After patiently sitting in on the East Meadow Board of Education’s work session meeting on Dec. 8, Venaal Hassanein, Rukhsar Asef and her mother, Imrozia, filled the quiet with thunderous claps as the board unanimously approved Eid al-Adha and Diwali as official school holidays.
The three women hugged one another and thanked the board. Hassanein was on the verge of tears.
Their journey began earlier in the school year when Hassanein and Imrozia joined forces to collect signatures from students and parents. Imrozia, who started an online petition, collected 200 signatures and Hassanein’s hard-copy petition sheet garnered 400 more. Woodland Middle School science teacher Nanda Sundri collaborated with East Meadow High School student Shermeen Khan to rack up another 764 signatures. The women came together to fight for religious freedom at the Board of Education’s Nov. 17 communications meeting.
“I would like to see Diwali as a blue box,” Khan said to the board members during the meeting. “I’d like to see Diwali and Eid be recognized as school holidays so we know the district recognizes our religions.”
“Other children can celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah,” Asef, an East Meadow High School student, continued. “So why can’t we celebrate our religions, too?”
“We don’t get the day off if we want to celebrate Eid or Diwali,” Khan said. “We have to choose between our grades and our religion. As a student who puts a tremendous amount of effort into her schoolwork, I struggle with celebrating my religion or missing an important test. We shouldn’t have to choose.”
“And when we do choose,” Asef interjected, “we either miss a day’s worth of schoolwork, which we have to make up the next day, or we miss an important day for prayer and family.”
The school board members listened attentively as Hassanein spoke next. “As a proud Muslim,” she began, “I have to pick for my kids whether they should go to school or practice our biggest religious holiday. As a parent, how can I choose between our religion and my children’s education?”
After the Nov. 17 Board of Education meeting, Superintendent Leon Campo said he thoroughly researched the holidays and their importance to the East Meadow community.
“I am proud to say we have a diverse community here in our school district,” Campo said during the Board’s Dec. 8 meeting. “After doing a lot of research on both holidays, I recommend to the board to adopt Eid al-Adha and Diwali as school holidays, while recognizing Eid al-Fitr as a religious holiday.”
Although Eid al-Fitr will not be adopted as a school holiday, Campo said there is room for consideration in the future.
“I applaud the board and the superintendent for taking action in educating themselves on the holidays, their significance and impact on their students,” Hassanein said. “It shows how the well-being of the students and the community was top priority to them. I am even more proud that East Meadow is now the second school district to put these holidays on their calendar as days off. I hope soon all district will follow East Meadow and Syosset’s lead.”
Earlier in November, the Syosset School District unanimously adopted both Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr, along with Diwali as school holidays. According to school officials, Mineola School District acknowledged Diwali on its school calendar, but did not designate it as an official school holiday. Instead, students who celebrate Diwali will not have school assignments that day. The district is in talks to include both Eid days. Herricks School District has not adopted either holiday, but school officials said the board is in talks for inclusion — an option that Jericho School District and East Williston School District is also considering.
Board of Education President Marcee Rubinstein said she was impressed with Khan and Asef’s presentation during the November meeting. “East Meadow is a mosaic community,” she said. “We need to appreciate, respect and value other cultures and traditions. This is a commitment that our school district makes to recognize the traditions and religious beliefs of all.”
“This is a big deal for us!” Khan said excitedly. “We can finally see that blue box on the calendar under our holidays. It truly demonstrates the inclusiveness the district is trying to spread. Opening up these doors for all the different people is a big step in the right direction. I’m thankful for the support from all and the BOE’s decision.”
Sundri said that in her 20 years of teaching in the EMSD, she has never felt so elated for her students and their parents. “I was overwhelmed,” she said. “It was amazing news! We didn’t realize that it could be this easy and that the community supported us in an easy and incredible manner. I want more students to enjoy this throughout Long Island, so I hope this spreads to other school districts.”
Hempstead Town Clerk Nasrin Ahmad has spearheaded her own efforts to designate Eid and Diwali official school holidays by attending as many Board of Education meetings as possible. Ahmad, who attended the EMSD’s November board meeting, said she proudly represents the practicing American-Muslim dream. “I speak for the children and for the families,” Ahmad said. “Whenever I go to board meetings, they’re the ones I have in mind. I told the East Meadow Board at the meeting that the children should not have to choose between their religion and their schoolwork and they seem to agree. It’s a great step and I am so proud of the district.”
At the Board’s November meeting, Ahmad sat with Hassanein, Asef, Sundri, Imrozia, Khan and other supporters. She offered them her help and her voice. “As a former PTA member, I know the struggles of practicing our religion and having to send our children to school while they watched us getting dressed and ready to go to prayer,” Ahmad recalled. “It’s heartbreaking in a way. Now, thanks to the board’s unanimous decision, many families can enjoy spending time with their children on their most important religious holiday.”
The school district plans to schedule Diwali and Eid al-Adha as holidays for the 2017-18 school year.