In the 25 years since the Masjid Hamza Islamic Center of the South Shore started, the North Valley Stream mosque has provided a place around which a diverse community planted roots. For many of its parishioners, America, it seems, is better suited for the practice of their faith’s ideals than the Muslim countries where they were born.
Such is the case with mosques across Long Island and the country — where entire communities grow up around them.
Kamrul Ahsan, 58, of Valley Stream, for example, left Bangladesh at 25. He moved into a small apartment in Manhattan with a half dozen other young men to pursue the opportunities he had heard about while growing up. “America is the country [where] streets are paved with gold,” Ahsan said. It’s “a country of milk and honey.”
But it wasn’t only economic opportunity that Ahsan found here. He cited rampant corruption in Bangladesh as one of the daily realities that goes against the teachings of Islam. Living an honest life is a struggle there, he offered, where the rule of law often gives way to the petty selfishness of those in a position to advance their interests. “America is a country where justice prevails,” he said.
Zia Din, 43, of North Valley Stream, agreed. He came to the U.S. from Pakistan when he was 15. His father wanted to study and brought the whole family. When everyone returned, Din stayed. He was getting better grades than he did in Pakistan, and his prospects for a good college education were better here.
Din lived in Queens before moving to Valley Stream with his wife and three children eight years ago. He wasn’t religious and didn’t attend mosque services regularly, but he learned of Masjid Hamza Islamic Center of the South Shore and decided to attend a summer barbecue. “I thought the people were nice, and I thought I could contribute,” he said.
Din offered to organize a camping trip for young people. “I always felt that Muslim kids don’t get out too much. Their parents say, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that.’”
He took a group of about 135 kids on a trip in 2010 and has remained involved in youth activities ever since. As he became acquainted with the congregation, he found a true community of people always willing to help. “If I knew then what I know now,” he said, “I would have bought a house next door.”
For Ahsan, who found Islam in America, the center’s location was a major factor in buying his family’s home nine years ago. Before he purchased it, he even clocked the distance from the institution and the house. While his family acclimated to their new area, they discovered other benefits – a diverse neighborhood and the quality of the public schools – that added to the sense of belonging he and his family found at Masjid Hamza.
That longing for a community is a common reason why others sought out the center, often following relatives or friends who moved from New York City to the suburbs – all wanted a place that could instill morals and build character, and where their children could get a solid early education at Hamza Academy.
Store owner Suhail Mohammed, 48, for example, immigrated from Pakistan 30 years ago and has lived in Valley Stream for 14 years. He has six children, all of whom plan to raise their families in the village, he said.
Accountant Mohamed Mohamed, 37, came from Egypt 14 years ago to get his California Board of Accountancy license. He planned to move back but then met the woman he would marry here. They moved from Brooklyn three years ago to Valley Stream, where his wife had relatives. They’re raising four children in the village.
Thaslima Thamanna, the principal at Hamza Academy (her first year back since 2007 when she was a vice principal) said that she notices more second- and third-generation families moving to the neighborhood. These parents are more involved in their children’s education – where the school emphasizes character building and teaches a sense of civic duty – than many of the first-generation families in the past, offered Thamanna.
A majority of students are of Southeast Asian descent, and others are from a variety of Middle Eastern countries, but their parents tend to be professionals who all identify as American.
That’s true, for instance, of Din and Suhail, who were both in downtown Manhattan when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001. Din watched the second plane hit, and was covered in dust “like a white ghost” after the towers collapsed. Both men remember the putrid burning smell of ground zero afterward. Din fell into a depression for several years, unable to watch TV because of his memories of that day and childhood experiences with the local militia. In the time since 9/11, Islamaphobia has become a concern that has crept into conversations in the households of those interviewed, although all said they feel safe in their community.
Despite the political climate, the Islamic values reinforced at the mosque and school remains in line with American values and culture, Din asserts. “The values are the same in practice,” he said. “You really see it here.”
Jaam’e Masjid Bellmore
1425 Newbridge Rd.
North Bellmore 11710
Long Island Muslim Society
477 East Meadow Ave.
East Meadow 11554
Jamia Zia ul Quran
115 School Rd.
681 Elmont Rd.
Masjid Hamza Islamic Center
200 Stuart Ave.
Valley Stream 11580
Islamic Center of Long Island
835 Brush Hollow Rd.