DITMAS PARK – Nowshin Ali came to live in the United States five years ago with her son. Things weren’t going well for her in India, so she left everything behind to start a new life in Brooklyn. In these five years, she has created an affordable after-school program, a new halal restaurant, Jalsa Grill & Gravy, that offers lots of vegan and vegetarian options, and is opening a free women’s center this month.
“I am grateful for this community, but this community needs something. There’s a need and nobody is doing anything about it,” Nowshin Ali said. “Everybody is busy with their own lives. I’m also busy with my own life but I try to give back any way I can.”
“She’s a good girl. She’s a beautiful mother. Hard worker. And she gives everything for the kids,” Hamouche Hayet, Ali’s partner in her after-school program said. “She’s very good. I’m not just saying that to her face. If she’s not good, I will tell you no. But she’s good.”
Hayet is a French-Arab woman who speaks really fast and makes you smile when she does so. She’s much taller than Ali and covers her hair with a hijab.
The Afterschool – Teaching the importance of big dreams and never giving up
“When the kids come here, they come weak. Weak, weak, weak. Sometimes they can’t even hold a pencil. Me? I said, we have to give up; it’s too much. Nowshin said no, we don’t give up. So she pushed and pushed. The kids, their grades went up, they speak English. They write very well. And I said it’s amazing.”
On this particular day, we were sitting in a small room on Newkirk Avenue. The sign on the front of the store read “Inter-County Insurance Brokers,” but inside, there were children talking amongst themselves and doing their homework. Hayet pointed to a little boy working on his NYS Standardized Test practice packet.
“That boy, he wasn’t so good. And I told Nowshin that. And she told me, ‘Listen, they come here weak. We have to work with them.’ She told me ‘This is my work. If they come in weak, I will see my work from them,'” Hayet said. “Now that boy does his responses by himself. He’s getting good grades.”
Ali, a soft-spoken woman with the most gentle handshake, started the after-school program four years ago. She used to work full-time as a manager at Bahar Masala, a small Afghani restaurant on Coney Island Avenue and used to send her son to daycare. But the daycare shut down, and she couldn’t afford to send him anywhere else. After he started school, “I was looking for places where I could send him for homework and I found no place. Then, we started our own,” she said.
Currently, there are 30 elementary school children (K-5) in her after-school, which runs from Monday to Friday from 4pm-6pm. People pay whatever they can, if they can. There are children receiving after-school help for free, just because their parents cannot afford it. Ali and Hayet aren’t making much out of it, nor does that matter to them.
Three months ago, a new boy joined the after-school. He was constantly asking for spellings for almost every word. Now, he’s writing on his own, Ali said proudly. They have one Turkish boy who had recently immigrated to NY with his mom. The mother had heard about the after-school and asked them if they’d accept her son.
“We said our door was open to everyone,” Hayet said. “She said, ‘Are you sure? He doesn’t speak English.’ And I told her he’d learn with us. I swear to god, he came and in three weeks, he learned English.”
Nowshin smiled and nodded. “Kids learn fast when they are with kids,” she said. During the summer, Ali and Hayet teach children the material for the next grade. It’s all very important, Ali said.
“Our children need this. For the whites, they can afford a lot of things. They can afford tutors at home. Ours are financially weak,” Ali said, “but they are our future. I don’t want them to think they could be drivers or work in a grocery store. They have more things to explore. And that starts from the elementary level.”
“Children need confidence. If you encourage them, they’ll continue to grow and bloom.” Nowshin Ali
All of the children absolutely love “Miss Nowshin.” They gave her hugs and kissed her cheeks before packing up and leaving with their parents. And their parents love her as well.
“Sometimes when the parents come and they only see me, they say, ‘Where is Miss Nowshin?! Where is Miss Nowshin?!'” Hayet said. “I said ‘She’s coming, she’s coming.’ Because when she comes, their children will learn and they will sleep well.”
“They come with their homework, but she helps them with more than their homework. Even when kids finish their homework, she gives them extra things,” Hayet said proudly. “Their grades improve. It’s working. We work hard. She’s a hard worker. I’m not like her. I work, but she does not give up. That’s what I learn from her; don’t give up. Me? sometimes when I see kids and they are weak, I give up. Because I say it’s too much. But not her.”
Women Helping Women – An Old Immigrant Story
Ali said she gets it from her mom. Her mother was not educated. Ali was. “I know the pain when moms don’t know how to fill up forms or how to go and speak,” Ali said. Which is why this January, she is debuting a free women’s center in the heart of the Pakistani community.
Ali had studied English in India, has a bachelors in Accounting and Mathematics and a masters in Mathematics. But none of that prepared her for life in New York.
One day, her son was very sick with a high fever. She had to bring him to the hospital and someone told her to walk to McDonald Avenue to catch the bus. It was at the end of December and it was snowing.
“We were walking in our sneakers and my fingers are freezing and I’m thinking ‘Oh my god, if this is happening to me, my son will get even sicker, if we reach there,'” she said. “So we came back home and I treated my son. I took him to the hospital the next day.”
In hindsight, she thinks she could have taken a car service, but she had no idea such a thing even existed at the time. She could’ve worn a heavier jacket, but she was from a warm country and did not know what type of jacket she would have needed. She said it took her a year to figure out what insurance was.
“Think about it. I know English and it took me so much time to figure everything out. What about those who don’t know any English? How will they figure it out?” Ali said. “That’s why it’s very important for me to open this center. I want to help these women and give them useful information.”
Ali and Hayet want to help women with basic information, like calling 911, describing their pain, filling out forms, reading the subway map, and speaking to the teacher. They both acknowledged that P.S. 217 in Ditmas Park does a lot for the Pakistani community and women, but many women don’t feel comfortable sharing their issues there. With the center, they’d feel more comfortable, they said. And it would be open for women from any race and religion.
“One woman told me ‘I don’t know how to stop having babies,'” Hayet said. “In the center, we can teach women how to not have babies every two years. A lot of women want to stop but they don’t know how to.”
The center will operate out of the same space as the afterschool at 944 Coney Island Avenue, but in the mornings.
The Restaurant – Making Ends Meet
The after school program and women’s center is something Ali does to give back to the community. What about the restaurant?
“I have to pay my rent somehow!” she laughed.
Jalsa Grill & Gravy is located on 964 Coney Island Avenue between Newkirk and Webster Avenues. Since the August opening, their halal food, including vegan and vegetarian options, has become quite the talk of the neighborhood, with nothing but rave reviews on Yelp and Facebook –“Magnificent,” “Sublime,” “Amazing,” “Delicious.”
“This neighborhood is more of a meat lover’s place. It’s Little Pakistan, after all,” Ali said. “I’m more of a vegetable person. So when we started, we thought why not have a vegetarian and vegan section?”
Jalsa Grill & Gravy is a small, cozy restaurant. The eight tables are painted black with gold edges – Ali and her staff painted everything themselves – the tables, the walls.
Her busiest hours are in the evening, usually during the weekend, and she’s grateful for customers, and many people are enjoying their food. Jalsa Grill & Gravy was recently named number two in Grub Street’s “The Absolute Best Restaurants in Ditmas Park,” right after Mimi’s Hummus, in genuinely good company.
Ali gave me Papri Chaat to taste – something I had never tried before. It’s a street snack popular in India made out of chickpeas, yogurt, and tamarind chutney. It’s the perfect blend of sour, sweet, and crunchy.
Ali noted that their chicken biryani was very popular. Instead of using already-made biryani mixes from companies like Shan, Ali’s mother creates her own mix of spices and they use that for the biryani. The homemade texture is evident in the taste and it leaves you wanting more. The chicken tikka masala is no different – the right amount of spices to make the popular South Asian dish everybody loves.
Sometimes Ali brings the children from the after-school program to her restaurant so they could get extra practice. She feeds them and tutors them at the same time.
“I call them ‘my kids,'” she laughed. “People sometimes then ask me, ‘How many kids do you even have?'”
How does she manage to do it all?
“Just be present. I’m always present,” she said. “It’s very rare that I have to run from here to there for emergencies. If I’m at the after-school, then I am 100 percent there. If I’m here [at the restaurant], then I’m 100 percent here.”
Nowshin was nominated for a profile by her neighbor who wished to remain anonymous. Know of an extraordinary neighbor we should profile? Email your nomination to email@example.com or get in touch with us on social media.