My Life Under NYPD Surveillance: A Brooklyn Student and Charity Leader on Fear and Mistrust
My name is Asad Dandia although friends know me as Ace. I am an American citizen, born in Brooklyn, where I have lived my whole life with my family. I am 20 years old, and I am a practicing Muslim.
I am currently a student at a CUNY community college, and I hope to become a social worker. Since November 2011, I have been active in a community-based charity and religious outreach group originally called Fesabeelillah Services of NYC (FSNYC), and now known as Muslims Giving Back.
Giving charity is one of the core principles of Islam, and as a Muslim, I feel it is my duty to help the needy members of my community, Muslims and non-Muslims alike. In other words, my charity work is a central part of my religious practice.
I believe it is especially important for Muslim youth to contribute to society. Many Muslims of my generation are first or second generation Americans, so it is our responsibility to set the standard, to be active and positive contributors to our society, and to leave behind a legacy of good work for the next generation of American Muslims to take up. Our charitable work is gratifying and empowering, and helps us be better practicing Muslims, by allowing us to fulfill an intrinsic tenet of our faith.
FSNYC began as a charity serving low-income people in New York City. We helped the homeless, donated money to families in times of need, and fundraised to support these and other charitable activities.
In March 2012, a man named Shamiur Rahman messaged me on Facebook. I didn't know at the time that he was working as a police informant. Rahman told me he was trying to become a better practicing Muslim, and that he wanted to get involved with FSNYC. He asked me whether there were "any events or anything" he could attend soon. We had several friends in common, and I was happy to help him in his quest for religious self-improvement, so I introduced him to my friends in FSNYC. He started to attend all our meetings and became a part of my circle of friends. On several occasions, I invited him to my family's house, where he met my parents and ate with our family. Once, he spent the night in my family's home.
Rahman would ask everyone he met for their phone number, often within minutes of meeting them. He also often tried to take photos with or of people he met through me.
The next month, two friends separately told me that they had heard that NYPD informants had infiltrated FSNYC. I was advised to step down to avoid being targeted, but I decided not to step down because I knew that I had not done anything wrong. Still, I stopped publicizing FSNYC's activities and following up on many matters regarding the organization.
When I told other FSNYC members about the NYPD informant, one board member decided to be less active in the organization, and several members told me that they would stop their activities with our group largely because of their fear of being spied on by police informants. In June 2012, FSNYC stopped functioning.
I wanted to revive my religious charitable work and community service. Some friends and I created a new group called Muslims Giving Back. We took our first shopping trip in July 2012 to buy food to donate to needy families in our community. Throughout that summer, Muslims Giving Back worked to fundraise and distribute food donations to needy community members. During this time, Rahman remained active within Muslims Giving Back and our group of volunteers and friends.
On October 2, 2012, Rahman posted a message on Facebook in which he revealed that he had been employed by the NYPD as an informant and sent to infiltrate our community and organizations. Until that moment, I had no idea that Rahman was working for the NYPD as an informant.
When I learned the news, I froze. It was a terrifying feeling. I couldn't believe that an NYPD informant had been in my home. I feared even more for my family than for myself.
About 10 days later, a religious leader at my mosque, Masjid Omar, asked me to stop holding Muslims Giving Back meetings at the mosque—which, until then, had been our primary meeting place and a substantial source of our fundraising—and to avoid bringing new people to the mosque. The group's members now gather in front of the mosque, but do not meet inside of it. Instead, after we meet up, we go from the mosque to our food storage facility, and from there we make delivery rounds.
The Masjid Omar religious leader also said that Muslims Giving Back would no longer be permitted to solicit donations from congregants after Friday services. This has been a major blow to our organization, which had relied on these weekly calls to raise money for our work. As a result, Muslims Giving Back has struggled to raise the funds we need to buy food and serve our community's needs.
After Muslims Giving Back members learned that Rahman had sent a photo of some of us to the NYPD, we stopped posting public pictures of ourselves engaging in charity. We used to post these pictures as part of our community outreach, and to encourage other young Muslims to join us. Now, we worry our visibility will draw law enforcement attention. For example, on the Muslims Giving Back Facebook page, we only post photos of members with their faces blurred out. This hurts our ability to promote our work and to serve as an example to other young Muslims.
Our objective is to continue fulfilling our duty as Muslims and despite the difficulties, we still fundraise to purchase and deliver food to poor Muslim and non-Muslim families in the greater New York area. But our sense of community and trust has been damaged, and our organization's reputation and legitimacy has suffered. I used to try to be as inclusive and public as possible about my charitable work—now, I communicate mainly with people I know personally.
I still can't understand why people who are feeding the poor are being targeted by the NYPD. For me, Islam is about more than just praying at the mosque and fasting. Islam is about getting involved and engaging with the greater world. My friends and I do so by serving our community through helping those less fortunate. The NYPD surveillance program has made it harder for me to practice my religion, even though I have done nothing wrong. I am taking part in the lawsuit filed today so that I may again practice my religion freely, without fear. This lawsuit is a stand against injustice on behalf of my community, my family, and my organization.