Immigration Stories: The Mustafas

Khaldiya Mustafa, principal of Al-Ghazaly High School in Wayne, and her husband Mustafa imbue their children with pride in their Muslim heritage.

"We were the first ones to move onto that block [in Jersey City], and they didn't like us at all...It took time for them to get to know us." - Khaldiya Mustafa with husband Mustafa Mustafa.
"We were the first ones to move onto that block [in Jersey City], and they didn't like us at all...It took time for them to get to know us." - Khaldiya Mustafa with husband Mustafa Mustafa.
Photo by Axel Dupeux

Soon after lunch one recent day at the school in Wayne where she is principal, Khaldiya Mustafa stood in the gym as all 350 students gathered around her in total silence. They assembled in long, straight rows, boys in front, girls in back.

The boys wore navy blue pants; the girls, navy blue abayas and burgundy hijabs. Their shoes were lined up along the walls.

The school’s imam stood with his back to the students, leading the afternoon prayer. They bowed in unison, knelt, touched their foreheads to the prayer rugs and stood again, always facing the corner of the gym that points toward Mecca.

“You want to make sure your kids are learning their religion, too,” Mustafa explains. That, she says, is why Muslim families pay $690 a month to send their children to Al-Ghazaly High School. Mustafa, 48, is also the guidance director. Pennants strung above her desk reflect the colleges her students have attended: Harvard, Princeton, Yale and other elite bastions. “They’re learning how to read Koran, they’re learning what it means, and they’re learning how to apply it in their life.”

When Mustafa was growing up in the 1970s in Hudson County, at the start of a wave of Muslim immigration that has transformed parts of North Jersey, she had to learn Koran at home. She had no mosque to attend until 1990, when the Islamic Center of Passaic County opened in a former synagogue in Paterson, a city that now has one of the highest concentrations of Muslims in the nation.

Paterson is the landing place for many newly arrived Muslims—including immigrants from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Turkey, Lebanon and Syria, in addition to Palestinians—but often, they move on to the more desirable neighboring towns. “They come into Paterson as immigrants and they don’t stay long—a few years—and then they move to Clifton when they’re doing a little bit better, and then from Clifton they move to Wayne,” says Khaldiya’s brother Salah, who works for Citibank in Manhattan. Like his sister, Salah lives in Clifton, where the Paterson mosque recently opened a second site, in what was previously a church.

Their father, Nijmiddin Mustafa, was 21 when he arrived in New Jersey in 1950 from the Palestinian town of Mukhmas in what is now the West Bank. He dubbed himself Dean, learned English, worked in the embroidery factories of Union City, became a U.S. citizen, and within a decade opened Holy Land Trading Company, a storefront wholesaler of linens and curtains, and bought a 35-unit apartment building and some rental houses. “He started to be the person to go to if you wanted to come here from Palestine,” Khaldiya says. “A lot of people from our town would say, ‘Oh, he brought us here.’”

The third of eight children, Khaldiya lived in the Heights neighborhood of Jersey City until midway through high school. “We were the first ones to move onto that block, and they didn’t like us at all. It was a lot of, ‘Oh, go back to your country,’” she says. “It took time for them to get to know us.”

Nijmiddin steered his daughters toward college. “He said, ‘They will go because they need to be independent, strong women. I don’t want them to depend on anyone or anything but themselves,’” she says.

Khaldiya was a student at Jersey City State when she married Mustafa Mustafa (they had the same last name). Her new husband had come from Mukhmas to study chemical engineering at New Jersey Institute of Technology. When she graduated, she was pregnant with their second child, Ali, now a resident in internal medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan.

“It’s a cultural thing for us, that we like our kids to achieve,” says Mustafa Mustafa, who also has a master’s degree and works as an environmental engineer at the Environmental Protection Agency. Their oldest daughter, Mona, is a teacher at Khaldiya’s school; another daughter, Amina, is a third-year student at NJIT. Their youngest son, Ameen, 9, has started to memorize the Koran.

“I don’t want him just to memorize it,” says Ahmed Mustafa, their middle son, who is in his last year of pharmacy school at Rutgers. “There’s a meaning behind the words themselves.” For example, says Ahmed, the Koran and Sunnah of the prophet Muhammad teach one “to meet hatred with kindness.”

Hatred still surfaces, as it did in the wake of last October’s terrorist attack in Manhattan by a Muslim immigrant who, like two of the 9/11 hijackers, had lived briefly in Paterson. The family’s mosque in Paterson received telephone threats, and a man called Khaldiya a “raghead” in a supermarket parking lot in Clifton.

“He was African-American himself, and I said, ‘You should be one to understand minorities and what people have gone through in the past,’” she says.

More pervasive than hatred is ignorance. “You get that question, they ask where you’re from, and I say, ‘Jersey,’’ says Ali. “And then they’re like, ‘No, where are you from?’ And I’m like, ‘Jersey.’”

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  1. Omnistalgic

    This is a pretty inspiring story. Well written. Thank you for sharing