by Layla Abbas
photography by Ariel Torres
Dr. Haleema Shaikley is frantically trying to organize her office, which is filled with stacks of paper and vibrant student artwork. The school is in the final stages of WASC assessment, and the philosophy of her school is on display and impossible to put out of view for a photographer.
“OK, I am ready now,” she says. “Does it look OK?”
Her office has 25 years’ worth of paperwork, artifacts and documents chronicling the history of the City of Knowledge, a Western Association of Schools and Colleges accredited preschool through 12th grade institution located in the very northwest corner of Pomona, where welcome to La Verne and Claremont signs are visible.
Dr. Haleema Shaikley, as her students call her, is principal and founder of the Islamic school since its 1994 opening. On this day, Haleema, a Muslim, is clothed in a long black garment that graces the floor with delicate sequins. A matching traditional head scarf, called the hijab, tightly frames her face.
Her school is one that fosters a positive attitude and motivates students to be successful in the larger world. She says it is her students that give her the momentum to keep going in hardships; the most piercing and scarring, which was felt across the country, was Sept. 11, 2001. At first, the joy was there in 2001, and then it was gone. The school first received its accreditation April 2001, and enrollment was at an all-time high. When the school doors opened a week before 911, 261 rambunctious students greeted her at the school gates. A week after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, led by an Islamic extremist group that killed nearly 3,000 people, the City of Knowledge lost 100 students in one day over their personal concerns of safety. They never returned, leaving a detrimental plummet in enrollment numbers that would plague the school for years to come. Nevertheless, there was community support when churches and interfaith groups in the area joined with the City of Knowledge leadership, both to show solidarity and also to lend protective support. “Since then, to be honest, enrollment has not recovered,” Haleema says, never being able to forget those fearful and anxious times. “It was after 9/11, and the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, so the financial situation became hard for everybody. Many people relocated and went to the Middle East. Many people went to areas where rent is more affordable and living is less costly. This has all impacted enrollment.”
Haleema says running an Islamic school is not at all an easy feat, but the students are her daily motivation. “We have a saying for the Prophet Muhammad when he used to see his daughter Fatima—he used to say, ‘If I look at her face, all my pain and sorrow and hardship disappear.’ So for me the students are very special, and I am very child centered. I am like a mother to these children, and I take pride in that, and I fight for that.” At the annual science fair awards, held this April day in the prayer room where the children are asked to remove their shoes while on the carpet designated for praying, Haleema cheers for the students as they walk up to accept awards and medals. She moves and positions the medals in front of the award certificates to ensure each student has a picture perfect moment. Her sentiment and love extends to teacher and staff members; her students not only feel her enthusiasm for them and the school; they can see it.
There are no bland passageways here: hallways and classrooms are decorated with vibrant, colorful student work. Paintings from the kindergartners show their creativity in the classroom, and language information pamphlets drape hallway sections. Some of the hallways are painted in bright blue and purple that can instantly improve someone’s day. The school’s mission statement, with words that include “intellectual,” “spiritual” and “inquisitive” stands admirably out front as a constant, prized reminder that students are the champions.
The 1994 birth of the school followed the arduous yet careful renovation of a historic north Garey Avenue bowling alley. The pleasing result featured an educational environment that serves hundreds of students and guarantees a college acceptance senior year. It was Haleema’s dream, inspired by her husband, to send their children to obtain a quality Islamic education, eight hours a day. “The idea of having a school has been on my mind since my older kid became school age,” Haleema says. “I became concerned about how they are going to get the Islamic education and the cultural education and become acquainted with the Islamic culture. Living in a society which is alien to Islam makes this a hard task.” Haleema feared her six children were in an environment that was not conducive to their spiritual growth.
When she married, and her plans to move back home to Iraq fell through, she knew she wanted to create an Islamic school for her children and others to attend. “We started with Sunday school, and after Friday school we utilized a cafeteria in an Upland school to do every day program for the students,” Haleema says. “I used to bring any Shaikh or Messa to the house to teach my kids. I would send my kids to Iraq every summer in spite of the situation being what it was, but then I realized it is not really just learning the language, learning the Quran and learning the religion; it is a seven hours a day–seven to eight prime hours.”
The City of Knowledge school’s philosophy does not deny students the right to be educated if they cannot pay the tuition, which causes the school to take a financial hit almost every year. “In my personal belief, an Islamic education should be a free service to everyone; however, situations need to survive and need to live and have a regular income coming in so tuition is charged,” Haleema says. “In our belief system and our school’s philosophy, we do not deny any student who is willing and benefits from this school. If they can be an asset to the school by learning from the school, we do not deny them the right to get educated in this school. There are some donors that give money to the scholarship fund, but that is no way enough to cover all the scholarships that we give.” She says the purpose of the school is to give students a full understanding of the religion; which was easier to do prior to the fear sparked by 9/11 and before negative publicity of Islam was heightened. “It was very important for us that our students have a full understanding of their religion. There was not 9/11, there was not this negative publicity of Islam; [just that] our thought process [was] that these kids should know their religion and should be proud of their identity. We foresaw that they are going to face challenges in this world as they grow. Another philosophy in this school is we made it open for Muslims and non-Muslims, [plus] Muslims from different schools of thoughts,” Haleema says. “The goal was to promote a culture of brotherhood and understanding to different worldviews. After five years of this school being in operation, 9/11 happened. When 9/11 happened, our non-Muslim friends, because we had good relations with them, came here and built a human fence around the school just to protect the students during drop off and pick up.”
The school hosts Muslims, non-Muslims and Muslims from different schools of thoughts. “You see Muslims from outside who have not been in the school [who are] spreading rumors about the beliefs in this school,” Haleema says. “But in this school, we are Muslims, and we are all brothers and sisters, and we pray to the same God. We have the same Prophet so we promote that kind of culture to the students.”
Ahmed Alhankawi, a high school senior, is one of the many students at the City of Knowledge who is an immigrant. Ahmed came to the United States from Iraq when he was 7 years old. He was 1-year-old when his father died, and his mother decided to move him and his siblings to Jordan. After two years in Jordan, they relocated to the United States to seek a safer environment and better opportunities. Ahmed will attend Pomona College next year on a full scholarship. “I have been attending this school since fourth grade,” Ahmed says with a slight smile and warming eyes. “I used to go to a public school in northern California, but we moved down here. In fourth grade, I was a little chubby kid who was kind of annoying. I barely spoke English, and I started to forget Arabic so I was stuck in between both those languages. But for the first time in three years, I actually had an Arabic class, and that is when I started learning the religion and language again.” Ahmed says he feels confused to have been accepted into Pomona College on a full scholarship, which only has a 10 percent acceptance rate. “I got in,” Ahmed says, feeling undeserving. “I want to study biology, be a doctor, but I talked to a few people, and they changed [majors] within a couple days, so we will see.”
“This school is something the Muslim community desperately needs,” Ahmed says. “The teachers dedicate extra time to help students understand the concepts and will not abandon students who may learn at a slower rate. When you are younger, you do not really have any roots or a set personality. It is like a tight community. Everyone actually really cares. That is the thing you actually feel—you feel like everyone actually cares about you. You know everyone, and no one is trying to push you one way or another; everyone here is just trying to help you.” Jokingly, he adds, “Also, the school food is not too bad—chips, snacks and occasionally Kentucky Fried Chicken.” Although Ahmed is not anxious to leave the doors of City of Knowledge, he plans to return to teach in a few years, which is something some alumni do. “I mean, this school is actually a blessing. I do not think I would be in the same position I am in right now if it were not for this place. The school is something the Muslim community desperately needs.”
Ahmed is thankful for Zayneb Shaikley, the school administrator and also daughter of Haleema, for helping him get into college. Zayneb herself was in the first graduating class in 2000, a year before the school received accreditation. Zayneb will be sending her son to preschool at the City of Knowledge September 2019. This will bring the Haleema’s 25 year vision of 25 years full circle. “I feel like in this day in age it is a little nerve racking sending your kids to school because you do not know who their teachers or friends are, and what kind of environment they will be in,” Zayneb says. “So knowing he will be in a place where he will learn important values, and where I have open channels of communication, obviously not just with my mom, but with the staff and everyone else makes me feel very comfortable.”
Zayneb says she feels lucky to be in an environment that feels so safe and welcoming; the New Zealand attack on two Christchurch mosques that left 50 Muslims in mid worship dead, was a reminder that Islamophobia and attacks based on religious values are heightened. “Whenever something like that happens, the interfaith groups in the Pomona community always reach out immediately to show their support, and let us know they are available to help us, to stand outside and protect us. We get so much love and support during those times so we feel safe despite the circumstances and conversations that happen between students and teachers when these unfortunate events happen.”
Zayneb says the school helped shape her Islamic identity and gave her confidence and faith in herself. “A lot changed after I graduated in terms of the perception of Muslims in this country. A lot of people at that time began to get fearful of being obviously Muslim, like those who wear the hijab, but my confidence and identity were so firmly rooted at that point that I was comfortable and confident going out as a Muslim woman in hijab.”
Zayneb says that as a personal witness, the growth and progress made since she graduated in 2000 has been amazing. “We just had the WASC accreditation leaders come for the third time in April, and they had so much to say about the quality of the education found here, including how the school is really surpassing its peers in terms of preparing its students for college and maintaining a 100 percent college matriculation rate. To see how the school has really worked so hard over the years to continue to improve its curriculum and still to continue to focus on nurturing students with an Islamic identity at the same time has been really cool to see.”
Hussein Darwiche, senior student at the City of Knowledge, started in preschool. Hussein says the school provided a place to strengthen his faith in Islam and provided him an opportunity to be accepted into highly esteemed colleges. Hussein will be attending Cal Poly, Pomona’s College of Engineering fall 2019. “You feel secure in what you believe in, and everyone helps maintain that security by being a family,” Hussein says. “When you are outside of the school and hear that negative talk, you learn to ignore it. When you come here, it is reinforced always every corner you turn that our religion is something to be proud of. This school is the best choice anyone could ever make.”
Zayneb says her mom is a significant voice for the local Islamic community, giving children from low-income households an opportunity that will shape their lives for the better. “This is not your average private school with rich kids who have a leg up in life and will have a better chance of getting into colleges because they come from wealthy families.”
“This is a school where you can come from a low-socio economic status and be put in this position where you are pretty much guaranteed to go to college. I see people come from families where they would not have had this kind of opportunity otherwise, and they are very smart kids, but it is just how society works. “My mom makes me so proud and is my role model.” Zayneb smiles a knowing smile. “Many people look at her as their mother or grandmother, because she has made a huge impact on so many people’s lives.” ■