The Syracuse Landmark Preservation Board approved the removal of six wooden and concrete crosses on the outside of Holy Trinity Church which is being renovated into a mosque. But the controversy overshadowed the mission of the North Side Learning Center, which bought the Syracuse property.
"Salam alaikum everyone! Oh, the classroom is getting packed now!”exclaimed Abdulilah Al-Dubai, one of the founders of the North Side Learning Center. The center has eight classes that teach English to 150 students, who range from age four to 80 and come from more than 20 countries.
"Somalia, Eritrea, Congo, Burma, Nepal, Yemen, Egypt, oh my goodness," said Al-Dubai, ticking off just some of the countries.
Yusuf Soule, another founder of the center, says he was working with teenage boys from Iraq, Burma and Somalia when he found out they were getting beat up on the North Side of Syracuse because they looked different or didn't speak English.
"These people are coming for refuge and that's not refuge at all," said Soule.
The problem was there was a four-month waiting list for English classes, he said.
"English is the tool when you come to this country,” said Soule. “They need to begin to get on the path to the American dream and the first step in that is the language."
Soule learned quickly the difficulties in starting the center, such as the obstacles in getting women to attend the classes.
"You have to do it at night, and they can't come unless you take care of all their children."
Plus, the differences of the countries people come from mean teaching has to be tailored to different students’ needs.
"The students we have now from Somalia, for example, who were in refugee camps for maybe 14 years or so and Somalia wasn't a written language until 1977,” said Soule. “Whereas folks from Iraq, were pretty well off where they were from, in many ways. So all they needed to do was get a grasp of the language and off they went."
Although removing the crosses on the church has upset some community members, Soule says no plans have been made yet and he will make sure it is done respectfully with community input and in way that honors the traditions of Christianity.