Lives, Languages, & Stories: Madeline Conley’s Reflection of Working at Al-Bustan

I began my work at Al-Bustan on August 18, 2019, and little over a year later, I’m leaving with deep gratitude and newfound knowledge. I’m writing now from Catskill, New York, where I moved to be closer to nature and family during the pandemic, and although I know that this is the right place for me, I already miss so much about Al-Bustan and Philadelphia.

With the Al-Bustan team (L to R: David, Hazami, Me, Sahiti)

When I started at Al-Bustan I had just finished grad school a few months earlier and moved from Providence, Rhode Island. It was my first time living in a major U.S. city and my first opportunity to put into practice so much of what I had been thinking about and reading about and wanting to do in grad school. I loved the city immediately, I loved the late summer and the excitement of the new school year and a new job. In those first months, I walked each morning on tree-lined streets in sticky Philadelphia summer heat to what was then the Al-Bustan office, Hazami’s home on 46th St. I passed Masjid Al-Jamia on Walnut and Saad’s and Manakeesh on 46th, on my walk. I heard Arabic on my way to work, at the office, and as I walked home in the early evening.

In August and September I spent many afternoons at Philadelphia public schools—meeting with teachers and administrators, dropping off doumbeks for our after-school percussion classes, waving down parents and students in schoolyards to tell them about our after-school art and music classes. There was a current of excitement running through these buildings, the summer heat was moving out and back-to-school bittersweetness was moving in. Now, as I prepare for a strange new school year in Upstate New York, I’m so grateful to have experienced this electricity, happiness, crowding of bodies, joyful reunions that used to define the start of the school year.

With Ms. Pelech at John Moffet Elementary School

By November Al-Bustan had moved to its new hub on Lancaster Avenue and we all rolled up our sleeves to prepare the new office. We painted, moved, we met new neighbors on our block, we walked around Powelton. Once again I was able to experience the excitement of being in a new place—people stopped by the office to introduce themselves and to welcome us and to learn from us. We started holding concerts, poetry readings, art workshops, Arabic Story Hours for children and our community expanded even more. I found that there is a life that breathes through Al-Bustan wherever it is located (whether that be a home office or an event space or even online) and it comes from people who are curious, engaged, and who care about their neighbors and communities. Even when the pandemic cut short our in-person work, I felt this sense of “life” in our virtual programs, lectures, and camps.

I met and observed such wonderful teachers while I was at Al-Bustan—teachers who I learned from and gave me confidence and ideas as I began to form my own identity as a teacher. I met organizers and administrators at schools, in neighborhoods, at other Philly nonprofits and, most importantly within Al-Bustan, who care deeply for their communities and who spend their lives trying to make these communities more equitable, joyful, and peaceful places. I met smart, funny, creative students and their families who I came to love deeply and will miss so much.

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Presenting about Al-Bustan’s projects to visiting students

I had the pleasure of speaking over Zoom with the incoming Programs Coordinator, Bridget Peak, on my last day of work. She asked me what my favorite part of working for Al-Bustan was and I told her it was the community—being part of a community of people who will teach you things and share their lives, stories, languages, and cultures with you. It is a great privilege. I will miss it very much.


Madeline Conley
Programs Coordinator, September 2019 – August 2020

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