One On 1: Arab American Association Director Finds Time For It All
Linda Sarsour is a do-gooder, and it’s official: she was recently awarded the Brooklyn Do-Gooder Award.
She’s also the director of the Arab American Association of New York, a community group based in Bay Ridge, which is home to New York's largest Arab population.
A community activist whose public profile is on the rise, Sarsour is sought by the media and politicians like John Liu, the city comptroller.
She describes her family life as normal, but there are some intriguing days when she must juxtapose work and family.
"I come from sitting directly across from President Obama at his Middle East speech — I was personally there in DC in the second row — to coming home late in the evening at one o'clock to have my daughter knock on my bedroom door to tell me she needs to drink water,” says Sarsour. “This is the kind of life that I live."
Her life is a mixture of the traditional and the modern. She's a working woman who was married at the age of 17 as part of an arranged marriage and had three kids by the time she was 24.
She says this gives her credibility with young Muslim women in the neighborhood and aspiring professionals attending a seminar called “Mecca to Manhattan: Muslim Women Moving Mountains."
"I didn't say, ‘okay, I'm gonna be married, I'm gonna sit at home and just have kids and kind of not pursue what I want to do in my life,’” says Sarsour. “And I think the young girls in the community see that . They're like, ‘well, she's educated, she works, she has children, so this is not the end of my life here, I can actually pursue something.’"
She long ago grew comfortable with being an advocate for herself and her community.
Sarsour herself acknowledges the modesty and humility associated with Muslim women.
So where does her fearlessness come from?
"I've always grown up with the whole notion that you are a Palestinian and we're gonna get Palestine back and kind of grew up with that kind of activism in the family,” says Sarsour. “But it also comes from being a New Yorker. New Yorkers — we're fearless, like we get what we want and we do what we want and we don't let anyone stand in our way."
Sarsour says she wanted to be a high school English teacher, but after 9/11 a relative convinced her to volunteer for the relatively new Arab American Association of New York.
"I saw bad things that I couldn't believe were in our community — domestic violence, I saw government, like ICE officers, taking away family members from the area,” says Sarsour. “Working with those families, and I found my place. That was a place that I wanted to be."
In 2005, while driving back from an Arab American event in Michigan, Sarsour got into a car accident in Pennsylvania.
Her passenger, the executive director of the association at the time, died in the crash.
Sarsour hasn't driven since, but only days after the accident, she went right back to work.
"I’m doing a job where I can go home and say ‘I helped people today, I made someone feel good today, I gave someone something they didn’t have when they first walked into my door,’” says Sarsour. “So that really helped me psychologically. I didn’t get therapy: that was my therapy. My therapy was to continue doing the work that I was doing.”
Sarsour says growing up Arab American pre-9/11 in New York was "kind of cool," but without her head scarf, and with black and Latino friends from John Jay High School and her Sunset Park neighborhood, she says she experienced what she calls "white privilege."
"Without my scarf, I'm quite light-skinned and quite white, and I felt like there was times where I would, you know, go into either businesses or get service with friends of mine who weren't white or light-skinned and felt like I was being treated a different way because I was white," says Sarsour.
She is the oldest of seven children. Her parents are Palestinian immigrants and her father is a business owner in Crown Heights, ironically catering to the Orthodox Jewish community there.
Sarsour says 99 percent of her work deals with domestic and local issues, but the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is always lurking.
"The minute they say ‘where are you from,’ I’ll say I’m from Brooklyn, but then they say ‘oh no, I mean your family, where is your family from,’ and I say Palestine,” says Sarsour. “Palestine is a trigger word, it almost means ‘I am very political, please get political with me.’"
Sarsour says she believes in a non-violent Palestinian resistance to Israel, but she says she doesn't support Hamas or the Palestinian authority.
It's her opinion that a two-state solution won't work because of boundary and settler issues.
Sarsour admits it might be naive, but she envisions one state for all.
"I do believe that Israel has the right to exist,” says Sarsour. “I mean I wouldn't want — I mean where are they gonna go? That's why I want a one-state solution. I think we can all live together in one state with peace and justice and equality for all."
Closer to home, Sarsour has worked with an interfaith group called The Dialogue Project, through which she has come to understand those who have suffered on the other side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
"Her name was Robin, and her son died in one of the suicide bombings in a café,” says Sarsour. “And I never got to meet a person like that, and obviously I'm a mother so just hearing and seeing the emotions of someone who lost their child, obviously I wouldn't want that to happen to anyone, so it made me go home and kind of more look at this not from a political place, but look at — there's human beings being affected by this, too, and I never had that opportunity to really look at that."
She's been plagued by a 2004 article that's been circulating around the internet, an article Sarsour says is untrue.
It claims that at the time, she had family members in Israeli jails with ties to Hamas.
"I can't deny that people related to me have been in Israeli prison,” says Sarsour. “Does that mean that any of them were charged with crimes or they are terrorists or potential suicide bombers? Absolutely not. This is just the reality of Palestinians living under military occupation."
The work that she is doing and her polished style with politicians and the media have understandably raised the possibility that she might one day run for office, perhaps as the first Arab American in the New York City Council.
"It just makes sense that we, someday soon, have someone in our community running for office,” says Sarsour. “And for me, kind of building that foundation for myself, because I just don't want to run, I want to run to win, and I think that I want to make sure that our community's prepared — that I'm prepared."
Her preparation now includes being named a fellow at the NYU Wagner Graduate School of Public Service Women of Color Policy Network.
She is also participating in the Progressive Women’s Voices Media and Leadership Training Program.
At home in Bay Ridge, there are signs of her increasing profile.
"People that are usually getting awards are, like, 60, and people are like, this person has created a legacy and we want to honor them for their decades of tireless commitment to the community, and I'm like, I've only done one decade, and so I think that makes me feel proud, and it makes me feel inspired that people are recognizing the work that I'm doing," says Sarsour.