February is Black History Month, March is Women’s History Month and April in recent years has become a month to celebrate Arab Americans and their heritage.

Some City Councils in Orange County like Garden Grove will look to officially recognise April as Arab American Heritage Month when they meet later today.

And so is the Anaheim City Council – a board of elected officials who have been evading over a decade of calls by Arab American business owners and community members to recognize a part of their city as Little Arabia with signs.

The irony of recognising next month as Arab American Heritage Month while brushing off the push for signage in Little Arabia year after year is not lost on Rashad Al-Dabbagh, the Founder and Executive Director of the Arab American Civic Council.

“A piece of paper that proclaims Arab American Heritage Month is nice. It’s a feel good resolution but if we really want to make an impact on the lives of Anaheim residents and business owners in Anaheim – a designation would be much more meaningful,” he said.

Why Won’t Anaheim Recognize Little Arabia?

Al-Dabbagh said the effort to get the city to officially recognize Little Arabia has gone for much longer than a decade and through three different Mayors. The civic council has been petitioning the city for the signage.

“The best way to celebrate Arab American Heritage Month is to recognize our community’s contributions to the city and officially designate Little Arabia,” he said.

Community members and business owners have been meeting and talking with councilmen over the issue but elected officials have not brought the signs up for a vote at a city council meeting.

The Arab American Civic Council is calling on people to come to tonight’s city council meeting at 5 p.m. at City Hall to speak in support of an official recognition of Little Arabia.

Council Members Stephen Faessel and Jordan Brandman, who in the past said they’d support such an official Little Arabia, have not returned multiple phone calls nor responded to requests for comment everytime the Voice of OC reports on the issue.

Mayor Harry Sidhu and Councilmember Jose Diaz have said in the past that the area is too diverse to be called Little Arabia.

It seems there is some level of support among residents for an official recognition.

[ Read: Poll Finds Anaheim Voters Favor Recognizing Little Arabia District; City Council Ignores Push For Signs ]

Records obtained by the Voice of OC through a Public Records request show several emails from residents to city councilmembers in support of Little Arabia. 

Several of the emails pointed to similar existing districts in Orange County like Little Saigon and Koreatown and the cultural and financial contribution business owners and community members have made to the city in support of the signs.

Rida Hamida, Former Chair of Anaheim’s Cultural & Heritage commission and Executive Director of the Latino and Muslim Unity organization said when the city promotes Little Arabia they’ll be promoting all the communities.

“It’s a win win for everyone,” she said.

Hamida said she spearheaded a recommendation to the city council in November that received unanimous support from her fellow commissioners to recognize Brookhurst Street between Interstate 5 and Katella Avenue in Anaheim as the Little Arabia Business District.

The recommendation is the first formal action by the city in favor of the district’s recognition as the commissioners who voted on it were appointed by the mayor and other council members.

A letter was sent out to the council on Jan. 7 with the recommendation.

Following the letter, Councilman Jose Moreno tried to publicly get the council to vote on recognition that same month. His colleagues met him with silence.

Hamida, an Arab American, has been advocating for the recognition of the several Arab owned businesses and organizations that revitalized that area of the city and the contributions they’ve made.

“To say that we’re just acknowledging Arab American Heritage Month is just symbolic. We need to acknowledge the contributions day in and day out of these businesses, these community based organizations, these community members that serve everyday people,” Hamida said.

Kareem’s Falafel on Brookhurst Street in Anaheim’s Little Arabia on March 1, 2021. Credit: GARRETT TROUTMAN, Voice of OC

One of those businesses is Kareem’s Falafel on Brookhurst street which has been around for decades.

“As more businesses start to open, it’s kind of proving a point that this is Little Arabia, this should be designated and I think it’s a good time,” Kareem Hawari, owner of the business told Voice of OC earlier this year.

[Read: Arab Americans Petition Anaheim City Council to Designate Little Arabia Retail District ]

April as Arab American Heritage Month in Orange County

In recent years, some cities in Orange County and school districts have recognized April as Arab American Heritage Month to celebrate the community’s contributions.

Hamida said Arab American Heritage Month was first recognized by Anaheim and Garden Grove in 2016 – by a push from Arab American community leaders, organizations like the Civic Council and herself. Community leaders were recognized for their contributions.

The Anaheim Union High School District did so at their meeting earlier this month.

Every year the Arab American Civic Council holds a gala in honor of the month. This time around they will hold a virtual event on April 2 with a couple of guest speakers including civil rights activist Linda Sarsour.

“We supported and advocated for the recognition in Anaheim as well as some other cities and then at the State Senate as well because we wanted this to be an opportunity to celebrate our heritage, and use this opportunity to educate the public about the contributions of Arab Americans to our nation,” Al-Dabbagh said

“Arab American history is American history and we want to tell our stories.”

Councilman Avelino Valencia said the city is diverse and it’s great to honor one of those communities by recognizing Arab American Heritage Month. He added he was not opposed to an official Little Arabia recognition.

“When it comes to the designation – it is just getting more clarity and really answers to questions that I’ve asked those stakeholders,” he said. “I’m doing my due diligence to get educated on the issue and asking questions that I think are relevant to being able to see this happen.”

“I have not received the responses to some of the clarifying questions that I had.”

A public request shows that Hamida reached out to Valencia over text in January asking if he would like to schedule a call to discuss the Little Arabia district following the commission’s recommendation letter in which he responded that he had no questions.

“I didn’t have any questions pertaining to the specific letter and that’s why I didn’t see the need to have a conversation at that time,” he said.

Moreno said  in a phone interview the city should take more substantive action to recognize the contributions of the Arab American community in Anaheim.

“To formally recognize a zone of our city – that says ‘thanks in large part to you this area of our city has become vibrant and reflective in actuality of what we truly value’ and so it’s moving from symbolic gestures to substantive and more authentic actions,” he said.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him @helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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