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Telling the stories of Arab heritage

Three questions for Sara Ibrahim, co-president of the Middle Eastern North African Student Association, on Arab Heritage Month
sara ibrahim
Sara Ibrahim serves as co-president of the Middle Eastern North African Student Association, the group spearheading this year’s celebration. Photo by Stephen Lewis

April is Arab American Heritage Month, and Northwestern is officially celebrating it for the first time this year.

National history and heritage months exist and are the result of community organizers seeing purpose to celebrate and honor the diverse populations, histories and experiences within our nation, said Matthew Abtahi, assistant director of Multicultural Student Affairs

“We know that some classrooms and textbooks can often leave people and parts of American history out of the collective narrative,” Abtahi said. “At Northwestern, these months provide communities a chance to celebrate each other, reflect on the past, activate toward more connected futures and share the often multi-faceted cultures with the campus community at-large. The foundation of a well-functioning democracy is to be a good neighbor enough to engage and appreciate the differences we all have, and there is no better way to do that than learning about and having compassion for the many cultures and customs of those we share space and community alongside.”

Sara Ibrahim serves as co-president, along with Ramzy Issa, of the Middle Eastern North African Student Association, the group spearheading this year’s celebration. She advocated to get Arab Heritage Month officially recognized by Northwestern through the passing of the “MENA Visibility” resolution in student government. 

A junior in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, Ibrahim was born in Cairo and grew up in Chicago. Currently working as an intern for the Council on Foreign Relations, she plans to study abroad next fall, continue freelance writing for GQ Middle East, and do some UN work in Cairo prior to starting a full-time job. She is passionate about journalism and advocacy and hopes to be able to use her skills to help amplify Arab voices in mainstream spaces.

Northwestern Now caught up with Ibrahim to discuss Northwestern’s commemoration of Arab Heritage Month.

What are a few things you’d like to share about Arab Heritage Month?

This is a time to celebrate and recognize the rich history, culture and contributions of Arabs to American society. It’s also an opportunity to raise awareness about the challenges faced by Arab communities in the United States, including issues related to post 9/11 racial profiling, invisibility on the census, harmful stereotypes and underrepresentation in mainstream spaces.

At Northwestern, it’s a time for Arab members of the campus community to come together and celebrate their heritage through cultural showcases, speaker events and workshops.

Can you highlight some of the programming?

Earlier this month, the MENA Student Association tabled in Norris University Center and hosted a hands-on Arabic calligraphy workshop. The MENA Studies department welcomed Lebanese poet Zeina Hashem Beck and Arabic professors Ragy Mikhaeel & Rana Raddawi spearheaded an Arabic Islamic Manuscripts workshop in the Herskovitz Library.

Northwestern Dining will host an Arab Heritage Month Celebration on April 27, serving traditional Arab foods and a dabke performance at Allison Hall.

On April 28, the MENA Student Association will host a vibrant cultural showcase, “Arab Expressions,” featuring authentic Arab cuisine, live performances of traditional music on the oud and tabla, and an Arabic poetry reading by Arab members of the Northwestern community.

In collaboration with Northwestern’s Community for Human Rights and Students for Justice in Palestine, Mohammed El-Kurd, a Palestinian writer and activist who was named one of Time’s “100 Most Influential People of 2021,” will deliver a talk on April 29 on how we can move beyond respectability politics to reach Palestinian liberation.

How do you hope to grow campus engagement once this month ends?

In the future, the MENA Student Association and soon-to-be co-presidents Noor Hamid and Eman Hamed will pioneer and build upon our current efforts. This includes advocating for more study abroad options in the region, creating a designated MENA space on campus and launching a MENA mentorship initiative. This initiative aims to address the underrepresentation of MENA students at Northwestern by offering support and guidance to MENA students in Chicago who are applying to Northwestern. Chicago has one of the largest Arab populations in the United States, yet there is a disproportionately small group at Northwestern — this initiative aims to create more pathways for Arab/MENA students to join our community. 

Although we’re a new group, created in Spring 2021, we’re dedicated to creating a welcoming and inclusive space for MENA students at Northwestern and engaging the broader community in our efforts to celebrate and uplift MENA voices.

To learn more, see the complete Arab Heritage Month schedule, follow the MENA Student Association on Instagram and watch its appearance on CBS News Chicago.