Talking to: Jessica Berrocal–Abdelnabbi

This past Monday, a rally was held in the Newark Pedestrian Plaza in downtown Jersey City, to show support for immigrant and Muslim rights in the wake of the Trump travel ban. I reached out to local activist Jessica Berrocal –Abdelnabbi to find out her thoughts and reflections on being a Muslim in Jersey City, and what our city can do to support that community. Jessica is probably best known for her involvement in encouraging JCPS to close in honor of Eid al-Adha. She is the mother of three children and a very strong voice for her community.

*Please note: Jessica and I first started working on this interview on 1/30; she submitted a final version to me on 2/2. Earlier on 2/2, the Fulop administration announced that the Mayor would be signing an order to declare Jersey City as a sanctuary city tomorrow, at 1pm. The exact wording of this order, as well as its depth and reach, are not known at this time.

**UPDATE (2/3): The Mayor signed the Executive Order. A copy of it can be found here

On a personal note, my understanding is that you were not born/raised Muslim but converted later in life. Could you tell us a little about that journey?

I am a daughter of a non-practicing Sephardic Jewish mother and a father that practiced Catholicism to the fullest until he went into an Evangelist Christian Rehab home. After my dad had stayed there for six months, he came out intoning about one God and his mercy. I grew strongly believing in God, even through rough moments of my childhood. After my father’s conversion, I automatically converted, but it opened up a door to discover different religions. I found myself going on a journey of discovery in my life.

During my journey of learning different faiths, my father told me I could never convert to any other religion until I become an adult.

During my teenage life, I grew up in Jackson Heights in Queens, N.Y. I went to Newtown High School, where I was in involved with everything you can imagine. Newtown High School was diverse. My schools were closed for the High Holidays, as well as for Christmas and Easter. I remember learning about dreidels in class, during the Jewish holiday.

But I have faced the difficulty of sending my child to public school on holy days. To celebrate Eid, which commemorates Abraham’s binding of his son, my 13-year-old daughter had to choose between classroom and mosque. So I began a petition three years ago asking the Jersey City Board of Education to designate Eid as a day off, but it fell flat. But after attending the board’s monthly meetings, organizing 200 Muslim parents to show up at one of the meetings and persisted on the high holy days to be added to the Jersey City School District calendar. Hopefully with the political climate Jersey City Board members can adopt a parent calendar committee they have spoken about in the past. We can foster and cultivate the many different student body that attends Jersey School District.

What has the mood been like in the Muslim community in JC since Trump was elected?

The current atmosphere of the Muslim community in Jersey City since Trump was elected is very shocking. It’s been a rude awakening. A lot of members of the community are mobilizing to obtain their citizenship. It has created a sense of movement for protection to stay in the USA. I have taken the opportunity to make sure they register to vote immediately.

The young college Muslim student body is moving in the direction of Socialist, Independent, Green Party voice because of the decay of the Democratic/ Republican party.

Women have been scared, and some have considered taking off their hijab, so they’re not a target because Donald Trump has given the “okay” and paved the way for bigots to attack Muslims. The women in the Muslim community are an easy target because they’re distinguishable. If everyone in America wore hijab, then Muslim women wouldn’t be a target or discernible, but that’s not the case.

Specifically, how have people in your community responded to the Muslim travel ban?

The reaction towards the travel ban in the Muslim community is very frightening because it shows the type of dictatorship we are being implemented. The majority of Jersey City’s Muslim community comes from a Pakistani or Egyptian background. Neither country (Egypt and Pakistan) is on the travel ban list, but the community is still fearful because Trump seems to be unpredictable but predictable. The communities are afraid that he will add these countries to the travel ban list.

 Our Muslim community here is very diverse, but are there any particular regions of the world where a majority (or sizeable minority) come from?

The Muslim community in Jersey City is indeed very diverse. Having a roundabout of 250,000 residents, 4.2% of the city’s religious adherents are Muslims according to PEW polls. This growing Muslim population in Jersey City includes a significant Latino contingency as well as American, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and various Arab nationalities. Based on the PEW research center, in 2014, New Jersey ‘s Muslim population is between 300,000 to 450,000. However, we don’t know a public census of Muslims in general or Muslims in Jersey City correctly. There is no way for us to know our exact number. Although it is against the law to profile and research into how many Muslims are in some parts of the country, but we need to know while also being protected. By knowing our number and our strength, it will shake the status quo under the Donald Trump’s administration, and it’ll help the community mobilize to go out and vote. Making sure this doesn’t happen in the next Presidential election, and that is why we have created an NJ Muslim Political Social Club to organize our future political representation.

What’s the environment in JC like for a Muslim person? You wear a head-covering – have you gotten any negative comments or are people supportive or neutral?

I had an incident in Jersey City, once in a Laundromat, a man attacked me telling me I needed to go back to my country. I was very shocked and shaken because my three-year-old daughter was with me. Since then, I haven’t been able to take my daughter with me to the Laundromat because she is traumatized by the experience. We don’t have enough protection for our Muslim community, not just in Jersey City but throughout Hudson County. Our community centers and mosques aren’t protected vigilantly either; when the mosque on Westside Avenue received a hateful letter, nothing was done in particular. The issue was dusted off, and this is scary because we could face an event like that which happened in Quebec, Canada. I fear that I could be in a mosque in Jersey City with my children, praying, and have someone come inside and attack us while we’re praying. (Side note: Muslims pray five times day. Mosques are active from 5 AM until around 8 PM every day).

Jersey City is not designated a “sanctuary city.” [Ed. note: as stated in the introduction, Mayor Fulop announced late today that tomorrow he would sign an order declaring us one. The wording/details of this order were not made public at the time at which this blog post was published.  On 2/3, an executive order was signed. A copy of it can be found here.] If we were, do you think that would improve things for Muslims currently here? Or would there be any affect at all?

Jersey City is not a designated “sanctuary city,” but there are three steps: the Mayor would need to issue an executive order, council members need to create a strong ordinance and the Chief of Police must agree not to work with I.C.E (Immigration Customs Enforcement). I think it would make a big difference because of we, in Jersey City, are diverse and we are the golden doors for Ellis Island and have significant monuments for immigration. Being a sanctuary city will make the community feel safe, especially because I.C.E. will not be knocking on our doors taking away our loved ones.

I first met you at a Police Captain’s meeting where you were trying to get extra protection/patrols for families walking home late during Ramadan. Did that workout? Have the police been responsive to your needs as a community?

They have been, but only a little. The sheriffs have picked up the task of protecting us during Ramadan. I feel that we lack the support of Jersey City police, but perhaps it could be because we don’t advocate for ourselves enough collectively as a community. And I believe we don’t have enough police to protect the city. More than ever, we need this protection because our women who wear headscarves are easy and visible targets. We are singled out the same way the Japanese and the Eastern-European Jews were during the World Wars.

Between the almost daily shooting happenings in our city, we are living a scary dark place in the world. Our brother and sisters in the African American community are hurting with this non-stop violence. We are being desensitize; accepting it as an ordinary thing to be expected.

Anything else you want to add to your experience as a Muslim in JC at this precise moment?

I moved to Jersey City because of the diversity I found and the fact that it can be a safe haven for me to build my family and raise my children with Hispanic and Muslim Community. I can go pray at the mosque and go two blocks over and find a typical Spanish restaurant. That is some of the many reasons that I came here to feel welcome as Hispanic Muslim. I am a Hispanic Muslim woman and mother of three girls setting a role model for our future generation.

Let us not forget that collectively the representation of the United States infrastructure was on the backs of our African brothers and sisters and immigrants running from religious persecution.