance for the Muslim community in New York. But for Muslim activists who have advocated for the recognition, it was a hard-won symbolic victory. “Often times we are told that we may never live to see the fruits of our labor and as organizers we are OK with that, but we did this time,” said Linda Sarsour, a key member of the Coalition for Muslim School Holidays, which started to push for the inclusion of the two holidays in academic calendars in 2006. “These two holidays are the ones universally celebrated by all Muslims regardless of sect of Islam.”
In January 2006, a statewide exam was scheduled to coincide with Eid al-Adha later that year, galvanizing a number of advocacy groups into forming the Coalition for Muslim School Holidays. It was that group that in June of that year promoted a bill to pre-empt the scheduling of mandatory tests on any religious holiday.
The campaign was close to success in 2009 when the City Council voted unanimously to sign off on a resolution asking that the Department of Education incorporate the Islamic holidays into the public academic calendar. But then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who is Jewish, blocked the move, saying, “If you close the schools for every single holiday, there won’t be any school.”
The Muslim activists did not budge, however, forging ahead with the campaign. In the race for the New York mayoralty in 2013, front-runner Bill de Blasio and his rivals said in a debate sponsored by the Arab American Association of New York and the Islamic Center at New York University that, if elected, they would close the schools for the Muslim holidays.
“De Blasio fulfilled his promise,” said Zein Rimawi, a Bay Ridge-based Palestinian-American father of two schoolgirls. “It’s our holidays and the schools are closed. We are happy when our children are celebrating without worrying about what they are going to lose.”
The de Blasio administration also announced last June that schools would be closed in February 2016 during the Lunar New Year, the most important holiday celebrated in many parts of Asia. That means that, other than the Easter and Christmas breaks, New York City public school students will have days off on the Lunar New Year, 14 Jewish holidays and the two most recently added Muslim holidays, Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.
There are up to one million Muslims in New York City, according to the U.S. census. A Columbia University-commissioned study in 2008 found that Muslim children account for 10 percent of 1.1 million students in over 1,800 schools in New York. Around 95 percent of Muslim children go to public schools, the study said.
Letitia James, the New York City public advocate, said in a statement: “Official recognition of Eid-al-Adha and Eid-al-Fitr as school holidays is a clear message to Muslim New Yorkers — and particularly young people — that they are accepted as part of our society and that their faith and traditions are respected by a city that counts on them as responsible citizens.”
But even though the city has become the largest school district in the U.S. to recognize Islam holidays, activists say that at the end of the day such recognition should reached out to all Muslim communities across the country.
Sadyia Khalique, director of operations of the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said that one day before Eid al-Adha, she received an email from a community member from Long Island asking how long it would be before the Muslim community there got the same recognition. A week earlier, tension erupted at a meeting of the New Jersey school board when the board told disgruntled Muslim parents that schools would remain open on Eid al-Adha.
For Muslim activists, that means their campaign still has a long and rocky way to go.
“Until every Muslim child has the ability to practice their religion and observe their holidays, we will not break,” Khalique said.