While the chapel’s area was built in 1955 and remodeled in 1966, the Islamic center was added in 2001 a decade after the idea was first proposed by United American Muslim Association to cater to a rising demand for a prayer area for Muslims.
The mosque, which one of the only seven prayers areas designated for Muslims all over America, is also one of the busiest according to International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains.
Speaking to TIME Ahmet Yuceturk, the imam at JFK International Islamic Center, and a chaplain with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said:
“It’s the only mosque of its kind in the country. It’s not just a room, which is what most airport mosques are,” Yuceturk continued. “We are our own place, we have our own services, we are our own community within the chapels here. It’s very different from anything in America.”
The maroon carpeted mosque hold services five times daily and welcomes Muslims from all backgrounds, whether they are Muslims working at the JFK airport or travelers stopping between flights. The mosque also acts as a community center between services, offering Arabic lessons and Quranic discussions and communal meals as well as holding a wedding occasionally.
Essam Matwaoy, who works at the airport, visits the mosque regularly says: “I come here all the time,” he told TIME at the JFK International Islamic Center recently. “When it’s time to pray, my co-workers even tell me, ‘Essam, it’s time to pray—go to the mosque!’”
Often after the prayers, the worshippers break into happy conversations.
Yaya Dosso, a limo driver originally form the Ivory Coast calls the congregants his second family. He says: “My wife gets upset. I always eat breakfast here.”
Like Dosso and Essam, many other JFK workers stop at the mosque on their breaks and sometimes on their days off.
“This place is my second home,” said Roshana Shoma, 23, a customer service agent for Etihad Airways, “I come here all the time. It’s very comfortable for us. If the mosque weren’t here, we wouldn’t be able to pray.”
Catholic chaplain at JFK and LaGuardia airports , Father Piasta also acknowledges that he has never seen a mosque like the one at JFK. “What we have at JFK is rather unusual compared to other airports,” Piasta said. He hopes to bring more diversity to the largely Christian prayer spaces in airports across the country. In October, the aviation chaplains association will convene in New York to discuss “bringing the world together” through their work, Piasta said.
On the other hand, Yuceturk, the imam at the mosque hopes to challenge stereotypes about Islam. “When you look at politics or you look around the world, a lot of negative things are being said about Islam,” Yuceturk said. “But we’re not representing anyone…. We are just regular Muslims. We have no political agenda. We’re just living our lives, earning our living for our families.
“This is how we act. This is who we are.”
The mosque also provides help to travelers who are lost or stranded, keeping in line with the Muslim belief in the value of helping others.