Albany’s interfaith party triumphs over holiday fire, brawl and blues

ALBANY – Devout Muslim, nurse and gourmet cook, Tyhisha Ghaffar-Adjei is known as the “Queen” in the neighborhoods of Albany she helps. For the past 14 years, she has celebrated her March birthday and December religious holidays by hosting huge lunches at one of Albany’s low-income apartment towers.

This year, she felt drawn to the 23-story Capitol Green Apartments at 400 Central Ave. In Google reviews, residents praised the housekeeping staff, modest rents, and security staff. But they are worried about drug dealers, drug addicts and prostitutes nearby. When Ghaffar-Adjei chatted with locals, she learned how hard they were financially affected by the pandemic. Many were worried because they had fallen behind in rents.

All of his talents and friendships came in handy on a day when chaos and danger gripped the apartment complex. The memorable party was a triumph over a fire and a fight.

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It is a tribute to Ghaffar-Adjei’s reputation as an activist and her networking power that when she sends her bat signal in the sky, the heroes volunteer to help, including a volunteer. nicknamed Batman. Volunteers for her December 18 festival are a multiracial, interfaith who’s-who of activists, including GROW’s Kristin Hernandez (who helped raise funds for $ 10 gift cards for each apartment) to David Pena of Kids Club Discovery Center that delivered meals, and there’s former SUNY Chef Keith McGee.

In 2007, Ghaffar-Adjei founded his charity, Guardians of Al-Fitrah, named after the state of purity that Muslims believe humans have when they are born. She chose not to apply for 501 (c) 3 status in order to have more freedom of decision. For example, when the leadership of Capitol Green didn’t return her calls, they decided that meant they wouldn’t mind if she moved the December 18 party headquarters to the 23rd floor.

Thanks to McGee, the food was ready. Raised as a Christian, he met Ghaffar-Adjei in 2010 as he sought a religious belief that would link him to a higher purpose. Ghaffar-Adjei told him how his mother revered Malcolm X when he preached in Harlem before and after his break with the Nation of Islam. She embraced the Quran’s mandate to save the elderly from loneliness and help the poor, blending activism and Muslim faith.

“I was up all night with my mom and aunt cooking chicken curry, fried chicken when Keith saved me, “she said.

McGee is a very busy man, the academic director of the New York Black Elks, where he is busy running the annual student speaking competition (which Martin Luther King Jr. won as a teenager in Georgia). McGee also has his own business, International Comfort B Enterprise, to run.

McGee is working on launching a food hall in Albany for black and minority cooks who can’t afford their own restaurants or food trucks. He wants to buy an old Key Bank building near the Armory for its location. He is hoping Mayor Kathy Sheehan could allocate a fraction of the $ 85.2 million in federal relief funds to Albany for his plan.

But when Ghaffar-Adjei called, he momentarily put everything else aside.

“I thought, God willing, that I would, make it delicious, drop the lunch boxes, and always meet my own deadlines,” McGee said.

Miraculously, the packed lunches were ready and Steven Figueroa, an activist for food insecurity in Troy, donated enough artisan bread to feed the skyscraper.

And then … chaos

At 1:00 p.m., the volunteers were busy loading the lunch boxes onto carts when they smelled smoke.
Law student Gianabou Diallo helped deliver lunches and gift bags to the apartments.

“There were a lot of disabled people, old people,” Diallo remembers. “Some couldn’t believe we were giving away free meals, free $ 10 gift cards. They kept asking if they had to do something to win one.

Then a six-alarm fire interrupted the party. “Someone set garbage on fire in the garbage chute,” recalls Ghaffar-Adjei, exasperated.

Volunteer Paul Collins-Hackett, known as “Batman” by the children of Albany he mentors, wears a gray hoodie with the words “Save the City” on it instead of a black cape. Normally, he distributes free books to children or helps them learn a skill like making movies. At the party, he helped evacuate the upper floors of the building. When the sprinklers soaked the hallways and the elevator stopped, he helped the residents down the stairs.

Albany Fire Chief Joseph Gregory said firefighters responded within three minutes. The fire is still under investigation.
“The sprinklers worked as they should, thanks to the building maintenance crew,” said Gregory.

Small children, annoyed by the alarms, were quickly enchanted by the huge red trucks. Some firefighters stopped to chat with the children. Soon the kids were discussing the fire trucks as a highlight of the party, like a pony ride or a balloon drop.

“We get a lot of rookies that way, (adults) who saw firefighters in action when they were kids at home and decide to do it when they grow up,” Gregory said fondly. then added quickly, “Of course we prefer to recruit recruits through a presentation.

Once the fire had been brought under control, the elevators had to be stopped periodically. Teenage volunteers were going up and down the stairs to deliver meals.

Then a bloodied man came out screaming from his apartment. He told the volunteers that an angry woman had tried to kill him. Volunteers helped him join the doctors who arrived with the firefighters.

The spirit remains

Ghaffar-Adjei calls his annual December festivals “interfaith celebrations,” not Christmas. She wants to nourish the participants spiritually and nutritionally. She invited Albany County lawmaker Sam Fein to speak with residents about Judaism. He stayed to help wrap gift bags with personal care items donated by the mayor’s office.

She invited the bishop of the missionary church Elijah Avery Comithier, famous for his patrols of pastors who aim to quell nighttime violence on the streets, to speak about the meaning of Christmas.

“Frosty and Rudolph were all over this building; I did not see the decorations of the Baby Jesus, ”he joked dryly. “Look, I understand this is a commercial holiday… Nowhere in the Bible does Jesus order his disciples to celebrate his birthday. But if we are to have this vacation, people might behave more like honoring the way Jesus lived.

Although he is encouraged by charitable efforts like Ghaffar-Adjei’s, he feels disheartened by the greed and bad humor he has observed in the capital region. He helps out with Toys for Tots and has discovered that some families are going to several toy distributions in search of the hottest action figures or “Bluey” playsets. He’s seen people pushing to be on the front line at free holiday parties and take multiple servings.

Comithier had to leave early in the event. He might have been reassured that the Christmas spirit still thrives if he had met the winners of Ghaffar-Adjei’s “golden ticket”.

The tickets were decorated with gold leaf to resemble Willy Wonka’s passes that allowed winners to enter his magical chocolate factory. Ghaffar-Adjei’s secret surprise was that she hid a $ 100 bill under the gold leaf.

The first randomly chosen winner was an elderly woman raising two preteens. She came to the door using a metal walker. The little boy and the little girl ran up behind her to greet their visitors.

The woman received a brightly colored tin box. The children applauded and the woman warmly thanked the volunteers. Ghaffar-Adjei gently explained that the prize was inside the box. The winner opened it and looked at the golden ticket.

The kids clapped, exclaiming how pretty the ticket was. Ghaffar-Adjei later described the children as an example of fitrah, so innocently selfless that they were delighted with a piece made to look like an imaginary prize in a children’s book.

“Look below,” she urged.

They saw the $ 100 bill. The children and their babysitter gasped then hugged, thanking the volunteers. On this interfaith holiday celebration, the generosity and gentleness were easy to see.

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