Building on New Foundations > Standing Up, Reaching Out


Saher Mawlawi

Print this interview

Arab American Liaison, Chicago Commission on Human Relations

I’m the liaison between the Arab community and the City of Chicago. I advocate for the community with the city. We also sponsor workshops to assess community needs, and organize sessions to provide what we can. At certain moments we have brought lawyers to help people with their immigration paperwork and provided simultaneous interpretation into Arabic. We also translate immigration materials into Arabic.

The Arab community does not know how to access community services. They all call the human relations office. We explain where to call and what to say. There is an amazing lack of knowledge about how the city works. The experience is similar with the Asian immigrant community or the Latino community.

In Chicago our community is still learning how to get better organized. Mostly we are fragmented — there are Palestinians, Iraqis, Lebanese. In cities like Washington, DC there is more coordination, in order to project an overall Arab voice.

People do come together around something like a demonstration in support of the intifada. The Palestinian community is the largest segment of the Arab community here.

Nobody has ever tried to track our numbers. We are not a census category. When people fill out their census forms they may identify as Arab – but they also may say they are Jordanian, or Egyptian, or Moroccan. The numbers are lost. We work with the city departments, to ask them to collect health information, to give us some numbers.

There is a similar problem with hate crimes — there is no category for Arabs. The victims are counted as Caucasians or as Asian/Pacific Islanders. Arab organizations are trying to deal with this, through professional organizations like the Arab American Bar Association and others. They are advocating for minority status so we can track the statistics. The American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee is involved in a similar effort nationally. [This effort scored an important victory in 2005, when the U.S. Census Bureau issued its first report on people of Arab ancestry; see listing in Resources.]

Another key problem we see is the “regression” in participation, due to the post-9/11 atmosphere, the INS, the FBI, and the Patriot Act. The Arab community is staying away from political participation. There is a dynamic of depression – it is very hard for us to mobilize around any issue …

I don’t know what the future will bring, because more laws just keep being passed. The FBI has been going to people’s homes when the man of the house is not home so they can intimidate the woman.

People come from countries with authoritarian governments. They are intimidated, afraid to speak freely or share their political opinions here. People are afraid to be seen too much at mosques or at Arab gatherings, so they keep to themselves.

After 9/11, the Chicago police department established an advisory council. We met with the superintendent to put him in touch with community leaders. We promoted community forums and dialogues. We held diversity forums with the police department to connect them with the Arab, Muslim, and Sikh communities.

A video was developed by the police department for “roll call,” to train police officers on how they should approach Muslim women and men, how they should enter into a mosque. As a confidence-building measure, the department sent commanders to local mosques, to speak with the imam, to appear before Friday worshipers. Of course, there are always some bad officers who won’t report hate crimes as such …

We also met with the FBI and the state attorney general. They wanted to interview Arab men in Chicago and were planning to send FBI agents to their workplaces. We told them we didn’t agree with sending the FBI to people’s homes or work; we suggested that they send letters explaining what the FBI was trying to find out and stressing that the interviews were  voluntary and that people could bring someone with them. They did agree to that, but they have not observed these guidelines; they do what they want.

The police department refused to go with the FBI to people’s homes. They didn’t want to destroy their trust with the community. People would become afraid to report crimes, especially hate crimes. I think that is a commendable position. The City of Chicago has an official policy not to work with immigration agents. Police offers are instructed not to ask for anyone’s immigration status or call the INS. Even city employees cannot ask anyone’s immigration status. It’s a good policy.

There are organizations in our community, like the Arab American Action Network or the Muslim Civil Rights Center. They participate in the coalition that is organizing against the Patriot Act. The community as a whole is too afraid to get involved in advocacy.

I think the community needs to lobby more, to get more organized. We can’t give up the job.