‘Taste of Ramadan’ Event At High School Calls Attention To Yemen’s Civil War

Ethnic food and culture shared before the month-long religious observance begins for Muslims

By John McNamara

Students and teachers filled the New Britain High cafeteria on March 15th for an after-school “Taste of Ramadan” event with ethnic food and observances of Muslim traditions and customs before the start of Ramadan on March 23rd when Muslims begin a month of fasting and praying.

New Britain is home to a growing Muslim population including many immigrants from Yemen, the war-torn nation in the southern Arabian peninsula. Students from more than 700 Arabic families are enrolled in the New Britain School District, according to Najal Jahaf, a public school communications assistant, who helped organize the event and works with families and students in their transition into school and community in a new country.

During a brief speaking program attendees heard advocates call for passage of a Yemen War Powers Resolution that is currently stalled in the U.S. Congress over final language. The bill, originally proposed by U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-VT) has had the backing of U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Chris Murphy (D-CT). As originally introduced it would “end U.S. complicity and the war itself,” according to Layan Jahaf, a Farmington High School student who is Chair of Pathways for Yemen.

Layan Jahaf said her organization is trying to spread awareness about the nine-year-old civil war in Yemen which has involved heavy civilian casualties, including widespread starvation and the deaths of an estimated 11,000 children. Saudi Arabia, a recipient of U.S. military aid, has intervened in the conflict arming rebels on one side and prolonging violence.

Urging student and citizen action in support of the resolution and greater involvement to end the war were Democratic Town Committee Member Bill Shortell and Hassan El-Tayyab, Legislative Director for Middle East Policy at the Friends Committee for National Legislation (FCNL), a nonpartisan Quaker lobbying organization.

Also in attendance at “Taste of Ramadan” were Superintendent of Schools Tony Gasper and State Senator Rick Lopes (D-6). Lopes, who represents New Britain, Berlin and a portion of Farmington in the State Senate and previously was State Representative from the 24th District. Lopes said he has seen a steady growth in the Muslim community, particularly Yemeni immigrants. “Over the past few years I have seen the increase of Muslims living in New Britain, especially Yemeni immigrants,” said Lopes. “We want to make sure that every new group coming to New Britain feels welcome and safe in our city. I am looking forward to how they will contribute to the future of our great immigrant city.”

An indication of the growing population of Yemeni families in the city, once appropriately called “a city for all people” by Registrar of Voters and former Mayor Lucian Pawlak, came at last year’s high school graduation when Noora Nassir Sahoobah became the first Yemeni-American to be Valedictorian at New Britain High School. Ms. Sahoobah’s valedictory remarks to her fellow graduates addressed the humanitarian crisis in Yemen and affirmed once again that New Britain is “a city for all people.”

“I would like to mention that I am extremely happy I moved to New Britain my freshman year of high school. The diversity in this city is astounding. For elementary and middle school, I lived in a non-diverse town and it was hard to fit in. When I first walked into New Britain High, I was pleasantly surprised to see so many Muslim individuals as myself. For those of you who don’t know I am from Yemen and I take great pride in being from there. I am honored to say that I am the first Yemeni-American Valedictorian at NBHS and I am absolutely thrilled to be representing my community here today. The Yemeni community in New Britain is growing exponentially and that is unfortunately in part due to war and the biggest Humanitarian Crisis occurring in Yemen.”

Participating in “Taste of Ramadan” at NBHS were Candyce Scott, Bill Shortell, Layan Jahaf of Pathways for Yemen, Hassan El-Tayyab of the Friends Committee on National Legislation and Najal Jahaf, a communications assistant at the public schools (J. McNamara)

NB Politicus Related Post from 2016


New Britain Election Postscript: “If Trump wins will I have to leave the country?”

“If Trump wins will I have to leave the country?”

The question was asked of me by a Holmes School student when I was leaving the Masjid Al Taqwa mosque on Arch Street on a Sunday evening in August. It didn’t matter that the 5th grader has probably lived in New Britain all his life and that his parents — part of a growing Muslim American community in central CT,  vote and pay taxes.

“No,” I said without hesitation to reassure the Holmes student. “Even if Trump wins you won’t have to leave the country.”

My visit to Masjid Al Taqwa came at the invitation of  Alicia Hernandez Strong, a Weyleyan student, new officer of the Democratic Town Committee and a convert to the Muslim faith.   Evening prayer, a generous ethnic supper and a panel talk on voter registration organized by Strong were part of the evening that ended with that question from the student from Holmes, reflecting his worries and that of his  family and religious community in 2016.

Inscription at Memorial to New Britain 19th century peace activist Elihu Burritt in Franklin Square.
Inscription at Memorial to New Britain 19th century peace activist Elihu Burritt in Franklin Square. (Todesignllc.com)

Over and over again the Republican presidential nominee, amplified by an easily manipulated media,  spread an unfiltered message of exclusion and fear and “change” to make America great again. Campaign rhetoric  devoid of policy and ideas was mainly against people of the Muslim faith and  millions of others without a path to citizenship whenever Donald Trump took the stage.

In the aftermath of the election and Trump’s “win” concerns are escalating. In some places real acts of hate and violence are directed at  those who were the targets of Trump’s dog whistle rants.  His appointments, including Steve Bannon, the wife-beating publisher of  the ultra right and xenophobic Breitbart News, have done little to allay the concern.

Trump’s appeals to fear and exclusion wrapped in an empty economic populism, however, are producing counter measures.  Mayors, police chiefs, civic and religious  leaders, in their words and official actions, are pushing back against the campaign xenophobia that should make a President, even a vulgar demagogue of a President,  think twice about policies that sanction intolerance and bigotry and are a refutation of what Ellis Island was all about.

The mob portion of Trump’s support and maybe even Trump himself, emboldened by the election, will continue to fan hate and division. But there are millions of Trump voters, bothered by flaws in Hillary Clinton’s establishment candidacy or swayed by the fake news vitriol against her–who will want no part of  the hate and incivility that fueled the Trump candidacy.  In New Britain and elsewhere too many of their co-workers and the parents of children they see at the school where their kids go are on Trump’s hit list.

Post-election it’s up to me and you to tell that Muslim American Holmes School boy, or the Mexican “dreamer” student at CCSU seeking a fair path to citizenship or a refugee who got here from a strife-torn land:

No. You don’t have to leave the country because of your religion or where you are from no matter who the President is.  Your city is the “city for all people” and your neighbors won’t let that happen.

John McNamara