In a Place Called Little Palestine, People Feel Afraid. And Forgotten.

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By Ketrin Agustine

In a Place Called Little Palestine, People Feel Afraid. And Forgotten.

Long before the temporary cease-fire ended in Gaza, the mood in Paterson, N.J., home to one of the largest communities of Palestinians outside the Middle East, was tense.

The mood has been dark lately in the Palestine Hair Salon. The TVs behind the barbers’ chairs play a stream of war images that repeat across the mirrored walls: children in Gaza crying, men clawing at rubble, the wounded carried on planks through the streets of Rafa.

Raed Odeh is the owner and top barber of the shop, one of eight barbershops along Palestine Way in South Paterson, the center of one of the largest communities of Palestinians outside the Middle East. Mr. Odeh greets every customer, takes phone calls, cuts hair and watches the news, all while giving orders to his staff.

Mr. Odeh also is a deputy mayor of Paterson.

When he was asked his thoughts about the war in Gaza and its impact on Palestinians in New Jersey, a dozen men in the barbershop stopped talking and used the mirrors to gauge Mr. Odeh’s reaction. He fell silent. He prefers not to discuss these matters in front of his customers.

Eventually Mr. Odeh set down his razor, removed his smock and walked outside. In a small park with a wooden sign that reads, “Welcome to Little Palestine: From Paterson to Jerusalem, 5,962 Miles,” he felt freer to talk.

“This is a massacre,” said Mr. Odeh, 51. “I’m very worried. I wonder if Gaza is still going to exist next month.”

“We cannot sleep. We cannot eat,” said Raed Odeh, the owner of Palestine Hair Salon in Paterson, N.J.Bryan Anselm for The New York Times

After weeks of anxiety and rage, the brief cease-fire in Gaza brought a measure of relief, though even before it collapsed, the residents of Paterson were doubtful it would hold.

In dozens of interviews over the last month, many Palestinians in this part of New Jersey expressed grief and fear for relatives in Gaza. They felt overwhelmed by television coverage and were glued to their phones, desperately checking social media and messaging apps for news from the war.

Mohammed Abuassi, 29, a real estate investor, said he sends daily messages on WhatsApp to his cousins in Gaza. When one replies, he knows that cousin is alive. Nine of his family members were killed by a single Israeli airstrike early in the war, he said.

Militants with Hamas attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7, taking about 240 hostages and killing about 1,200 people, Israeli authorities said. Israel responded with ground and air attacks that, according to Gazan health authorities, have killed more than 15,000 people in Gaza.

The conflict has also hardened long-held feelings among many Palestinians in New Jersey of alienation from American institutions, even as they witness and participate in the largest pro-Palestinian demonstrations in American history.

“The protests give me hope,” said Diab Mustafa, chairman of the Palestinian American Community Center in Clifton, a suburb of Paterson. “But the reactions to the protests, I don’t like. You should be able to march for Palestinian rights without being called antisemitic or a terrorist sympathizer.”

Since shortly after the war began, antisemitic incidents have risen all across the country. Many Palestinians in Paterson also reported a shocking rise in Islamophobic rhetoric. According to a spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the group received nearly 1,300 reports of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias and violence in the United States in the month after Oct. 7 — a 216 percent increase over the same period last year.

“We feel abandoned and betrayed,” said Dina Sayedahmed, a spokeswoman for the council’s New Jersey chapter. “People are grouping Palestinians and Muslims as if suddenly we’re all the enemy.”

The incidents in the report include a man who invited people to help him “hunt Palestinians”; the stabbing of a 6-year-old boy in Chicago; and death threats to Muslim parents outside a school in Fair Lawn, N.J., a few blocks from Paterson. More recently, three Palestinian students were shot last month in an unprovoked attack in Burlington, Vt.

“The shooting in Vermont has been terrifying,” said Rania Mustafa, 31, executive director of the Palestinian American Community Center “But it was inevitable due to all the anti-Palestinian and anti-Islamic rhetoric in the media and by politicians.”

In less fraught times, the televisions in Palestine Hair Salon play soccer games nonstop. But since the war began, the TVs have stayed tuned to Al Jazeera.

“I think you’ll find that most people here don’t trust Western media,” Mr. Odeh said.

Central to this distrust is the anger and humiliation at what Palestinians in New Jersey universally described as 75 years of Israeli occupation since the Nakba, or “catastrophe” in Arabic, when 700,000 Palestinians fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israel war. The world’s attention has been trained on Gaza since Oct. 7: To Palestinians in South Paterson, that confirms the suspicion that their lives matter only when an Israeli dies.

“Look, what happened on Oct. 7 is horrible,” said Salaheddin Mustafa, outreach coordinator for the Islamic Center of Passaic County in Paterson, the largest mosque for Palestinians in New Jersey. “But to start the conversation on Oct. 7, as if that is when the violence started, is just very frustrating. Occupation is violent. By its nature, it’s insidious. It doesn’t allow for human rights. That is the start of the conversation.”

Paterson was founded in 1792 by Alexander Hamilton as the first industrial city in North America. Though its factories faltered after World War II, Paterson has endured as diverse city of 156,000, where 62 percent of the residents are Hispanic, and 40 percent of children live in poverty. The first Palestinians arrived in South Paterson in the late 1960s, renting apartments from Syrian and Lebanese families, said André Sayegh, Paterson’s first Arab American mayor, who grew up in the neighborhood.

Today about 20,000 Palestinians live in a neighborhood that blurs the border between Paterson and Clifton.

Paterson has one of the largest Palestinian populations in the United States.Ahmed Gaber for The New York Times
Support for the Palestinian cause is widespread in Paterson.Ahmed Gaber for The New York Times

“It felt very much like we were living in this insular bubble,” said Ms. Mustafa, who grew up in Paterson and now lives in Clifton.

The small triangular park is at the geographic center of South Paterson, situated on a five-block stretch of Main Street that last year was renamed Palestine Way, after a resolution proposed by Alaa Abdelaziz, the city’s first Palestinian American councilman.

Mr. Odeh’s barbershop is in the middle of Palestine Way, surrounded by bakeries, stores selling ornate furniture and jewelry, and Al-Basha, a Palestinian restaurant that attracts diners from across New Jersey.

As the Palestinian commercial district grew, so did the community’s political power. Mosques in Paterson hosted campaign events for both Democratic and Republican senators and governors. Palestinian leaders maintain that Bill Pascrell Jr., the Democratic congressman from Paterson, owes his seat in part to their organizing work during his bruising primary fight for re-election in 2012, said Salaheddin Mustafa.

Yet since Oct. 7, when Mr. Pascrell joined New Jersey’s senators and governor — all Democrats — to declare support for Israel and decline to call for an unconditional cease-fire, South Paterson has effectively banned the officials from their mosques and public spaces.

Mr. Mustafa said that the politicians’ aides have texted for weeks, asking to meet and repair the relationship. He has refused.

“Once you call for a cease-fire, we’ll talk,” said Mr. Mustafa. “With Pascrell, it’s very personal. He is persona non grata. We’re done.”

In an interview, Mr. Pascrell acknowledged that many of his Palestinian constituents are angry with him. He pointed to his support for President Biden’s decision to send $100 million in humanitarian aid to the West Bank, and for efforts to provide food, water, medical supplies and safe passage to civilians in Gaza.

“Like all Americans, I want a permanent end to these hostilities and lasting security for Palestinians and Israelis both,” Mr. Pascrell said.

Representative Bill Pascrell has declared support for Israel, angering Palestinian constituents.Al Drago for The New York Times

Feeling spurned by their political leaders, some Palestinians in New Jersey said they’re more determined than ever to build their community by themselves. Ms. Mustafa, of the Palestinian American Community Center, has assumed a frantic schedule.

On Tuesday, she hosted a livestream on Instagram to raise money for Palestinian college students from New Jersey. On Wednesday she led a class for students about grass-roots organizing, drove to Teaneck High School to support a student walkout and, finally, hosted a fund-raiser for the community center. On Friday, she held a news conference with children to protest Mr. Pascrell, and gave a lecture at the Islamic Center of Passaic County.

On Tuesday evening, relaxing on the couch of her large and formal home in Clifton, she anxiously scanned her phone. Before the war, she paid a woman in Gaza to tutor her children in Arabic over Zoom. Ms. Mustafa has texted the woman every day since the war began. The tutor hasn’t responded since Oct. 29.

“Now I can’t reach her,” Ms. Mustafa said. “Does that mean she can’t charge her phone? Is she dead? I don’t know.”

At 7:15, Ms. Mustafa managed to put her phone down. Yousef, 2, and his 5-year-old sister, Dina, snuggled into the couch beside her. She read them a picture book titled “Sitti’s Key,” in which a Palestinian woman gives her granddaughter the key to her former home in Haifa, now part of Israel, a token of their family history and how they came to live in the United States.

When the book was finished, Ms. Mustafa’s husband, Ibrahim Issa, a 32-year-old architect, escorted the children upstairs to bed. Ms. Mustafa returned to her phone, texting friends about a support group she’s starting next week for Palestinians in New Jersey to process their grief about the war.

“Whatever happens next, there is still a humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza right now,” Ms. Mustafa said, glancing up from the screen. “The cease-fire means we can take one deep breath. Just one. Then we all need to get back to work.”

Sabir Hasko contributed reporting.

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