Anaheim residents, business owners and Arab community members are not backing down from a longtime push to get their city council members to officially recognize the Little Arabia cultural and business district.

The Arab American Civic Council is calling on residents to show up to the Anaheim City Council meeting tonight and push the city to recognize Little Arabia officially with signs during the public comment portion.

“Our elected officials have to see that there’s grassroots support, the community wants this and the best way to show that is by going there and talking to them,” Rashad Al-Dabbagh, founder of the civic council said during an Instagram Live session on Monday.

The fight to get the city to officially recognize West Anaheim’s Little Arabia business and cultural district has gone on for a little more than a decade, at least.

Last year, the civic council relaunched the effort to get the area designated.

“We want this designation because it will help the city economically, it will help small businesses, it will help small mom and pop shops all over Little Arabia. We have more than 100 small businesses in the area,” Al-Dabbagh said.

He also said the city financially supports and focuses on the resort district while ignoring West Anaheim whose businesses he called the “backbone of the city.”

The Little Arabia shopping center on Brookhurst Street on Jan. 8, 2020. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Other cities in Orange County have long ago moved to officially designate cultural hubs such as Little Saigon and Garden Grove’s Koreatown.

For years, Anaheim’s city council has resisted the effort to recognize their own culture hub — unwilling to bring such a recognition up for a council vote.

“We’ve been pushing for the designation, and we’re still not getting even a discussion, so that’s why we need everyone’s help. We need everyone’s support,” Al-Dabbagh said during the Instagram live session.

Residents — both Arab and non-Arab — have been coming to council meetings in support of the designation.

Following community calls for the designation, Councilman Jose Moreno has asked for recognition of Little Arabia be agendized at a council meeting earlier this year, but his request failed to receive support from his council colleagues, who did not comment on the issue. 

This is despite the fact that other council members have promised to support putting up signs in support of Little Arabia.

Former Councilman Jordan Brandman and Councilman Stephen Faessel during their political campaigns in 2016 said they supported having signs officially identifying Little Arabia.

Five years later, Brandman — who was representing the district which encompasses Little Arabia — resigned following controversy around vulgar and disparaging text messages about former Councilwoman Denise Barnes failing to keep his promise to his constituents.

His appointed replacement, Gloria Ma’ae, has made it clear before to the council that she is not in favor of recognizing Little Arabia with signs. 

Ma’ae refused to comment on the issue Monday.

When asked about recognizing Little Arabia at the Sept. 14 council meeting shortly before her appointment, Ma’ae told the council that “when you start creating more lines and division within an area, it creates more disunity.”

“That Brookhurst corridor is a gem and we are able to take that area and do so much with it. But if you’re going to start creating pockets and divisions, that is going to hurt those other businesses along that corridor,” she said at the meeting.

But that corridor hasn’t always been a gem, some say.

Al-Dabbagh said after Arab businesses started to open, Brookhurst Street came back to life.

The Many Faces of Little Arabia

Arab Americans and immigrants started to set up shop on Brookhurst Street in the 1980s and 1990s, transforming the area between the 5 freeway and Katella Avenue into a cultural hub without the help of any city subsidies. 

[Read: Anaheim’s Little Arabia Commercial District Continues to Push City Leaders For Official Recognition]

Owner Sammy Khouraki working at Altayebat Market, a store he and has family started in the 1980s.

The area has become home to immigrant family owned businesses like Altayebat grocery store run by the Khouraki family, whose shop on Brookhurst Street has been selling specialty international and Arab goods like pita bread and canned fava beans for decades.

Altayebat was one of the first Arab businesses that opened up shop on Brookhurst.

It has also become a home to several Middle Eastern restaurants, bakeries and pastry shops like Le Mirage Pastry run by Maher Nakhal who sells traditional sweets like Knafeh, Baklava and Syrian ice cream called Bouza.

Both Nakhal and the Khouraki family are in support of signs being put up to recognize Little Arabia.

Businesses like these have survived the pandemic and continue to attract people from all over Southern California and beyond for a taste of Arab and North African culture and cuisine, providing sales tax revenue for the city.

The business owners want their efforts and contributions to Anaheim recognized by the city with signs put up designating the area as Little Arabia.

Maher Nakhal, an Arab Business Owner in Anaheim, signs a petition to get the city to officially recognize the Little Arabia district where his bakery is located. Credit: HOSAM ELATTAR, Voice of OC

Al-Dabbagh said signs would bring exposure to the area, and would bring about more tourists and business to West Anaheim if the city promoted the district.

For many Arabs and immigrants in Orange County, Little Arabia has become a safe haven and a reminder of life back east.

And it’s not just because of the businesses who have set up shop in Little Arabia.

The area also is home to Access California Services, a nonprofit organization that helps not only Arab and Muslim communities, but all types of people by helping them get health coverage, jobs, food, financial support and english classes — all started by Arab immigrant Nahla Kayali in 1998.

The group has been also helping welcome Afghan refugees to Orange County since August.

The Little Arabia Debate in Anaheim

Ma’ae, the newly appointed city council member, said Brookhurst Street has been neglected.

“The commercial centers all along Brookhurst — they are in dire need of upgrades and repair. We need to find a way to work with those businesses to bring them to a level that is satisfactory,” she said during the September council meeting shortly before her appointment.

Ma’ae said the street is a “diamond in the rough” and that the city needs to work with businesses there to develop it into an area that will bring more revenue.

“Economic development is critical to every aspect of the city, not just our district, but we are desperately in need of it along that corridor,” she said.

Critics also say the area is too diverse to be recognized as Little Arabia, despite many people in the county already calling that part of West Anaheim by the moniker. They question what it will mean for non-Arab businesses in the area.

But proponents of Little Arabia say recognition will help all businesses in the area, not just the Arab owned ones, and in turn bring in more tax revenue to the city.

They also say recognition of Little Arabia is not about division, but about inclusion and celebrating the diversity of West Anaheim.

A recent poll conducted by the Arab American Civic Council and U.S. Immigration Policy Center at UC San Diego also showed that more than half of Anaheim voters were in support of the city identifying the area as Little Arabia with official signs.

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

A petition calling for the city council to officially recognize Little Arabia has garnered over 1,470 signatures.

Tonight’s meeting will start at 5 p.m. in the city council chambers at city hall.

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

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