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Southwest Youth Collaborative

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Hatem Abudayyeh, Director, Arab American Action Network Nina Farnia Coordinator, Former Generation Y, Southwest Youth Collaborative Camille Odeh Director, Southwest Youth Collaborative

The extracts below are from  a group conversation in the offices of Chicago’s  Southwest Youth Collaborative.

Hatem: Since 9/11, there have been many changes in the patterns of going back and forth. Now people whose papers are in process won’t leave, because they may not be able to return — even permanent residents. The only ones still traveling are naturalized citizens or US-born children. There is a big increase in fear …

Camille: People send their children back home as a way to keep them out of gangs – a significant reason for low-income families. It’s a universal characteristic of immigrant communities to try to exert social control over the younger generation.

Nina: It’s the same in Iranian families – sending their kinds home to reinforce the family value system, if they don’t care enough about school, or they are caught dealing drugs.

Camille: That’s one reason it’s so hard that Middle Easterners are under psychological siege. People experience so much pressure from the limits on travel, they are so scrutinized.

Nina: With youth, it is harder to articulate what is going on, but I sense it. There is a sense of pride in their culture and family. All communities feel this, but Middle Easterners are a newer immigrant community, so people outside don’t know us. There’s nothing that reflects or recognizes our culture. Young people feel awkward about their own culture.

We have to fill that cultural gap, in the educational system and in the larger community. Playing Arab music in meetings brings people in. Nobody ever did it before.

We’ve also worked with the schools to help them be more sensitive to the need for interpreters, for materials in Arabic. With one suburban high school, as there have been more Arabs in the student body there have been greater racial tensions. One Arab teacher contacted us, seeing increasing tensions among male students, more violence. There was no space to talk about the war – about our role, or our response as a community.

We offered to facilitate a discussion. The teachers were responsive but the Administration answered that they were “fully prepared” to handle the situation themselves and that they didn’t need our support. Their attitude was, “we don’t want to open a can of worms.” No one but the military or universities are allowed to set up tables in the schools to distribute information.

The global context is of a rise in nationalism and regionalism, it’s difficult to negotiate. I see it playing out among young people – maybe because there’s not a lot of nurturing for their culture.

Camille: Youth activists tend to have more knowledge. I’m astounded by my own daughter – her confidence in herself as a Palestinian, a Muslim, an Arab – it’s a very sharp contrast to my own younger self. This is also the beauty of youth, because they are not intimidated. When you are young you feel invincible. That’s why older people shouldn’t be leading.