By Mustafa Mehdi Vural
On a typical December morning in the Bronx’s only Islamic private school, Mubina Maricar, a 62-year-old science teacher, strained to be heard above the students’ voices reciting in unison from the adjacent classroom.
Her eight students in grades six through nine were learning about speed, velocity and acceleration. Five boys in the front rows and three veiled girls in the back seats were busily taking notes and answering the teachers’ questions, unfazed by the Qur’an verses emanating through the thin walls.
“Qul’A’udhu bi-rabbin-nas” (I seek refuge in the Lord of mankind).
“Melikin-Nas, Ilahin-Nas” (The king of mankind, the true God of mankind).
Suddenly, the recitation halted. Al-Aqib Coulibaly, the only 2nd grader in the Parkchester school, raised the light blue curtain covering the door between the classes, and walked into Maricar’s room.
The 7-year-old looked at the numbers and formulas on the small green board for a moment, then, walked between the boys and girls to grab an extra Qur’an from the shelf.
Al-Aqib then sauntered back to his classroom where three other students, including his older brother Ismail, were waiting.
Al-Aqib was not having his best day. He had forgotten to memorize his Qur’an verses. He couldn’t find his Arabic homework. He neglected to say, “As-salamu aleykum” (peace be upon you), when he entered the room. Rules were not his favorite thing.
Al-Aqib tightened his black scarf around his head and arranged his black winter coat, as he took his seat in his classroom. Students in both classrooms were wearing their winter coats on Dec. 10 because the small portable heaters were insufficient to heat the classrooms.
Al-Aqib and his brothers are students of the Islamic Leadership School, an private school at 2008 Westchester Ave., founded on September 11, 2001 with 13 students. The school has grown to 18 students over the last eight years, to include children from pre-kindergarten to 9th grade.
The school is a part of an umbrella organization Islamic Cultural Center of North America (ICCNA), a Bronx-based organization that operates both the school and the mosque Masjid Al-Iman.
“My wife and I have one prenuptial agreement,” said Moussa Drammeh, 47, the school’s founder and operations manager.
“It was, if Allah blesses us to have children, they will never go to public school,” said Drammeh, who was born in Gambia, raised in Senegal, and immigrated to the United States in 1986. He is the executive director of ICCNA and the imam of Masjid Al-Iman.
The Drammehs wanted to shield their children from what they believe is the immoral and corrupt behavior of public school children. “In the public schools in the Bronx, children can walk around with their pants hanging down. Thirteen-year-old girls are having sex; they exchange dirty emails,” said Drammeh, who has lived in the Bronx since 1986.
He and his wife began looking for an Islamic school in the Bronx when their first daughter Ameena turned three years old.
They found none in the Bronx, said Shireena Drammeh, 38, who was born in Guyana into a Muslim family of Indian descent immigrated to the United States in 1986.
They checked out Islamic schools in Yonkers, Queens, New Jersey and Brooklyn.
“We went to Long Island, and found a school there. But unfortunately, the taxes there were horrendous,” said Shireena. “Then, we came back and we decided to start our own school.”
Few families resort to creating their own school like the Drammehs, but a growing number of parents are turning to existing private Islamic schools so that their children learn Islamic principles while acquiring basic state-required education.
“Parents are just awakening to the identity issue, and Islamic schools really are very important to establish Muslim identity for kids,” said Karen Keyworth, 52, co-founder of the Islamic Schools League of America, the only non-profit national organization that keeps track of and network full-time Islamic private schools across the U.S.
There were just 50 schools in 1987, said Keyworth referring to the first small-scale research ever done about this subject. Until the founding of the League, there had been no organization keeping track of Islamic schools in the country and doing research about them. According to the League’s research, the school numbers have not changed since the late 1990s. There are 240 full-time Islamic schools in the country with 32,000 students approximately according to the 2006 data.
New York and New Jersey combined have 17 percent of the Islamic school population in the United States, said Keyworth, who is married with four children and lives in Michigan where she manages the League. Keyworth converted to Islam 32 years ago.
The Islamic Leadership School was scheduled to open on what turned out to be a tragic day–September 11, 2001. Drammeh called an emergency meeting the moment he learned that the World Trade Center towers had been attacked by Al-Qaeda extremists.
“Some parents worried about retaliation, saying we should postpone opening,” said Drammeh. But, he refused. “Let the world know the difference between the criminals and peace-loving Muslims,” said Drammeh. And the school has been open ever since.
The school takes up small part of the first floor of two-story 25,000 square-foot building on Westchester Avenue in the Bronx. The building used to be car repair shop, with a warehouse on the first floor and a parking lot on the second floor.
Inside the entrance is a large hall, with two administrative offices on the left that include two computers for students and a big mat spread over the floor where boys learn martial arts. At the end of the hall, two doors open out to a larger room for the mosque, Masjid Al-Imam, a vast space covered with plastic carpets for Muslims in the school and the community to pray.
Drammeh has plans to renovate the building and expand the school through high school and college.
For now, expansion plans are on hold as the school struggles to pay its rent, and finish renovations, which is in its third year.
Parents pay up to $3,500 a year for the school. “The tuition fees can just pay two teachers full salaries,” said Drammeh. The school relies completely on tuition and fundraising dollars, neither of which is substantial.
For the last four months, the school has not been able to pay its monthly $10,000 rent to the landlord, who is a Muslim immigrant from the Balkans.
“If he kills us, he goes to jail,” said Drammeh smiling. “If he exercises patience, Allah rewards him,” he added. “He chose the reward.”
“All the private schools by and large are in financial trouble,” said Keyworth. Islamic schools are not exceptions. Tuition and donations from the local community provide the school’s sole source of income, which barely cover operating costs.
“Our weakest ring is fundraising,” said Drammeh. The donations are almost non-existent.
But Drammeh would rather not talk business. The school for him is not a place of business. Pointing out his heart, he said he began the school with his heart, not with his brain.
The struggling school often admits students whose parents cannot afford to pay the $3500 tuition. Sometimes Drammeh strikes a bargain with the parents.
Al-Aqib’s mother, Berill Barna, 34, works as a cleaning woman and kindergarten aide at the school in exchange for the tuition for her five sons.
“There are 475 kids in our registry that we are in contact with, but could not offer education because of lack of space,” said Drammeh.
The majority of the school’s students come from Africa or Middle Eastern countries, which reflect the demographic changes in the Bronx Muslim population, which has been growing steadily with immigrants from Mali, Ghana, Gambia, and other West African and Middle Eastern countries.
“We are a big family here and it is a protected environment for our kids,” said Barna, who is a Polish immigrant and converted to Islam 11 years ago. Barna is married to a Muslim man from the Ivory Coast.
“We are family,” said Amani Ahmed, a 14-year-old of Yemeni origins, and the school’s only 9th grader, tucking her hair under a black headscarf. “We see everyone almost every day and everywhere.”
This could not be truer for Drammeh’s children, Ameena, a 12-year-old 8th grader; Mohammed, a 10-year-old 6th grader, and Mariam – Drammeh’s 9-year-old epileptic dauther in the 1st grade. They have become used to seeing their father Moussa and mother Shireena Drammeh almost every hour of every day, not just at home but at school since the first day she started the kindergarten.
Uniforms are a casual requirement: navy blue pants and white shirts for boys, and navy blue skirts and white, blue or black headscarves for girls.
“Actually boys wear uniform,” corrected Ameena and Amani. “The girl’s uniform is just to cover yourself,” added Amani. “No matter what you wear, the important thing is to cover yourself.”
The school starts at 8 a.m. and last until 4 p.m. except Fridays when it ends after “Salaat-ul-Jummah,” Friday prayer. On other weekdays, the students have to pray “dhuhr,” the noon prayer, and “asr,” afternoon prayer with their teachers in the masjid.
They are not allowed to leave the building during breaks, including lunch breaks, except on Fridays when they are allowed to go out with their teachers and even to eat some junk food.
Along with Arabic, Qur’an and Islamic Studies, a school day at the Islamic Leadership School is filled with standard academic subjects like English, Sciences, History, Math, and Geography. The school has seven teachers, all Muslim and women, except for the 28-year-old Qur’an teacher, M. D. Amin ul-Islam from Bangladesh.
Last year, 15 students took the Regents exams and “four of them did 100 percent out of 100 percent of the test, excellent,” said Drammeh while the rest passed the test with Level 4, the second highest score, added his wife Shireena Drammeh.
“When I walked in here, I saw that they needed help,” said Maricar, who had taught in Britain, Saudi Arabia and the U.S. before she came to the Islamic Leadership School at the beginning of this academic year. She is not highly paid, “not like other schools or like public schools,” said Maricar. “But, I do not want to teach in public schools.”
Maricar teaches math, science and biology, which includes evolution.
“I tell the students that this is what scientists are telling us,” said Maricar, about the theory of evolution.”We do not want to be narrow minded,” added Maricar, who was born in Kenya and raised in Great Britain, graduated from the University of Sheffield in England. “But, this is not what Qur’an is saying.”
There is no music course at the Islamic Leadership School. “I do not oppose music in principle,” said Drammeh, “as long as there is no dancing, no slang and curse in lyrics and no profanity.” The music of prominent convert Yusuf Islam, formerly known as Cat Stevens, is an example of the kind he approves of.
Nor does the school provide physical activities for its students.
“We teach martial arts to the boys,” said Drammeh. But, there was nothing for girls.
There will be a play named “Healthy Islamic Relationships,” that the students will be performing later in the academic year. And, there is a character for a female student to play.
The play authored by Moussa Drammeh is about Islamic gender roles and relationships between the sexes. The character called the “Groom” explains to the “Bride” how a healthy relationship works in Islam. Under his protection, the groom expects his wife to take care of the house and to aspire to be a professional, such as a doctor, lawyer, artist or banker. The bride aggressively bombards the groom with questions, but in the end, happily agrees with him.
For the last five years, the Islamic Leadership School has been part of an interfaith program with the Jewish school, Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan.
“I actually got to learn more about Judaism and their beliefs and studies and we also got to meet lots of friends,” said Amani. “I taught the Jewish children about Islam. I think they know more about Islam than they did before.”
By noon on December 10th, students prepared for lunch by first performing “wuduu,” the Islamic cleansing ritual for “dhuhr,” the noon prayer.
The seventh grader, Adel Mohammed, 13, knew that day it was his turn to recite “adhan,” the Muslim call to prayer, for “dhuhr.”
He put the palms of his hands over his ears, and started to recite. Students and teachers flocked to the dark blue plastic carpet of the masjid; men and boys lined up in the front carpet while women and girls lined up at the back.
Al-Aqib straggled in late to the prayer.