Dr. Debbie Almontaser: “When They Build Walls, We Build Bridges”

By Ilgin Beygo Yorulmaz

The reaction to the travel ban from six Muslim majority countries in January may have increased public visibility of Dr. Debbie Almontaser, yet behind the scenes this fierce civil rights activist and educator of Yemeni origin has been advocating for social justice and religious freedom for over three decades.

As the president of the board of directors for the Muslim Community Network and a national board member of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, she said of her work:

“It brings me a sense of belonging and purpose.”

Almontaser remembers her beginnings as a volunteer on the PTA at her children’s multiethnic school in Brooklyn in the late ‘80s where she was valued for her ability to straddle two identities and culturally connect with Arab and Muslim communities:

“…I worked closely with a little girl who only spoke Arabic. Being in that classroom with her opened my eyes to another world where I realized I can make a difference,” she says.

With the support of her family and friends, most notably her husband Naji, Almontaser attended every professional development opportunity after school and on the weekends, eventually becoming a teacher in District 15.   She went to college, the first woman to do so in her tight-knit Yemeni community in Brooklyn, and went on all the way to gain a doctorate.

“A housewife raising a family [like many other women from Yemen] is a noble profession, but it was not my path. I am happy that I was able to take on this challenge of going against the norm for our society and the people of Yemen,” she says.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Almontaser felt her calling shift in a new direction: “I took what I knew best and used it to bring understanding and healing.”

She was a teacher by day, a lecturer by night, and a workshop facilitator, training teachers in conflict resolution and cultural diversity methods.

“I took on these endeavors in the name of bridging the divide and working to help people overcome their fears of the ‘other,’ says Almontaser, who later founded Bridging Cultures Group, Inc., an educational and cultural inclusion advocacy whose motto is:

'When they build walls, we build bridges.' Click to Tweet

Sixteen years after 9/11, fear is again reverberating through Almontaser’s community. “This work remains a life of commitment that I am dedicated to unconditionally, now more than ever,” she says.

As a good listener, Dr. Almontaser always encourages and values people’s right to express alternative perspectives creating open space for important dialogue.

In her work as a community organizer in New York City, she played a critical role on establishing Arab Heritage Week in NYC, founding the Khalil Gibran International Academy, institutionalizing Muslims Holidays for public school children, and dismantling the NYPD Muslim Surveillance program.

Her work with diverse communities comprised of Christians, Muslims, and Jews involved serving as a “cultural broker” for those who fear the unknown based on what they have read or heard in the news.

“This has been a powerful experience for me; to see a smile replace a hard-hearted stare on the face of someone who has experienced a moment of profound change in how he or she views people and situations conceived of as ‘different’,” Almontaser says.

She cites her religion and the the teachings of The Holy Prophet Mohammed for overcoming differences and navigating the world with humility:

“Islam has made a crucial difference in my life. It has nourished my soul to think of others’ needs before my own.”

“…The Holy Prophet said: ‘The believers in their love, kindness, and compassion towards each other are like the human body; when one of its limbs is afflicted the whole of it is involved both in waking and in fever’.”

Dr. Debbie Almontaser is a 2017 recipient of Auburn’s Lives of Commitment Award. Auburn’s Lives of Commitment Awards Benefit Breakfast will take place on April 27, 2017 at Cipriani 42nd Street at 7:00 am. You may reserve your seat by clicking here.

 

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