Arab-American civic leader loves helping people in need

June 11, 2012 Brooklyn Eagle Staff
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By Paula Katinas

Bay Ridge Eagle

Editor’s Note: Even though the controversial show “Brooklyn 11223” aired its season finale April 30, there is no shortage of “real” women in Bay Ridge. The Bay Ridge Eagle is proud to continue profiling them and their accomplishments.

Bay Ridge — It was something a crying child said to her that made Linda Sarsour realize that she had found her life’s work.

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“It was early 2003 and I was trying to help a woman whose husband was missing. He had been taken away and she had not heard from him in seven days,” said Sarsour, executive director of the Arab-American Association of New York. Sarsour said that, at the time, many Arabs had been brought in for questioning as possible terrorism suspects by authorities. It was two years after the Sept. 11 attack.

The woman who walked into the association’s office seeking help had six children, Sarsour recalled.

“One of her children was a little boy, around 3 years old. He said to me, ‘Please help us find where my Dad is. Even if I can’t see him, I just want to talk to him on the phone.’ It broke my heart. My daughter was 2-and-a-half at the time. At that moment, I thought of my daughter,” Sarsour said.

Sarsour made phone calls, reached out to whatever contacts she had that knew people in government, and did everything she could to help reunite families that had been torn apart.

“We have to respect the law. But we also have to make sure that people’s civil rights are being respected,” she said.

The encounter with the woman and her little boy changed Sarsour’s life. She discovered that she loved helping people.

She still does.

As executive director of the Arab-American Association of New York, she oversees an organization that assists thousands of people in Bay Ridge and elsewhere. The association was founded in March 2001. The Bay Ridge-based association offers social service referrals and English language lessons for immigrants newly arrived from the Middle East, as well as after-school programs for kids.

“Our goal is to help them make as smooth a transition to American life as possible,” said Sarsour, who has been the executive director since 2005.

Under Sarsour’s direction, the association has worked to become fully integrated in the fabric of Bay Ridge life.

“We marched in the Bay Ridge Saint Patrick’s Parade and we’re not Irish. We volunteered to help clean the parks on ‘It’s My Park Day.’ And we work with the Guild for Exceptional Children, the Salvation Army, and local churches like Our Lady of Angels, St. Andrew’s, and Good Shepherd,” she said. “We do these things so our neighbors can see what we’re all about. We’re here. We love this community. And we’re not going anywhere.”

The association also sponsors cultural events such as “Arabian Nights,” a dance held at Xaverian High School, and a bazaar in Shore Road Park.

“We have music, games, Middle Eastern food. Between 3,000 and 5,000 people come to it every year. Many of the people who come are non-Arabs. One lady recently stopped me on the street and asked me if we were holding it this year. She did not look like an Arab. I ran into my office and gave her a flyer,” Sarsour said.

This year’s bazaar will take place on July 8 in Shore Road Park on 79th Street.

On April 4, the association sponsored “Arab-Americans Got Talent,” a talent showcase for young people that took place in a theater in downtown Brooklyn.

The association is a member of the Unity Task Force, a group of civic activists and leaders of various religions who work together to foster peace and understanding in Brooklyn. The task force was formed by Brooklyn District Attorney Charles Hynes to ease tensions between the Arab-American community and its neighbors in the days after the Sept. 11 attack.

Sarsour joined the Arab-American Association of New York as a volunteer shortly after it was formed 11 years ago.

“I was still in college. I had planned to become a teacher. I was just doing volunteer work. But when you discover you love doing something, you have to pursue it. And I loved helping people. I decided that this was something I had to do. When you help someone, there’s no better feeling,” she said.

One of the newest endeavors of the association is “Brooklyn Act,” a program to encourage leadership skills in young women. A group of young women between the ages of 15 and 17 took part in a conference at Northeastern University on Memorial Day.

Immigrants from the Middle East have found a comfortable home in Bay Ridge, Sarsour said.

“There are 140,000 Arabs in Brooklyn and many of them live here in Bay Ridge. Originally, when Arabs came to Brooklyn, they settled downtown. But as affordable housing started to become scarce in Downtown Brooklyn, they looked for other communities to settle in. And when the Islamic Society of Bay Ridge was established, many Arabs started to move here. Muslims tend to congregate around their religious institutions,” she said.

There have been several waves of Middle Eastern immigration, according to Sarsour.

“For many years, most of the immigrants coming here from the Middle East were Lebanese and Syrian Christians. In the newer wave, we have people from places like Egypt, Yemen, North Africa, Algeria and Morocco. There are 23 Arab countries represented among the population of Brooklyn,” she said.

Sarsour was born and raised in Sunset Park. She was born in Lutheran Medical Center.

“I am the oldest of seven children, so I think from early on, I was ready to be a leader,” she said. “My parents come from the Palestinian rights movement and there was always talk of politics at our table at home. Palestinian rights is a very unifying issue in our community.”

Sarsour attended P.S. 169, Pershing Intermediate School, and John Jay High School. She was president of her eighth grade class at Pershing and was a member of the debate club.

When she moved on to high school, she found that she enjoyed that, too.

“I found John Jay to be a good experience for me. Before I went there, people warned me that it was a rough school. But I liked it. It taught me that you shouldn’t listen to people’s rumors. You need to find out for yourself,” she said.

Sarsour, who has been living in Bay Ridge since 2000, is planning to become even more active in the community. She has applied to the borough president’s office for membership on Community Board 10. She is also thinking about running for public office at some point.

“I do see a future in politics for me in the next couple of years,” she said.

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