Debbie Almontaser is the daughter of Yemeni immigrant parents who envisioned a better life in America. After the 9/11 attacks she had her own dream--of establishing an Arab-American School in Brooklyn, New York, that would help ease the cultural tensions between Jews and Arabs as well as educate people to the culturally sensitivities of Arab-Americans.
"I grew up in a small suburb in Buffalo, attending public school with my siblings. My father worked at the Ford Motor Company factory," Almontaser explains. Like the children of many immigrant families, her parents were keen that their children should 'fit in' with their new culture.
"I was encouraged by my parents to assimilate as others did. However, my peers always reminded me I was different. It was difficult going to a predominantly white public school system."
I wondered what inspired Almontaser, as an Arab-American woman, to go into education?
"I initially found my way into education by volunteering in my children's public school. I began as an assistant teacher hired to work with just one child who only spoke Arabic. I was in the right place at the right time to be offered this opportunity ... there wasn't anyone else to fill if after several months of searching for someone who spoke Arabic."
Outspoken, professional and firm in fighting for justice, how did Almontaser encourage other Arab-American Muslim women to be career oriented and confident?
"I was determined as a young woman to find a way to be able to walk in my skin as an American and an Arab who finally found her way to being an observant Muslim by choice. To my fellow sisters, I say education is power no one can take away from you. It allows you to pursue your lifelong dreams, whether big or small. In 2003 I attended an Asian Heritage event at the Mayor of New York's home celebrating Asian Heritage, determined to make sure that Arab Heritage was also recognised and celebrated by New Yorkers. I cornered the Mayor of New York about doing it. This process required patience and perseverance in a post 9/11 world but in 2005, Arab Heritage Week became a reality.
"The same thing happened with my spearheading the creation of the Khalil Gibran International Academy, many thought it would never get approved, but it was."
Tell me about your inspiration to start the Khalil Gibran School: what was your vision?
"I declined to continue the cultural diversity work I began after 9/11 building bridges of understanding among people. By 2005, I...