By Scott Sieber
Shahensha Begum worked at the school in the St. Jacobus Evangelical Lutheran Church for 11 years until she was fired in October 2004 because of several instances of alleged unprofessional behavior, church Rev. Cathy Rosenholtz said.Begum, however, says her time at the school after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks was plagued by harassment, racist jokes and heavy workloads from School Director Cleide Willik Capelozza. When asked why she thinks she was fired, the 59-year-old Bangladeshi woman shrugs, “because I am Muslim,” she said.According to Begum, Capelozza gave her a book about a Muslim girl who converted to Christianity and repeatedly harassed her to follow in the girl's footsteps. She also claims co-workers directed pointed attacks at her, saying, for example, “I'm scared that Shahensha is going to kill me,” and “Let me leave. The terrorist is coming.” When Begum complained to her superiors about the harassment, she said she was given increased workloads and her requests for a corresponding pay increase were denied. She was then singled out further, she claims, by having her pay docked for being one minute late.Rosenholtz said Begum's accusations were “completely fabricated.” The two sides bumped heads Sunday outside the church when the Shahensha Begum Support Committee, a group consisting of various area activist groups, passed out fliers outlining the Muslim woman's demands to congregation members after a Mother's Day service. Most people simply walked past. Others paused only briefly before continuing on.In a statement, Rosenholtz said Begum was fired after an ongoing, documented pattern of unprofessional behavior toward her colleagues, culminating in an incident which took place in front of the children. She said the church has worked with Begum since 1995 in efforts to remedy the behavior.”At no time has our school, or the church of which it is a ministry, participated in any manner of prejudicial actions towards Ms. Begum based on her religion or nationality. Such behavior would be contrary to everything we stand for,” said Rosenholtz.The stress from the alleged harassment has left Begum sick, she said. She claims to have trouble sleeping and experiences trembling from the anxiety caused by the conflict. She is asking for lost wages and punitive damages, a halt to the alleged discrimination and that the church terminate the employment of Capelozza.But she still wants her job back.”I love the children,” she said. “I feel like these are my children … I feel I must stand up and tell everybody while I have the strength to stand up.”Reach reporter Scott Sieber by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext.138.