Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Imam Is a Shepherd to West African Immigrants in Harlem

November 2, 2010

ong before daylight breaks in Harlem, the imam Souleimane Konaté puts on a wide embroidered robe and wakes up his wife, Assiata, so she can pray in their one-bedroom apartment while their 9-year-old daughter Fanta sleeps.

Mr. Konaté (pronounced Ko-NAH-tay) then walks four blocks in the dark to his mosque, Masjid Aqsa, on Frederick Douglass Boulevard near 116th Street. He passes the lowered grates of shops that sell African beauty products, halal meats and bolts of bright cloth. He passes stragglers headed home from late-night carousing.

At the mosque, the imam leads the first of the five daily Muslim prayers. Prayer gives a meter to each day. The rest of his work is improvisation.

As the leader of a thriving African mosque, Mr. Konaté, 55, an immigrant from Ivory Coast, straddles two worlds on the same New York map. For politicians, police officers and immigrant advocates, the imam is a bridge to the city’s growing African Muslim immigrant population. For recent arrivals, mostly French speakers from West Africa, he serves as translator and all-purpose guide to life in America.

“I’d describe it as a religious leader at the same time as a social worker,” said Mr. Konaté, a youthful-looking man with an easy smile. “A lawyer, a defender and a liaison between the community and the government of the city.”

One of his congregants, Ramatu Ahmed, a community activist from Ghana, likened the imam to a compass for new arrivals.

“You come to a country, where your father is not there, your mother is not there,” Ms. Ahmed said. “You don’t know anybody. You are like a newly born baby.”

Mr. Konaté’s cramped office on the balcony overlooking the mosque’s main prayer space is filled with boxes for donations to buy a new building, a well-used coffee pot and photographs of the imam with Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg; Gov. David A. Paterson; Abdoulaye Wade, the president of Senegal; and the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

From his silver-topped staff to his pointed slippers, the imam always likes to dress appropriately, but at times he leaves traditional solemnity behind. At an African Union celebration last year, the imam danced a bit, shocking some congregants.

“I said, ‘I’m a human being like yourself, people,’ ” Mr. Konaté said. “Let me enjoy myself.”

Immigrants seek him out for all manner of reasons: an arrest, a diagnosis of H.I.V. or a fear of being deported. His cellphone sounds at all hours — its ringtone is the Muslim call to prayer.

When Cheikh Ibrahim Fall, a Senegalese immigrant, could not pay his bills after an operation for a hernia, he asked Mr. Konaté for help. Mr. Konaté persuaded officials at Harlem Hospital Center to reduce Mr. Fall’s bill.

When people in the neighborhood have problems, Mr. Fall said, “you got to go right there and talk to him about what he can do to help.”

Mr. Konaté worked with the city and others to establish a health clinic at Harlem Hospital Center set up to cater to the needs of Muslim immigrants from West Africa. Translators who speak multiple African languages help patients leery of seeking medical care because they lack insurance or are here illegally. The clinic also accommodates patients who prefer, for religious reasons, to be seen by doctors of the same sex.

Mr. Konaté said many African immigrants were unaccustomed to having access to health care.

“We find out that many brothers and sisters in the community, they have AIDS but they didn’t know about it,” he said. Workers at the clinic now routinely ask patients if they can perform an H.I.V. test.

On Fridays, Mr. Konaté delivers impassioned sermons in French, English and Arabic, combining religious messages with calls for civic and political engagement. He reminds congregants to visit the health clinic. If they get sick, he asks, who will send money home to their families?

Mr. Konaté has steered clear of saying much about the controversy surrounding a proposed Islamic center and mosque near ground zero, even though it has been a dominant topic of conversation among many local Muslims. If it is ever built, however, he says he would like to preach there.

“I will get myself involved to educate all New Yorkers and all Americans about the goodness and nonviolence in the Koran,” Mr. Konaté said.

Africans from all over the continent have quietly transformed different corners of New York. On West 116th Street in the Little Africa of central Harlem, sentences that begin in French often flow into Wolof, Peul or Mr. Konaté’s native Mandingo language.

The number of African-born immigrants in New York has increased to nearly 125,000 in 2009 from 78,500 in 2000, according to census estimates, but immigrant advocates believe the number is far higher.

Many African immigrants arrive from countries with long histories of military rule or police corruption and must adapt to local law enforcement practices.

In the New York Police Department’s 28th Precinct, in Harlem, Mr. Konaté teaches officers basic Muslim customs, like removing one’s shoes in a mosque.

“There’s always going to be a little bit of a barrier between police officers and an immigrant community,” said Deputy Inspector Rodney Harrison, the precinct’s commanding officer. “He’s allowed us to become much more intimate with the African community.”

Mr. Konaté has also helped resolve misunderstandings of greater consequence. “In Africa, for example, if a police officer asks you to stop, you run away,” he said, because to stop when accused is considered a sign of guilt.

Becoming a religious leader was never part of the imam’s plan. He studied Islamic law in Egypt, then communications in Saudi Arabia, where he lived for 12 years and worked as a reporter, covering West Africa for Saudi news publications. In 1992, he moved to New York, hoping to get a doctoral degree in communications.

Unable to afford school, Mr. Konaté worked at McDonald’s, a grocery store and several restaurants.

Like many African immigrants at the time, Mr. Konaté prayed at African-American mosques in Harlem. He helped found Masjid Aqsa in 1996, so that new African immigrants could hear services in their native languages. He became the spiritual leader a few months later.

Now, Masjid Aqsa has outgrown its space. About 1,200 congregants show up for Friday prayers. On Sundays, hundreds of children gather to learn the Koran. They study in two shifts, filling the mosque with the cacophony of young voices.

To resolve its space needs, the congregation is working to raise $2 million to buy a larger building a few blocks away.

On Mondays, the one day off he allows himself, Mr. Konaté retreats to the home of relatives in East Orange, N.J. He needs to leave the city, he said, to catch up on his sleep. Still, his cellphone keeps him tethered to life across the Hudson River.

“But I’m good here in New York,” Mr. Konaté said. “I’m not going nowhere till I finish, my mission is complete.”

An imam’s work is lifelong, he said. There is no such thing as a former imam.

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