By MIRIAM QUIÑONES & SÍLE MOLONEY
ICNA Relief/Muslims for Humanity, the NYPD, Smiles through Cars, the Muslim & Immigrant Coalition for Justice, Bronx Community Council for Unity, Faith & Humanity, the Chaplain for the State of New York, and Empire Blue Cross, Blue Shield joined forces for an Eid celebration on Sunday, May 16, at 2141 Bronx Park East, in Pelham Parkway, following the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
The celebration consisted of a barbecue, a toy giveaway and a car rally and was billed as a historical event in which “all faiths and community leaders were invited to participate.”
As reported previously, the Islamic holiday of Idul-Fitr, sometimes called Eid Al-Fitr or simply Eid, is a time of joyous celebration, one shared among friends and family to mark the end of Ramadan, a month-long period during which Muslims fast during daylight hours, and take more time to pray and reflect. Eid, which in Arabic means “Festival of Breaking Fast,” is usually an occasion to join together in prayer as part of a congregation.
The mood on the day was celebratory and the joy at being able to gather together once again, in person, was evident. Among the coordinators of the event were Shabbir Gul, ICNA Relief host and Bronx Community Council president, Mohamed Baksh, Moviz Siddiqi, Hamza Choudhry and Aldo Rafael Perez. The latter holds a number of titles, including independent consultant, vice president of governmental affairs at the Bronx Community Council for Unity, outreach specialist for ICNA Relief Muslims for Humanity, and co-founder of Muslim & Immigrant Coalition for Justice.
According to its website, the nonprofit, Smiles Through Cars, and a growing team of its supporters, sometimes dressed as “superheroes,” have been on a mission since 2008 to change the world, one smile at a time. The group’s mission began with an introduction between Josh Aryeh and Jessica, an 8-year-old girl from Queens who was battling a rare form of cancer. Jessica had lost sight of the joy in her life and Aryeh decided something had to be done.
A car enthusiast, himself, Aryeh borrowed a family member’s sports car, hit the road, and started out on a mission to make Jessica smile again through the simple joy of a car ride, when nothing else mattered except a moment of escapism, and Smiles Through Cars was born. Aryeh, sometimes also known as “Batman,” was present at the Eid event, although he didn’t have his batman suit with him on the day, along with Yessenia Gomez, sometimes known as “Batgirl.” They were pictured at one point with NYPD Lieutenant Zaghan of the NYPD Transit District 34 in front of a “bat mobile.”
Meanwhile, describing the event, another co-organizer, Hamza Ahkrim, told the Norwood News, “Hey, What’s up Guys? Today, we hosted an event called ‘Toys for Eid.’ It was an event that I started last year with the help of all my friends to give back to our community, our Muslim community,” he said. Ahkrim continued, “It’s basically like a car rally plus a toy drive. Last year was a huge success. This year was even better, and I’m so excited for next year. This is going to be an annual event.”
Similarly, another fellow co-organizer, Shahir Assad, told us that with the help of his friends, and in addition to the BBQ, the group arranged to hand out toys to kids on the day. “It is an event where we give back to our community, our Muslim Community. My friends brought the cars Ferrari, Porsche, Lamborghini, all the cars for the kids,” he said, before urging a large group of his friends who were standing behind him to give a collective shout-out to all the readers of the Norwood News, as our reporter filmed the interview. The group enthusiastically obliged, giving a collective thumbs up to the camera, smiling and letting out a joyful “What’s Up!” in unison.
Assad continued, “We brought a lot of people together, a lot of cars together. We want all the community, our Muslim community to come together for Eid.” He added, “We want to donate our toys just as a token of appreciation from the Muslim community. We have so many cars here – all the kids are enjoying it and, you know, people here are giving back to the community.”
Meanwhile, Santa Alvarez, a community member, handed out face masks at the event along with another volunteer, while NYPD Det. Washington and Officers Lopez and Headley helped serve food and distribute hand sanitizers. Devante Spellman and Christopher Marmol from the the City’s Test & Trace Corp were also present, administering tests to anyone who wanted to be tested for COVID-19.
A number of Bronx elected officials were also present at the event, including Rep. Jamaal Bowman (NY-16), District 14 City Councilman Fernando Cabrera, District 13 City Councilman Mark Gjonaj, Assemblywoman Nathalia Fernández, Bronx Democratic Party chairperson and State Sen. Jamaal Bailey and recently elected District 15 City Councilman Oswald Feliz.
Many elected officials were running for office in the recent primary elections, held on June 22, and were, undoubtedly, happy to have the opportunity to meet with residents and prospective voters in the weeks leading up to the election.
As reported, Cabrera is currently in second place in the Bronx borough president’s race, having picked up 34 percent of the vote share after Round 1 of ranked choice voting. He trails District 16 City Councilwoman Vanessa Gibson who has won 39 percent of the vote.
Meanwhile, Fernández, who was also present at the Eid event, received 14 percent after Round 1, coming in in third place on Election Night. She has apparently since conceded the race, announcing on June 24 on her Facebook page, “I could not be more grateful for all of the love and support for our campaign the last few months. To everyone who dedicated their time and joined me on this journey – THANK YOU.” She continued, “While the outcome was not what we had hoped for, I know we brought important issues to the forefront of the conversation. The work does not stop here. I look forward to continuing my work toward building a better Bronx.”
Meanwhile, though he still had one term remaining, Gjonaj, also in attendance at the Eid event, announced several months ago that he was stepping down from his seat and did not, therefore, run in the recent primary. District 13 candidate, Monique Johnson, was also present at the Eid event. She won 28.85 percent of the vote share after Round 1. In the meantime, the Bronx Democratic Party has called the District 13 race for Majorie Velázquez, also present at the Eid event, who secured 56.15 percent of the vote share after Round 1 on Election Night. The Board of Elections has not yet tabulated the subsequent ranked choice voting rounds for the City Council races.
Recently elected District 15 Councilman, Feliz, who won his seat for the first time in the March 23 special election earlier this year, and who was also present at the Eid event, has, so far, come out in first position after Round 1 in the recent primary, with 39 percent of the vote. Feliz held a victory party and volunteer appreciation event on Friday, June 25, which was attended by many heavyweights, including Bailey, Rep. Adriano Espaillat (NY-13), and leading mayoral candidate, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, who secured 31 percent of the vote in the mayoral race after Round 1.
Candidate for Bronx Civil Court Judge, Yadhira Taylor-Gonzalez, also in attendance at the Eid event, was seen, busy, at one of the stands, serving food. She was one of five candidates in that race and received 17 percent of the vote after Round 1. Leading currently in that race is Jessica Flores with 35 percent of the vote, followed by Verena Powell with 19 percent.
Last year, due to the prevailing statewide PAUSE order and related social distancing restrictions, Eid celebrations were markedly quieter and were mostly celebrated in smaller family groups within the home.
In May 2020, the Islamic Circle of North America Relief USA group (ICNA Relief USA) joined the Albanian American Open Hand Association (AAOHA) to distribute 2,000 boxes of food to the local community in Pelham Parkway. The gesture went some way towards helping affected Muslim Americans celebrate Eid at home with their immediate families since, as reported, many had been severely impacted, economically, by the statewide “PAUSE” order.
A 2018 report by the group, Muslims for American Progress, a project of the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding, found that Muslims make up 8.96 percent of New York City’s population. The group found that a large number of the City’s Muslims work in front line services. For example, Muslims make up 57.5 percent of people who work at food stands, and 39.2 percent of those who work in the taxi industry, two sectors which were badly hit by the pandemic.
On the other hand, the report found that Muslims make up 9.7 percent of those who work in the medical profession, while 8.1 percent of those who work in respiratory therapy, specifically, are Muslim.
Some, though not all, of Norwood’s Bengali community are Muslim and Norwood News also recently reported on other Eid celebrations which took place in Mosholu Park, when the end of Ramadan was also marked. That event, one of two held in the local neighborhood by the Norwood Bengali community, was organized by LAAL, the local Bengali women’s empowerment group. The other was organized by the Bengali male community and was held in Williamsbridge Oval Park, in Norwood.
Meanwhile, the 2018 report also found that American Muslims are an extremely diverse populace and include descendants of Muslims who have lived in the United States since before its founding, with some arriving in the country as both early explorers and as enslaved Africans, as well as recent immigrants from over 75 nations.
Community forms a big part of the Muslim culture. Earlier this year, in February, as reported, local Muslims who attend Masjidus Sabur in Bedford Park held their annual winter coat and essentials drive amid some of the coldest winter weather. Masjidus is the Islamic term for mosque.
Meanwhile, on May 13, the New York chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-NY) and Majlis Ash-Shura: Islamic Leadership Council of New York (ILCNY) called on State and federal law enforcement authorities to investigate, as a possible hate crime, vandalism targeting the Tayba Islamic Center on Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn. “Death to Palestine,” was reportedly spray-painted on the mosque. It was discovered at around 6 a.m. as worshipers arrived to celebrate Eid.
In a statement, CAIR-NY legal director, Ahmed Mohamed, said, “We urge elected leaders to denounce this hateful act and the violent rhetoric.” He continued, “The Muslim community is facing attacks around the world, and the lack of effective responses to atrocities committed abroad seem to have emboldened those here to act on their hatred for Muslims and Palestinians.”
Mohamed said given the recent escalation of tensions in the Middle East amid the Eid holiday, it was imperative that law enforcement investigate the Brooklyn incident and swiftly apprehend the suspect. “Muslims deserve to worship in peace whether in Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, throughout Palestine or in Tayba Islamic Center, Brooklyn,” he said.
Meanwhile, ILCNY outreach manager, Mosaab Sadeia, said at the time of the incident, “Over the past four days we have seen a rise in disturbing rhetoric from public officials, city agencies, and political candidates that completely dehumanizes Palestinians and Muslims alike.” He added, “Several elected officials have thrown blind support behind Israel’s atrocities with little regard for how that affects Muslim communities, as both constituents at home and humans abroad.”
He said the vandalism that took place at the Brooklyn Mosque was a direct consequence of that action, adding, “We are calling on public officials to cease this dangerous rhetoric of dehumanization and make an active effort to protecting Muslim communities. Considering the circumstances, we are calling on law enforcement to investigate this incident as a hate crime. Protecting Masjids should not be politically contentious.”
Attacks on Muslims in New York City are not new. In the Bronx, in 2016, as reported at the time, a Norwood cab driver who was attacked and robbed on the job, said the attack had been driven by discrimination based on his Muslim faith. Serjul Islam Khan had $200 and his cell phone stolen and was beaten by a passenger riding in his taxi by 187th Street near Park Avenue in Belmont.
Recounting his story to News 12 the Bronx, Khan remembered his attacker shouting “I am going to kill you Muslims” during the beating. When the 48th precinct investigated the incident, they did not immediately log it as a hate crime, since Khan initially did not mention the abuse hurled at him during the attack.
The incident later sparked outrage among the Bangladeshi community and began a conversation about feelings of underrepresentation of Bangladeshis in the police department. Khan was an active community leader, serving as president of the Bronx Bangladesh Community Association. “This attack is not only against Mr. Khan,” said Mohammed Rouf, Khan’s neighbor, during a press conference held at the time. “This is an attack against our whole community.”
Norwood News reached out to the NYPD and to the Bronx District Attorney (DA)’s office for an update on the incident. Police confirmed that on Friday, May 20, 2016 at around 8.50 p.m., police responded to a 911 call regarding the assault. Upon arrival, they were informed by Khan that while driving his cab, he picked up two people in the vicinity of Bedford Park Avenue and Webster Avenue in the 48th precinct. Once he arrived at the destination, East 187th Street between Park Avenue and Washington Avenue, he began to discuss payment with one male passenger.
At a certain point, the passenger reached over and grabbed cash from Khan. A struggle ensued and it was then that the passenger assaulted Khan, punching him about the face multiple times. During the struggle, the passenger said, “I’m going to kill this Muslim driver.” The passenger ended up stealing cash as well as Khan’s cellphone, before fleeing the location.
Pursuant to the investigation, Anthony Barnes, 47, of 457 East 187th Street in Belmont was charged with robbery. The Bronx DA’s office later confirmed that Barnes pleaded guilty to assault in the third degree, was given an intermittent jail sentence [4 months of weekends], and paid $8,000 in restitution. The DA’s office said they consulted with Khan at the time, and said he was satisfied with the outcome of the case.
A similar attack involving a cab driver called Raymond Adjetey occurred in 2020 in University Heights, though it is not yet known if the 2020 incident is being treated as a hate crime or not. Norwood News has reached out to the NYPD to ask, and will update this story upon receipt of any response.
Meanwhile, Norwood News has also reported on a recent slew of attacks against a number of synagogues located in the Northwest Bronx.
More information about Smiles Through Cars, can be found on the organization’s website here.