Correction appended, Aug. 21, 2015
Several times a day, Essam Matwaoy leaves his job arranging luggage on EgyptAir planes at New York City’s John F. Kennedy International Airport. He makes his way through the cacophony of Terminal 4—past the endlessly ringing phones and maze of snaking lines and Babel-like hum of languages—toward a silent corridor where he finds something that is rare in an American airport: a mosque.
“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!'”
The mosque, a maroon-carpeted room where an imam leads daily prayers, is one of only seven Muslim prayer spaces in America’s largest airports, according to a recent Pew Research Center report—and it’s the busiest in the country, according to the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains. While Pew found that religious chapels are becoming more common in the nation’s airports, many are multipurpose interfaith spaces that transform to house services for several different religions. Much rarer, at least outside of the U.S., is a room in an airport that is dedicated as a mosque around the clock.
“It’s the only mosque of its kind in the country,” said Ahmet Yuceturk, the imam at the JFK International Islamic Center and a chaplain with the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which runs New York City’s airports. “It’s its own mosque, 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 mosque holds services five times daily, welcoming Muslims of all backgrounds and beliefs, whether they are New Yorkers who work in the airport or travelers who are stopping to pray in between flights. Depending on the time of day and whether there is a holiday like Ramadan, attendance ranges from just a few people to a crowd of more than 50 spilling out into the hallway; usually about three-quarters are airline passengers while the rest are local workers. In addition to holding services, the mosque doubles as a community center, offering Arabic lessons, Koran discussions and communal meals—along with an occasional wedding.
The mosque also provides aid to passengers who are lost or stranded, in keeping with the Muslim belief in the value of helping strangers.
“We just tell the congregation that there is a traveler, because a traveler has a very big status within Islam,” Yuceturk said. “When someone is stuck when they’re traveling, we need to help them out, regardless of their faith. Whoever comes to us, and if we see that they’re sincere, and if they’re in a tough situation, we do our best as a community to gather some money, put them on a bus, put them on a flight…whatever is doable.”
The JFK International Islamic Center is part of a larger chapels area at JFK’s Terminal 4, which was built in 1955 to house a general Christian place of worship. It was remodeled in 1966 to include Catholic, Protestant and Jewish prayer spaces, and in 2001 a separate multifaith room was built to meet rising demand for a prayer space for the terminal’s Muslim, Hindu and Sikh travelers and workers, nearly a decade after the United American Muslim Association first proposed the idea. Services were intermittent and run by volunteers at first, but when Yuceturk joined as the prayer space’s first full-time imam in 2008, the room became a full-fledged mosque. Since then attendance has risen steadily, with Muslim airport workers spreading the word.
One of the busiest times of year for the mosque is Ramadan. On one of the last days of the month-long holiday this summer, Matwaoy, the EgyptAir load coordinator, watched for the sun to dip below the horizon, then let his sonorous voice fill the mosque’s air, signaling the end of the daily fast. A group of worshipers—some dressed casually for travel, others wearing a traditional long caftan—popped dates in their mouths, the first food they had eaten since sunrise, and then lined up in rows and prayed.
After the prayers, the group broke into happy conversation, as Yaya Dosso, a limo driver originally from the Ivory Coast, took a moment before returning to his shift to slap his friends playfully on the back, calling the congregants “my second family.”
“My wife gets upset,” he said. “I always break fast here.”
Like Dosso, many JFK airport workers and local cab drivers said they stop by the mosque on breaks, and even on their days off.
“This place is my second home,” said Roshana Shoma, 23, a customer service agent for Etihad Airways, as she ate lentils after the mosque’s prayers. “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.”
Father Chris Piasta—a Catholic chaplain at JFK and LaGuardia airports, who is also a spokesman for the International Association of Civil Aviation Chaplains, the governing body for airport chapels around the world—said he has never seen a mosque like JFK International Islamic Center in his travels across America’s air transport hubs.
“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.
“We are trying to be open to everybody,” Piasta said. “We have to answer a broad, important question: How can we serve people who are different from ourselves?”
Yuceturk, the imam, sees the JFK mosque as an opportunity to contradict 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.”
Correction: The original version of this story misstated the name of the mosque. It is the JFK International Islamic Center.