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Finding Common Ground Through Art—Young Muslim Teacher Inspires and is Embraced by Young Israel of Queens Seniors

-- Free Public Exhibition and Performance of Seniors’ Work from this Kupferberg Center for the Arts at Queens College-Sponsored Program Takes Place June 30 --

FLUSHING, N.Y., June 27, 2017A community arts engagement program at Young Israel of Queens Valley (YIQV) in Flushing that’s geared toward seniors has helped more than just the participants’ creativity flourish—it has fostered an unlikely friendship between a young Muslim teacher and a group of older women, most of whom are Jewish. The Creating Senses of Self through Poetry program has deepened the friendship between Queens College alumna Saira Chaudhry—who wears the hijab—and her students, who range in age from 65 to 90. Introduced in March 2017, the program is presented by Kupferberg Center for the Arts at Queens College through a grant from the SU-CASA program.
Chaudhry, who has worked with the group since January 2016, notes that they made their first––and one of their most compelling––connections over her name. “When I introduced myself as Saira,” says Chaudhry, “many of the participants were pleasantly surprised because it is such an important name in the Hebrew faith, Sarah being the wife of Abraham.” What followed was a two-hour conversation on their religious commonalities and differences, during which Chaudhry and the seniors shared what the name means in their respective languages—“happy” and “traveler” in Arabic and “princess” in Hebrew.
SU-CASA community arts engagement programs place artists in senior centers across the five boroughs of New York City. The YIQV Creating Senses of Self Through Poetry program centers on the concept of word play and poetic themes with a visual art component. Chaudhry introduced a wide range of craft elements related to memoir-writing and teaches her students about different types of poetry, including spoken word and Haiku, figurative language, and how to identify poetic devices and the elements of a poem. The dozen participants—some who struggle with visual and physical disabilities—covered such themes as family, identity, nature, memory, love, time, wisdom, and loss in their work. A free public exhibition of performances of their work will take place at the YIQV center—located at 141-55 77 Avenue—on Friday, June 30, from 10 am to 12 noon.

“It’s a great program. I love Saira, we’ve become friends. She’s so helpful and has wonderful ideas,” says program participant Chaya Brandwein. Beverly Siller agrees. “Saira is an excellent teacher. The poetry was universal—it encompassed different types of countries and backgrounds and we learned from each other, as well as from the various different books. In addition, it connected us to each other.”

“We’ve connected on many different levels, but in particular through religion and culture—we’re all walking-talking stories,” says Chaudhry, who holds a bachelor’s degree with double majors in secondary education and English literature from Queens College. “Although we cover all forms of poetry, I wanted to make it culturally significant for my students, so I brought in a Hebrew poem for us to translate. This led to a discussion of the overlapping meanings of Arabic and Hebrew words, which I find fascinating.”
Chaudhry—who is Pakistani—and her students have also connected on the theme of food, with her students bringing in homemade baked goods. “We eat dates to break the Ramadan fast; they’re a food that I eat every day, and yet surprisingly, I was able to learn new and creative ways to use them from my students in recipes they shared,” says Chaudhry. Other cross-cultural topics they discussed included the similarities in dress codes among conservative Muslim and Jewish women.
The SU-CASA program, funded by the New York City Council—with support from Council Member Rory Lancman—began as SPARC: Seniors Partnering with Artists Citywide, which the Department of Cultural Affairs and the Department for the Aging developed and operated in partnership with the city’s five local arts councils. It is supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council. Materials for the Arts also supports this program.
“It has been a privilege for me to partner with the Kupferberg Center for the Arts at Queens College again this year to provide local seniors with quality arts programming,” says Council Member Lancman. “The expert instruction provided enables seniors to learn new skills and participate in engaging activities. I look forward to working with Kupferberg Center next year to ensure seniors have new opportunities to explore the arts.”
“Our seniors are grateful for the opportunity of having a poetry program at our center, thanks to a charismatic and talented instructor who was able to relate to our constituents. Saira had the teaching ability to develop creative poetry while making it pleasurable and educational for our membership,” says Alan Gombo, YIQV director. YIQV is a place where anyone over 60 can enjoy programs targeting diverse backgrounds and interests. Programming includes low-impact exercise sessions as well as arts and crafts and lectures on health, finance, safety, politics, and elder law.

Kupferberg Center for the Arts (KCA) is the largest multidisciplinary arts complex in Queens, which was named “Best place to visit in 2015” by Lonely Planet. With performances by world-class artists in our on-campus venues; regional and local talent in our off-site neighborhood performances; and professionally produced shows by Queens College’s students and faculty, KCA provides high-quality, accessible, and affordable cultural attractions to the Queens College community and the borough’s 2.3 million residents. In addition to the star-studded events that take place at its home at Queens College, Kupferberg Center connects the communities of Queens by presenting diverse programming throughout the borough. With over 50 free yearly concerts by international acts and exhibitions by local artists in many of our neighborhoods, KCA seeks to cross cultural boundaries and link the diverse populations of our borough as well as attract people from outside Queens to our parks, libraries, schools, and plazas. Visit for more information.

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