Brooklyn, New York – In Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, people call Habib Joudeh the mukhtar of Fifth Avenue. A title that makes the 57-year-old laugh, as it is a title he has never liked.
The mukhtar or the head of the village is someone who was traditionally chosen in many Arab countries to function as a mayor.
“Back home, then, the mukhtar was someone you need to stamp all your official papers at,” said Joudeh, a native Palestinian who has been living in the U.S. since 1982. “He was someone who certified that you have a good character.”
For the past 25 years Joudeh has been an active community leader and a devoted advocate for the Arab community in New York City. An immigrant himself, he said, this is a difficult time for Arab Americans, as they have been perceived in a negative light since Sept. 11.
On a stroll through Bay Ridge on any given day, it would be hard to find someone who doesn’t know Joudeh.
“He’s involved with people’s problems,” said Adel AbuHamdeh, 62. “You ask him for something and he never let you down.”
His business, Pharmacy on the Fifth, has become a place where Arabs and non-Arabs alike seek help and find a refuge.
“This store is open for problem solving, discussions and progress,” Joudeh said.
In a small office space towards the back of the pharmacy, Joudeh works on the clerical and financial aspects of his business. His glasses frame a firm look in his eyes but do not mask a gentle smile.
He was absorbed in work on a recent afternoon when Abu Zakariya, a local resident, came in looking for him. “I woke up with a red eye, Abu Ramzi,” said the old man, referring to Joudeh using a common honorific, as the father of his eldest son.
Joudeh walked Abu Zakariya to check his blood pressure. “Your wife must have cooked you a greasy lunch,” Joudeh said jokingly. “I can’t check your sugar levels now. You have to come back in a couple of hours for that.”
Joudeh is not a physician, nor is he a pharmacist. He is a businessman who owns three pharmacies in Brooklyn and Staten Island. He graduated from Colorado University with a business degree and earned his master’s degree in business six years ago. Joudeh is currently studying for his Ph.D. in business and public relations in St. John’s University. He said he hopes to finish his thesis next year.
Joudeh said he learned a lot about medication during the 10 years he spent working in Kuwait before immigrating to the U.S. “Most of my friends were in the medical field,” he said. “I spent most of my time at pharmacies and hospitals, so I learned a lot about medication.”
Joudeh was born in the West Bank city of Bethlehem after his family was forced to flee the nearby village, Qalonia, during the Nakba in 1948. The Nakba is the term Palestinians use to mark the disposition of their land, homes, properties and the expulsion of over 750,000 on the wake of Israel’s establishment.
The youngest in a family of six, Joudeh moved at 17 to Kuwait where he worked as a supervisor at Kuwait Airport.
“I had a very good job,” said Joudeh, “but the problem was that you’re treated as a foreigner, no matter what.”
The harsh treatment of Kuwaitis to other Arabs is why Joudeh said he left Kuwait. He headed to the U.S. in search for a place to thrive with his thoughts and bring his family into freedom, he said.
Many Palestinians have been forced to displacement over the years, creating the largest refugee community in the world.
“My life is like the rest of the Palestinians, it’s a long journey,” Joudeh said. “We were born to destiny.”
During his first visit to the U.S. in 1976 a Lebanese friend showed Joudeh a café where many Palestinian immigrants gathered to play cards in the afternoons. Joudeh said his friend told him this was the only thing Palestinian immigrants did besides selling watches in the streets. The image stayed in his heart and mind, Joudeh said.
When he moved to New York City from Colorado in 1984, Joudeh and a couple of Palestinian friends rented a space in Bay Ridge to use as a mosque to replace the basement in a local building, where Muslims used to pray.
“The first move you take when you’re out of your country is the religious move,” Joudeh said. “You want your kids to know their religion.”
After establishing the mosque, each founding member took his own road, Joudeh said. At least until 2000, when an idea to build a school for Arab immigrants came about, he added. Today, more than 700 Arab kids attend AlNoor School on Fourth Avenue and 21st Street.
As the Arab community was growing in Bay Ridge and in the surrounding neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Joudeh and others envisioned an organization to serve their social and economic needs.
Following Sept. 11, many Arabs were harassed, fueling tensions around the country. The need for an organization to support local Arab residents was even more imminent, Joudeh said. “Some groups started attacking the mosques, the school, houses and ladies in the streets,” he said.
The first response, Joudeh recalled, was an initiative by Charles Hynes, Brooklyn’s District Attorney, and a few community leaders. They formed the community task force to protect the Arab community.
More than eight years after its establishment, the task force is still in place. “We keep showing the people what the Arab community is all about,” said Joudeh. “Whoever is using their religion towards their own personal gain is not what the religion is all about.”
Joudeh underscores the fact that Arabs include Muslims and Christians. He said this is part of the message he is still trying to deliver to the many who assume otherwise. “When you say Arabs here,” he said, “nothing rings up but Muslims because the hammering of the media.”
Although the process to establish an organization came prior to Sept. 11, the founders took more direct steps in the weeks following the attack. The Arab American Association in New York was created in December 2001.
Joudeh has been serving the Arab community in Bay Ridge for more than 25 years
“We formed the Arab American Association to open the doors for people that were scared to come and talk to us,” Joudeh said.
Linda Sarsour, the association director, said that Joudeh’s resourcefulness makes her work much easier. While preparing for the association annual fund raiser, Sarsour said, Joudeh managed to get a 42-inch television in less than two hours. “He’s a great fundraiser,” she said.
“He has a strong presence,” said Sarsour. “A true mover and shaker in the community.”
What makes the association different, Joudeh said, is its work to encourage Arab immigrants to become more engaged in American society. In the past elections the association brought in more than 8,000 new registered voters.
“Our personal gain in this country as Arabs and as Muslims is to blend in this community and be effective,” Joudeh said.
Many Arab immigrants arrive in the U.S. unprepared. “They don’t know what to expect,” he said. “They’re scared and they want to keep a low profile and keep their heads down.”
He says, with bitterness in his tone, that the first thing many organizations offer new immigrants is help getting on welfare rolls.
“Their rights are not about Medicare or to go on food stamps,” Joudeh said. “Their right is to register and be citizens, knowing that they have some role in this government.”
Joudeh has established a remarkable network with local officials and politicians in the city to support this effort. The Arab community was able to play a crucial role, he said, in the election of some politicians, like Assemblywoman Janele Hyer-Spencer and Congressman Michael McMahon.
“Habib is just overwhelmingly exuberant and passionate about his community,” said Hyer-Spencer, who met Joudeh through her election campaign three years ago. “He’s committed to making cultural connections, which is difficult in this day and age.”
Political figures describe Joudeh as a principled activist.
“He doesn’t back down, he’s got passion,” said Councilman Vincent Gentile. “He does it in such kind and gentlemanly way that I’m just impressed.”
For the past couple of years, Joudeh has been leading a contingent advocating for recognizing Muslim holidays in the New York City public schools.
“I was sitting right next to him on his right side,” Joudeh said describing his latest encounter with New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. “He said ‘you know this is a dangerous seat,’ I said I know that’s why they gave it to me because I’m not scared of you.”
Fighting to add Muslim holidays to schools calendar is one of many concerns Joudeh has. He sits on five boards, including Brooklyn’s Community Board 10, Fifth Avenue Business Improvement District, the Arab American Association of New York, St. Nicholas Home and the community task force.
“I try to divide myself into a hundred pieces and finally go home in one piece if I can,” Joudeh said with a smile.
When it comes to the community, said Dean Rasinya, chairman of Brooklyn’s community board 10, Joudeh always finds time to help.
“It takes 25 hours out of the 24 hour day,” Rasinya said. “But yet he finds time to attend meetings and to donate his time and energy to various committees.”
Joudeh, who is married and has four children – his eldest son is a physician; the other two are studying for a master’s in chemistry and a law degree, and his daughter is in her first year of college – said he worries most about the generation they represent. “There is a big and tremendous hate built against the Arabs; and this is what you have to fight,” he said. “This is your battle, this is your country.”