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Oral History Interview with Debbie Almontaser, February 10, 2018

Scope and Contents

In this interview, Debbie Almontaser discusses her Yemeni American family, including her childhood in Buffalo, New York; her marriage to her husband; and raising their children in the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn. She also talks about her career in education, including her early work as a paraprofessional and teacher for the New York City Board of Education; her collaborative efforts with the Board of Education, the New Visions for Public Schools non-profit organization, and the Arab American Family Support Center to create the Khalil Gibran International Academy, an Arabic dual language secondary school in Brooklyn; and the circumstances surrounding her resignation and subsequent community protests in her defense. She speaks at length about her relationship with her faith; experiences at the State Street Mosque in the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn; and work to build interfaith relationships within her community, especially between Muslim Americans and Jewish Americans. In addition, she remembers being a teacher in Brooklyn during the September 11 Terrorist Attacks in 2001, and elaborates extensively about subsequent increases in Islamophobia and racial profiling. Debbie Almontaser was also interviewed for this collection on May 14, 2018. Interview conducted by Zaheer Ali.

Biographical / Historical

Debbie Almontaser was born in Yemen. Her family immigrated to the United States when she was a toddler and settled in Buffalo, New York. She married her husband and moved to the Cobble Hill neighborhood of Brooklyn in 1980. Her involvement with her child's primary school inspired her to pursue a career in education, eventually becoming the founding principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn. She also became a prolific activist, including coordinating New York City's first Arab-American Heritage Week in 2005; founding the Bridging Cultures Group, Inc. in 2015; supporting Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign; and organizing the Yemeni Bodega Strike at Brooklyn Borough Hall in 2017. Throughout her work as both an educator and an activist, she put significant focus on multicultural and interfaith partnerships, also founding and participating in a number of groups and initiatives aimed at increasing empathy across racial, ethnic, and religious lines. She earned a bachelor of the arts in English and world religions from St. Francis College in Brooklyn; a master of the sciences in multicultural education and reading from Adelphi University in Manhattan; and a doctor of education in urban education and leadership from Fordham University in the Bronx.

Conditions Governing Access

This interview can be accessed onsite at the Center for Brooklyn History's Othmer Library and online at the Oral History Portal.

Center for Brooklyn History
128 Pierrepont Street
Brooklyn, NY 11201