In recent years, some cities, states and school districts have annually proclaimed April as Arab American Heritage Month to celebrate the community’s contributions to the country. 

These proclamations are taking place all over the U.S. in places like Michigan, Virginia and California, and even at the federal level.

A House resolution sponsored by Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib (D-13th District, Michigan), Debbie Dingell (D-12th District, Michigan) and other representatives last year urged people to celebrate contributions of Arab Americans during the month of April. 

The Arab American Institute estimates around 3.7 million Arab Americans are living in the United States, with the highest population being in California. Over 370,000 Arab Americans are estimated to live in the state and around 41,000 in Orange County, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. 

Efforts to popularize celebrations of the month continue to play out in the county and the rest of the nation. 

“It’s becoming more and more visible because the community is doing more about it recently. We hope that this becomes a month where mainstream culture celebrates it as well. It’s not just us trying to get a proclamation here and there but actually having it celebrated throughout the nation,” said Rashad Al-Dabbagh, founder and executive director of the Arab American Civic Council.

A Gala Kick-Off

Typically, the Arab American Civic Council holds an annual gala to celebrate the month, which it started back in 2016.

This year, that gala will take place virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic and will include various guest speakers from the Arab diaspora in America.

“This is an event where we celebrate our community, highlight our contributions and hear from influential leaders and activists who are working to empower and uplift Arab Americans around the country,” said Al-Dabbagh in an interview last week.

The celebration will take place on April 2 at 6 p.m. and will be accessible by sending an RSVP through a reservation link on its website.  

Special guests will include:

  • Lara Kiswani: An ethnic studies faculty member at San Francisco State University and the executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center, a grassroots organization that works to empower the community. Kiswani is a Palestinian American from the San Francisco Bay Area and is leading the push to include Arab American Studies in high school curriculums.
  • Dave Serio: An education and public programming specialist at the Arab American National Museum. He will be presenting on the history of Arabs in America.
  • Linda Sarsour: A racial justice and civil rights advocate as well as a community organizer from Brooklyn. She was also the national co-chair of the 2017 Women’s March on Washington. She will be the celebration’s keynote speaker.
  • Amer Zahr: An Arab American comedian and adjunct professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. He will perform stand-up comedy.

“This is an effort to uplift our voices to celebrate our community, celebrate our heritage and we’re doing it virtually so hopefully next year we’ll go back to in person if possible,” Al-Dabbagh said.

In 2016, the cities of Anaheim and Garden Garden first recognized Arab American Heritage Month after a push by community leaders like Rida Hamida, executive director of Latino and Muslim Unity, and organizations like the Arab American Civic Council. Community leaders were recognized for their contributions with certificates from those cities.

Is an Official Little Arabia District Next?

While the Anaheim officials recognized heritage month at their last meeting, they 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.

[Read: Will Anaheim Officially Recognize Little Arabia District as Part of Arab American Heritage Month? ]

At that same meeting, Hamida, Al-Dabbagh, some business owners and residents showed up and called on the city council to recognize the contributions Arab Americans made to Anaheim by officially designating the Little Arabia district.

“It would be far more impactful and meaningful to celebrate Arab American Heritage Month during the month of April by designating Little Arabia. The designation would support and uplift our small business community on Brookhurst Street,” Al-Dabbagh said at the meeting.

Hamida told the council the movement for Little Arabia is not just about the community’s cultural contributions.

“We provide economic power as Arab American business owners and community-based organizations to support everyone that walks into the door,” Hamida said last week. “We’re not just interested in ourselves and promoting ourselves but uplifting everyone.”

Hamida, who is also former chair of Anaheim’s Cultural & Heritage Commission, spearheaded a recommendation by the commission to the city council in support of recognizing Little Arabia last year.

She requested a citywide working group consisting of business owners, residents and community partners to address that recommendation and incorporate goals of community development, public art and safety in the area.

Asem Abusir, owner of Knafeh Cafe, encouraged the council to recognize Little Arabia with signs that would drive more business and tourism into the area.

“It’s not just the Arab community who are attending these restaurants and grocery shops,” Abusir said. “It’s becoming an attraction.”

Abigail Gonzalez, a recent high school graduate and Anaheim resident, came out to call on the council to recognize Little Arabia as well.

“Why is it taking so long?” she said. “Why is it being pushed aside? Why is it not on the agenda?”

“They deserve a seat at the table. They deserve to be acknowledged by you,” she continued. “They are who we are. We are them. We are a community. They make Anaheim what it is.”

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

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