“We are a strongly stereotyped group of people, and that is often negative. We must work to change this narrative by teaching and embracing the diversity of Arabs.
—Nadine El-Awar, United Teachers Los Angeles
“Representation is important to me on an individual level because people like me have made a difference in this country,” says Randa Wahbe, an English professor at Cypress College and a member of the United Faculty North Orange County Community College District. “We’ve been erased from the history books of this country, so to be recognized is remarkable.”
Of Lebanese descent, Wahbe is one of thousands of Arab-American educators making a difference in classrooms across the state and nation. Their contributions and those of all Arab Americans past and present will be celebrated during Arab American Heritage Month in April. Observed in California since 2018, Arab-American Heritage Month received federal recognition for the first time last year, with President Joe Biden penning a message to commemorate the occasion.
“The Arab-American community exemplifies so much what our country stands for: hard work, resilience, compassion and generosity,” Biden wrote. “In almost every area of our society, Arab Americans bring a dynamic energy, boundless creativity, and a love of family and neighbors that has always defined who we are as Americans.”
CTA officially recognized Arab American Heritage Month with a unanimous vote at the January meeting of the State Board of Education. Wahbe, who is vice president of the Community College Association (CCA) and chair of the CTA’s communications committee, said she was honored to present the proclamation at the meeting.
“It was extremely powerful for me as an Arab American for my union to say ‘I see you,'” Wahbe said. “For CTA to officially recognize the month is really empowering.”
“People asked me if I was a terrorist. For someone who is new to the United States, this leaves an impression.
—Michael Butros, Victor Valley College Faculty Association
Inclusion and diversity
Celebrating Arab Americans and their contributions to science, literature, history and American society as a whole is an important part of ending historical marginalization, says science professor Nadine El-Awar seventh grader and member of United Teachers Los Angeles. She says recognizing Arab American Heritage Month is a symbolic step toward a more inclusive experience for all Arab Americans.
“We are a strongly stereotyped group of people, and that is often negative. We must work to change this narrative by teaching and embracing the diversity of Arabs,” says El-Awar, a Lebanese-American. “It’s very damaging when there’s a stereotypical image. By educating people and elevating the positive, we can counter misconceptions and misinformation, and instead value the contributions of Arab Americans.
For Michael Butros, education is the key to a more inclusive and understanding society. A professor of physics and mathematics at Victor Valley College for 22 years, Butros grew up in his father’s native Jordan before coming to the United States. He says the climate was different for Arab Americans when he arrived in the 1980s.
“People asked me if I was a terrorist. For someone who is new to the United States, it leaves an impression,” says Butros, a member of the Victor Valley College faculty association. “You have to break that cycle somehow, and education was how I tried to break it. I try to make other people better than me.
Unfortunately, Butros’ experience is not uncommon in an America that has often been an unfriendly home to Arab Americans. The state’s proclamation recognizing Arab American Heritage Month acknowledges, “The history of Arab Americans in American life often remains overlooked or degraded by misunderstanding, bigotry, and anti-Arab hatred.” He notes that these transgressions continue today in the form of civil rights abuses, harmful stereotyping, harassment and intimidation.
Daily life for many Arab Americans became especially difficult after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Hate crimes against Arab and Muslim Americans jumped more than 500% between 2000 and 2009, according to data from Brown University. Butros was teaching that day and remembers the difficult months that followed.
“I know Arab Americans who have been assaulted in the town where I live, stores that have been vandalized,” says CCA board member Butros. “But I also remember good friends calling and asking if there was anything they could do. There’s always some good stuff.”
“It was extremely powerful for me, as an Arab American, for my union to say, ‘I see you.’ For CTA, officially recognizing the month is truly empowering. »
—Randa Wahbe, Vice President of the Association of Community Colleges
Wahbe started at Cypress College just before 9/11. Soon after, she was approached by many students who asked her for help in starting a Muslim student association on campus. Although not a Muslim herself, Wahbe agreed, serving as an advisor to the club for many years, hosting hate crime forums and helping to create safe spaces for students.
She also created a specialized literature course focusing on Arabic literature translated into English – the only such course taught at a community college outside of Connecticut. Wahbe says she created it as another way to humanize Arab Americans “and show that we’re just like you.”
“Through reading literature, we can become more empathetic,” says Wahbe. “Arabs love, hope, cry and pray like other humans. We all share these things.
Wahbe’s efforts to elevate Arab voices are informed by her own experiences as a student. It wasn’t until the third year of her undergraduate program that she read a colored author; she calls it a life-changing experience.
“I didn’t know that historically marginalized people had contributed so much to this country until I took an ethnic studies course as a teacher,” Wahbe says. “It’s shocking not to learn sooner.”
El-Awar says experiences like these show the important role educators can play in helping Arab-American students feel seen and valued, and underscore the need for representation and inclusion in the classroom and curriculum. .
“Educators need to validate and understand the cultural identities of Arab-American students and create a space where they feel included,” she says.
Butros says educators deserve more respect for the impact they have on students, noting that teachers are revered in many countries.
“Where I come from in Jordan, teachers and clergy are almost on the same level,” he says. “There’s a lot more respect.”
For more information, schedule, and other Arab American Heritage Month resources, visit arabamericafoundation.org.
Facts: Arab American Heritage Month
The U.S. Department of State has designated April as Arab American Heritage Month on April 1, 2021, the first such federal recognition in U.S. history.
There are approximately 3.7 million Arab Americans in the United States.
Arab Americans have ancestry in all 22 Arab nations of the world, which are located from North Africa to Western Asia: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates, Lebanon and Yemen.
More than two-thirds of Arab Americans live in just 10 states, with more than 373,000 living here in California, the largest population of any state.
The majority of Arab Americans were born in the country, and nearly 82% of Arabs in the United States are citizens.
While the Arab American community traces its roots to all Arab countries, the majority of Arab Americans have ancestral ties to Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Iraq.
Source: Arab American Institute, aaiusa.org
Feature Image: The Folsom Cordova Unified School District celebrated Arab American Heritage Month last year with a video. See on bit.ly/3ti7QbO.