Southwest Youth Collaborative

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(Group Interview)

This group conversation in the offices of Chicago’s Southwest Youth Collaborative included Hatem Abudayyah, director of the Arab American Action Network; Nina Farnia, then coordinator of Generation Y and other youth initiatives; Camille Odeh, executive director of the Southwest Youth Collaborative; and Baheia Ahmad, clinical supervisor at the Midway Center of Chicago’s Metropolitan Family Services.

Hatem AbudayyahHatem: The Arab American Action Network (AAAN) was founded in 1995 as a way of building new alliances between more established residents and more recent immigrants. Arab American community centers have traditionally carried out social service work, but it was never institutionalized.

Following the first Gulf War in the early 1990s there was an influx of new immigrants, which created a new need for services. We try to combine social services with advocacy and youth programs. We offer an after-school program, a summer leadership academy for high-school students, and a summer camp for elementary school students.

More established residents tended to be active in Palestine solidarity movement; AAAN was a way for them to respond to the changing needs of Chicago’s Palestinian immigrant community.

The Arab community in Chicago is predominantly Palestinian and predominantly immigrants. We need to be accountable to them.

We began with a single grant for youth work. We’ve grown until now [mid-2003] we have four full-time and three part-time staff positions. We also offer programs geared to the needs of women immigrants, such as English as a Second Language, as well as education in the US political system and gaining access to public benefits. We also partner with local immigrant rights coalitions to translate information into Arabic — and to help interpret and advocate for clients who are trying to access medical care, housing, employment, public benefits, and other services.

Many of us are also involved in antiwar efforts and Palestine solidarity work. It’s not part of our organizational mission, but it is a part of our community. The Arab community in Chicago is predominantly Palestinian and predominantly immigrants. We need to be accountable to them.

Nina: I came to AAAN to help them strengthen their base among youth here on the Southwest Side. Generation Y is a group of activist youth of color. There has not been much involvement from Middle Eastern Youth, and part of my work is to understand why. …

Part of it is that Middle Eastern communities have not been aligned with other people-of-color movements. . . . Most middle-class Arab communities have always thought of themselves as white. Now they are experiencing attacks and harassment that is not usual for “white” communities, even though that is their identity. We need to go beyond the “white” framework. …

We can’t remain isolated – as a Black community, a Latino community, or an Arab community.

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. …

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.

I don’t like hyphenated identities. I’m Iranian, and I’m American, but not Iranian-American…

I was raised in a family that taught me to be American. The priority was to speak English – and Farsi fell by the wayside. As an American I feel I have rights – when I feel discrimination I try not to see it.

Hatem: When the community is attacked, one segment becomes more nationalistic, more involved in expressing Arab or Muslim pride. Another segment is intimidated, more anxious to stress their American identity. I think the whole discussion about Arab vs. Arab American speaks to that.

Occupation is a crime form Iraq to PalestineThe prevailing sentiment among youth is, we were born here – we’re not outsiders. Boys are more into a nationalist identity, more strongly into Arab, Palestinian, or Muslim pride. It’s hard to us to involve them because they have to work. We get some funds for summer jobs, but retention is difficult.

Our community is 75-85 percent Palestinian. Maybe less in the past ten years because of the influx of Iraqis – you can see that more on the North Side, because of the Iraqi House. The Palestinian community has many links with Palestine. It maintains active ties with family and community there.

In 1991, Palestinians led the antiwar movement locally. After 9/11 we saw the Iraq war on the horizon and tried to build alliances with the Iraqi community – around opposition to the war, the assault on national sovereignty, the destruction of lives and communities. But local groups were afraid to jeopardize their status as refugees and the access to funding that comes from that. They are more vulnerable than the Palestinian community.

It’s very different here than in Detroit, where the Chaldean community has been very pro-war. In Chicago the community is mainly Assyrian – they see themselves more as Assyrian than as Iraqi Arabs.

Camille: The Arab experience in Chicago is very tied to the Palestinian community, because it is the largest in Chicago. It is a relatively new community in the US – as compared to, say, Syrians. The time the community has been here is also tied to issues of acculturation and assimilation.

Palestine has no passport, no ID. It underlines the Palestinian experience as stateless.

Palestinians in Chicago include more people from the West Bank and more people who were displaced in 1948. Betunia and Ramallah are both heavily linked to Chicago. Gaza is much poorer, and it’s harder for people to get to the US.

The Palestinian experience is also different because it is a community in exile. People experience themselves as exiles. Palestine has no passport, no ID. It underlines the Palestinian experience as stateless. Other immigrants, like Syrians, hold passports from their country of origin – they can return.

The Palestinian experience of exile also shapes their ties with their homeland – including physical ties, by going back and visiting; sending money; building houses over there; calling their family on the phone. Sometimes, when people can’t visit because they don’t have the right kind of ID card, they’ll send their children to visit.

These connections affect both the national and the spiritual aspect, which affects how children are raised. The Palestinian community tends to be more conservative and also more secluded, because they want to preserve their identity…

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.

Southwest Youth Collaborative, exterior muralCamille: 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…

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.

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.

Hatem: The harassment and intimidation of Arabs is not as public on the street.

Camille: But it is the people on the street. I put out an American flag because the pressure was so intense. Not having the flag meant you supported the attacks. I tried to blend in because I want my children to be comfortable in the neighborhood. But we really do feel the hate…

There were a lot of differences in the antiwar movement between the First and Second Gulf Wars. Almost a million Iraqis had to die before Americans came forward to resist the war.

It’s also a very different time. With the First Gulf War we were still in the time of the Soviet Union, of movements in solidarity with the African National Congress and the Sandinistas. The solidarity movements had connections with local social justice movements.

In the First Gulf War, Middle Eastern communities played a key role in the movement. On the left, the solidarity movements, the Palestinian community, and also the Jewish community were key. It was less of a mass movement, more demonstrations by activists. The mobilizations were more limited.

It’s very interesting this time to see that more Muslims are involved, along with remnants of the left ... But it has been largely a Muslim mobilization.

AFSC’s work over the years ultimately paid off — even though AFSC and Voices in the Wilderness were not popular while they were raising the Iraq issue and talking about the human impact of sanctions for 10 years.

People were less concerned about Iraq because they could not see beyond Saddam. This blinded many liberal people. This time, though, the antiwar movement is being led by North Americans, which is a critical political difference.

Partly that is because we feel like we’re living through another McCarthy period. Arabs and Muslims are afraid to go out and be tarred as unpatriotic. They won’t even participate as they did in 1991. …

Baheia: We began our work with women by focusing on domestic violence. We also organized support groups on early childhood, focusing on parents and other caregivers as children’s “first teachers.”

Before the Arab American Action Network, the only domestic violence services in our community were provided by a Palestinian women’s organization. There was no outreach to the Arab community through Metropolitan Family Services.

Baheiya AhmadThe early childhood program was very successful. We reached out to the Latino and Arab communities because we had Spanish and Arabic–speaking staff. At an average session we would have 15 families attending.

After 9/11 there was a huge impact on participation from the Arab community. There was no attendance at all for three or four months. We started making home visits to encourage people to come back.

Women have been afraid to report domestic violence because of all the profiling and the deportations. There was a lot of uncertainty about what would happen if someone was reported, even if they had a green card. Arab families turn to relatives when they need help more readily than to outsiders.

Women were also concerned about how they could survive without the men, who were the breadwinners and decision makers in their family. They also knew more English. What would happen if they were arrested and deported? Men were arrested and nobody knew where they were.

We do education in the community about protection orders. But when fear is so generalized in the community, people won’t seek help – because they fear being labeled, profiled, by someone. Women will come to see you as a “friend” – but I can’t really help them without a protection order.

Women have been afraid to report domestic violence because of all the profiling and the deportations.

With the war on Iraq, Arab mothers came around more, because our support groups were the only space where they could talk with other Arab-speaking mothers about their feelings. Within three or four weeks of the outbreak of the war there was a tremendous increase in attendance by Arab families. They were all watching Al-Jazeera on Abu Dhabi TV.

We’ve needed to keep our groups very informal, more like a potluck. Women can talk about many things, but not explicitly about the war. They’ll talk about immigration or citizenship issues – but if we set up a citizenship support group, they won’t attend.

We’ve seen women going back to school because their husband is in jail, so they need more family income. School can be a gateway to more income and also to greater independence for women.

The prevailing sentiment among youth is, we were born here – we’re not outsiders.

Hatem: We offer “cultural competency” workshops and resources to schools and service providers. We’ve also made presentations in the court system, to judges and state attorneys. We’ve been speaking at the annual conferences of the court system for the past two years.

We’ve also been trying to get more actively involved in community education and community organizing, with legal assistance and referrals. We’ve had supportive relationships with two statewide immigrant rights coalitions, as well as support from the antiwar movement and AFSC.

Nina: 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.

No one but the military or universities are allowed to set up tables in the schools to distribute information.

Baheia: With the Latino community we’ve been working on local campaigns about social policy issues, that has been very successful.

Nina: The funding of social justice work is moving away from community organizations. There’s more professionalization, more emphasis on lobbying and legal advocacy. This has occurred to the detriment of organizations working with communities.

That’s the difference with the Southwest Youth Collaborative: it works in the community and with the community, in contrast to more professional advocates.

Hatem: We have to ask ourselves: what is the political space? How does it happen? Is it through electoral politics and progressive office holders, or through community-based organizations? The former approach doesn’t offer the space for progressive social activism around racial justice that there is in the latter.

The only ones still traveling back and forth are naturalized citizens or US-born children.

All organizations, on all issues, feel a lot of fear and anxiety – but we have to begin breaking out of our shell. We have to raise our voices – about 9/11, about geopolitical issues.

Nina: Our idea of alliance building is not about trying to get others to come on board with our agenda. We’re trying to create space for ourselves in people-of-color movements around the world.

We can’t remain isolated – as a Black community, a Latino community, or an Arab community. This also means talking to Arab youth about what it means to be Black …