As a young baseball player entering City College in the ’80s, Zead Ramadan was met with a pleasant shock: He would be playing on a grass field for the first time in his life.
Ramadan, a native of Upper Manhattan, recently declared his candidacy to represent the greater Morningside Heights area in the City Council. He spent his childhood honing his skills in the streets and vacant lots of his largely Dominican-American community. Almost 40 years later, he said, this upbringing gave him an “intimate passion” for the issues facing the district.
“I’m a seed that was planted in this community,” Ramadan, who would be the council’s first Arab-American, said in an interview Friday. “All of my friends were on welfare with me.”
The son of Palestinian immigrants, Ramadan moved to Washington Heights from Kuwait in 1971 and lived in a three-bedroom apartment with his parents and seven siblings. Both of his parents were illiterate, and his father worked 18-hour days as a baker on 164th Street to support the family.
Now, Ramadan is the chairman of the board for the New York chapter of the Council for American-Islamic Relations, a Muslim civil rights organization, and a member and former chair of Community Board 12. In the interview, he recalled the economic hardships his family went through during his childhood and said his experiences helped to color his political views later in life, particularly with respect to economic development in Upper Manhattan.
“I know about every immigrant family, and everyone who struggles economically,” he said. “I remember the struggles of my father as a child, and how hard he worked to pay the rent and support us.”
After graduating from City College, Ramadan used his family’s experience as an inspiration to enter the private and nonprofit sectors. He started a small café in Washington Heights and worked with nonprofits ranging from the Upper Manhattan Empowerment Zone Development Corporation to the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance, which he said aims to make his neighborhood an “economic environment where artists can survive.”
But while economic empowerment is a major theme of his campaign for District 7, which also includes Manhattanville, Hamilton Heights, and parts of Washington Heights and the Upper West Side, Ramadan also said that all candidates must address education and affordable housing policies. Although he was one of the first members of his family to study in college, Ramadan said he remembered how confusing public education had been without the support of literate parents or highly educated family members.
“I felt like I was walking through a dense forest at night, and the moon wasn’t out, and I had no idea where I was going. I was just trying to get out to a clearing,” he said. “But education is one of the only ways we are going to uplift people in this community.”
With rents rising in areas like West Harlem and Washington Heights, Ramadan said he would work to help the families he had known growing up stay in their neighborhoods with affordable rents. He argued that it was unjust to force out people “just as the sun was starting to come out” in communities with steady economic growth.
Ramadan said he is returning to his roots when he interacts one-on-one with constituents and jokes that he is a “Dominican Arab,” having learned Spanish from his baseball friends while growing up. Although he was originally hesitant to use his full name in his campaign slogan, he later decided that he stood to gain from identifying with a family that has become a fixture in Washington Heights.
“We wondered whether we should just make it ‘Zead 2013,’” he said. “But I want it to be central to the campaign so people know who my family is, and that I stand by my family name.”
Ramadan faces a crowded field in the race, including political heavyweight Mark Levine, a Democratic district leader who has attracted substantial establishment support. But Ramadan said he was confident he would win. He raised about $40,000 in the week before the Jan. 15 fundraising deadline, much of it from his extended family.
In discussing his optimism about the race, Ramadan quoted Scottish sea captain John Paul Jones.
“I have not yet begun to fight.”