Growing up in Gloversville, Osama Mustafa said, his family’s Muslim faith hardly ever came up.
Around the holidays teachers would check with his parents to confirm that it was OK for him to participate in “secret Santa” gift exchanges and other Christmas activities. It was.
Beyond that, Mustafa said, he was just like any other kid.
“I don’t remember feeling different because I was Muslim,” Mustafa said.
That changed on Sept. 11, 2001. Mustafa was an eighth-grader at Gloversville Middle School and was heading to lunch when he learned about the terrorist attacks. He was passing by his favorite teacher’s classroom and saw her watching the news.
The teacher was a favorite because she always laughed at his jokes. When she saw Mustafa that day, he recalled, she began to cry.
“I stood there silently. I had no idea what was going on,” Mustafa said.
When he asked what was happening, the teacher said something along the lines of some bad people did some bad things. She gave him a cryptic warning that he might hear things that were untrue.
“I think she was trying to comfort me or prepare me for the days or months to come,” Mustafa said.
Aya Mustafa, who would one day marry Osama, was just 8 years old when the terrorist attacks occurred. Growing up in Palestine, she admittedly was not following international news very closely. Although she heard about what happened, she did not grasp its significance.
“There was so much going on in Palestine,” Aya said, with Osama translating as needed. “Living under Israeli occupation affected [me] and [my] family more at the time.”
Mohamed Hafez was living in New York City and was crossing the Triborough Bridge on his way to work on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001. In his car listening to music, it seemed like any other day until a stream of emergency vehicles drove by.
Hafez stopped one of the vehicles to find out what the emergency was. The driver suggested he tune his radio to the news.
“I started seeing the smoke from downtown. I could see the smoke coming out of Manhattan,” Hafez said.
He turned around and headed home. New York City had always been a relatively tolerant place for people of the Muslim faith, Hafez said. Life quickly changed after that day. He moved upstate a year later.
Treat others well
On the morning of Sept. 11, Osama Mustafa eventually made his way to the middle-school cafeteria, only to be called to the principal’s office.
He learned from the principal that his mother was on her way to pick him up and it would be OK if he missed a few days of school. A few days off sounded fun at first, until he saw his mother.
Mustafa quickly realized his world had changed as he was informed by his mother without explanation that he would no longer be allowed to ride his bike, venture out on his own or do any number of things that had never been an issue before.
When they got home, she was glued to the television, watching the news for the rest of the day.
“My mom was afraid. My dad was at work and she kept calling him, checking up on him,” Mustafa said.
It wasn’t until later that the American boy was told by his American mother and Palestinian father that their family would be treated differently in the aftermath of 9/11.
“They explained that night that bad people killed people, and now it’s not safe anymore and you have to be careful. They explained, you’re Muslim and people are going to look at you differently,” Mustafa said. “I couldn’t understand.”
At that age, Mustafa was unfamiliar with the concepts of racism and discrimination. He can’t recall experiencing any instances of intolerance growing up. Immediately after 9/11, kids would sometimes “tease” him by calling him “bin Laden.”
“I always had thick skin,” Mustafa said. “I would tease back. It never affected me too much until I grew up and understood the bigger picture.”
The incidents never went beyond that, and Mustafa can’t recall ever feeling afraid. He knows his parents were. They both experienced harassment while going about their daily lives at work or at the grocery store. The family decided to move to Palestine the following year as a result.
Although he had family in Palestine, Mustafa never felt he fit in. He grew up speaking Arabic with his father, but wasn’t fluent and would sometimes mix up words. He spoke with an American accent and was viewed as a foreigner.
He lived in Palestine for six years until he graduated from high school, after which he moved back to Gloversville on his own.
Mustafa stayed with an uncle and began studying at Fulton-Montgomery Community College. He was able to pick up where he left off with friends in Gloversville, but he noticed when he met new people that they had a strange reaction upon hearing his name.
“Introducing yourself as Osama, you’re going to hear and see stuff. There was a couple of times I thought things were going to end pretty badly,” he said. “I felt like an outsider all of a sudden.”
He once found himself in a shoving match with another student who heard him speaking Arabic on the phone.
Another time while in the cafeteria, Mustafa spoke up when an international student from Egypt was being harassed, and was promptly jumped. The fight was broken up and the other students were disciplined. He never talked to anyone about what he was going through.
“I just learned how to deal with it,” Mustafa said.
After his freshman year at FMCC, Mustafa decided to return to Palestine. He earned his bachelor’s degree in media studies from Al-Quds Bard College for Arts and Sciences and began working as a videographer. He eventually was introduced to Aya while shooting a video for the International Legal Foundation, where she worked as a lawyer.
The couple married in 2016 and began their life together in Palestine. The pair never planned to leave the country, but Mustafa was living there on a travel visa that required regular renewal. One year, his renewal application was denied.
Their family by then had grown to three with the birth of their son, and would soon become four with a daughter on the way. Osama and Aya Mustafa decided to move to Gloversville.
Mustafa moved back in 2019 to prepare for the arrival of his wife and kids, who stayed behind for a year while waiting for Aya’s immigration visa to go through.
Mustafa looked for opportunities, and eventually became the videographer for the city of Gloversville with the goal of promoting the city and highlighting positive development. That eventually led to a simultaneous position as director of public relations and communications for the Gloversville Enlarged School District. Some residents were critical of the creation of the position with the city, then called out the hiring of Mustafa for a second post.
Mustafa acknowledged that the position with the city was a departure that some residents were unsure of, but could never wrap his head around residents who criticized his desire to work hard and hold two jobs. Although he believes the majority of his neighbors are decent people, he thinks discrimination played a role in some of the negative reactions.
“Every place has that less than 1% of people who ruin it for everybody,” Mustafa said.
In general, returning to Gloversville as an adult joined by his wife and kids last year has been a positive experience.
The opportunities he has been offered have allowed him to build the life he was hoping for his family.
“I feel a lot more comfortable, a lot more confident,” Mustafa said. “It was definitely the right choice for me and my family. … I couldn’t be happier.”
He admittedly worries that his wife and kids might face discrimination or worse, but tries to focus on the things within his own control. Mustafa knows one day it will be necessary to talk with his kids about racism, but he is more concerned with teaching them how to treat others.
“I need to teach them how to accept other people, how to talk to other people. I don’t want them growing up worried about what other people are going to think of them,” Mustafa said. “You can’t stop that. We can worry how we see other people, how we treat other people.”
Although simple pleasures were limited in her home country, Aya Mustafa said she never thought about leaving Palestine before her husband’s travel visa expired.
“We couldn’t go to the beach. We couldn’t do anything that we liked or loved to do. It was always closed,” Aya said. “That is why a lot of Palestinians are determined to get educated, so they can have a better future and better opportunities.”
An interest in human rights issues led her to study law and eventually take a position with the International Legal Foundation providing legal aid to vulnerable populations where she met her husband.
When the couple got engaged, the one thing Aya’s father asked was that Mustafa not take her to America. Her father worried about her sister, who had moved to France, and was concerned about the unknown experiences his daughters could encounter in other countries.
Although the couple had never planned to act against her father’s wishes, Aya said there was little choice when Mustafa’s visa expired. She was excited about the opportunities the move would present to herself and her family, but was also nervous after seeing videos on social media of incidents of racism in America.
While she was preparing for the move, Aya was frequently advised that upon her arrival in the U.S. she should stop wearing a hijab, the traditional Muslim head scarf. She adamantly disagreed.
“I can’t do this. That’s our religion. I’m not going to take it off just because of these people. They have to accept me,” Aya said.
When she finally arrived in Gloversville in early 2020, the experience was almost immediately soured by the swift arrival of the coronavirus and related restrictions. The family was initially living in a two-bedroom apartment, with Aya cooped up with her young children.
The easing of restrictions allowed her to get out more for walks or to bring the kids to the park. However, three or four of those outings were marred by passing motorists yelling at her out of car windows, “God bless America.”
Each instance was frightening, especially in light of an incident in Canada in June when a man allegedly hit a Muslim family with his vehicle. She tried to ignore each incident, but stopped going out without her husband and doesn’t allow the children to play in the front yard of their home on their own.
Yet she is still optimistic about her family’s future in Gloversville. She plans to get her master’s degree and take the bar exam to resume practicing law in the future. And since her son started school, she’s had more chances to meet people and make friends.
“Overall, the people here are friendly,” Aya said.
More Remembrances: We remember; The Daily Gazette’s special Sept. 11 anniversary section
The couple see opportunities in Gloversville and want to contribute to the community.
“We’re not coming to America to be in the same situation we’re leaving in Palestine,” Aya said.
The small Muslim community within the city is growing alongside other diverse populations, according to the couple, who suggested more could be done to celebrate the various cultures that make up the city.
“We should do more to try to teach kids about different cultures and try to understand it,” Aya said.
Immediately after 9/11, Hafez recalled that FBI raids became commonplace at Muslim community gathering spots and members of the faith were frequently harassed at airports.
“They were taking a lot of people into custody for questioning for no apparent reason. That didn’t happen to me, but I felt the shock of change all of a sudden,” Hafez said. “My feeling was things were going to get tighter and more difficult in New York City, so I looked for a different opportunity somewhere else.”
Around that time, former Schenectady Mayor Al Jurczynski launched an initiative to attract members of the Guyanese community from New York City to move to Schenectady to buy and renovate homes in some of the city’s most troubled neighborhoods. Hafez heard about the available opportunities from his neighbors in Queens and decided to make the move.
“I don’t regret it. It’s a great place to live, a great community, nice people,” Hafez said.
Of course, like in any community, he admits there are a few bad actors who “hold grudges” against individuals of different backgrounds and ethnicities. He doesn’t think it’s worth dwelling on.
“What are you going to do? Just move away from the negative people,” Hafez said.
Hafez prefers to look on the bright side. Since moving to Schenectady, he started his own business as an insurance broker and counts among his clients many members of the still-growing Guyanese community, which he said has begun expanding into Amsterdam.
“They are very handy. They buy abandoned properties and renovate them, and they did a great job in Schenectady. I think they’re moving now to Amsterdam and will have an impact in Amsterdam very soon,” Hafez said.
Watching the Muslim community expand around him, Hafez noticed there were no mosques serving Montgomery County.
In 2017, Hafez bought a deteriorating property at 141 Guy Park Ave. and began rehabbing the building to serve as the Amsterdam Islamic Center. After renovations were finished in a portion of the building, the mosque opened in 2019, and now serves roughly 50 families from Montgomery and Fulton counties.
“The space we have renovated at this point is becoming small for the growing number, so we are raising funds to renovate additional parts of the building,” Hafez said.
Although residents might not be aware of the growing Muslim community around them, Hafez noted they are making positive contributions to the region while seeking opportunities as warehouse workers, business owners, pharmacists, doctors and more.
“We all come from different backgrounds and parts of the world,” Hafez said. “Nobody stops anyone and asks what is your religion, and they shouldn’t. America is the land of opportunity for everybody.”
More Remembrances: We remember; The Daily Gazette’s special Sept. 11 anniversary section