For some people living in West Anaheim, Brookhurst Street is just another road in Orange County’s largest city.
But for many Arab American business owners and residents who spend their days along the street, it’s become a home known as Little Arabia, which stretches down Brookhurst, between the 5 freeway and Katella Avenue.
“It was the only place that ever made me feel like there was something of me that mattered,” Mirvette Judeh, an Arab American, told Anaheim City Council members at their meeting earlier this month as she and others continued to call for the city to officially recognize the area as Little Arabia.
She’s part of previous and renewed calls for an official recognition of Little Arabia by Anaheim City Council members – especially after former Mayor Harry Sidhu resigned after revelations of an FBI corruption probe into his city hall dealings surfaced last month.
An Arab American community leader previously told Voice of OC that Sidhu wasn’t interested in pushing for an official city designation of the area because some of the community expressed support for Sidhu’s opponent in the 2018 election.
Since Sidhu’s resignation, Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae – part of his former majority – has indicated she has been talking with members of Anaheim’s Arab American community about the recognition.
Judeh, a Palestinian American born in Puerto Rico, has been coming to Little Arabia since the 1980s.
It is where she would go to get her falafel from and where she’d go to eat shawarma – an Arab meat wrap that influenced the creation of Al Pastor tacos.
It’s where she would get hair styled and where she would shop.
Judeh’s experience is similar to that of many Arab Americans who drive from all over Southern California to Anaheim for familiar tastes and a reminder of their cultural roots on a stretch of road that has Arab American restaurants, bakeries, clothing stores and a grocery store.
Her request to the city council earlier this month is a request business owners, residents and community leaders have been making for over a decade now.
They want signs officially recognizing the area of Brookhurst Street between the 5 freeway and Katella Avenue as Little Arabia – a name many people already use to identify the area.
Small business owners say signs would help bring in more money not just for the businesses that have been a staple in the community for decades, but for the city as well, especially after the economic losses sustained during the pandemic.
Waleed Kafi, an operations manager for the Desert Moon Restaurant, told city council members earlier this month that the area continues to grow and become more “elegant.”
“The Arab community has and will be committed to investing in this area for years to come because it is our home,” Kafi said. “It will heavily benefit every business in Little Arabia because more tourists will be aware of the area which will lead to more business for everyone – Arabs and non-Arabs.”
The area wasn’t always a cultural hub.
That is until Arab Americans started to set up shop around the late 1980s.
Overtime, these business owners turned a rundown and seedy part of the city into a business hub and cultural oasis that attracts visitors from all over Southern California.
The area started to grow significantly in the 1990s, according to the Designate Little Arabia website started by the Arab American Civic Council – a group that has been advocating for the recognition for years.
According to the website, the idea of recognizing Little Arabia started to form in 2004 and by 2010 a social media campaign was launched to get the city to designate the area.
The business owners also say a designation would recognize them for their contributions to the city – something other cities have done for Asian American communities in OC by recognizing Little Saigon and Koreatown.
Judeh pointed out to council members that it wasn’t just Arab businesses that set up shop in Little Arabia.
“You have major organizations like CAIR, Access who not only help Arab Americans, but non-Arabs,” she said. “Our communities spend so much money in Anaheim. Our nonprofit organizations host their fundraisers in Anaheim.”
Sidhu & His Majority Ignore Residents
City council members including former Mayor Sidhu over several years have ignored these requests every time people have shown up to their meetings and called for the recognition of Little Arabia.
Council members have been unwilling to even bring up Little Arabia for a discussion.
But now that Sidhu – an opponent against the designation of Little Arabia – has resigned following an FBI corruption probe into his city hall dealings, residents have once again renewed pressure on the remainder of their city council to recognize the area.
The new pressure also comes after Rashad Al-Dabbagh, the founder of the Arab American Civic Council, told the Voice of OC last month that he met with Sidhu to discuss Little Arabia in 2019.
In the meeting, Al-Dabbagh said, Sidhu pointed out that the Arab American community held a fundraiser for his opponent Ashleigh Aitken at a restaurant in Little Arabia prior to the 2018 election and that Sidhu would not support recognizing the area as Little Arabia.
Amin Nash, a staff member with the Arab American Civic Council, criticized Sidhu for using the designation as a “political tool.”
“We’re not anyone’s tools or anyone’s game. Our voice matters, our votes matter, our lives matter, our businesses, our families, and our dignity all matter. We will not be intimidated,” he said at the city council meeting earlier this month.
Gloria Ma’ae Changes Stance on Little Arabia
City Councilwoman Gloria Ma’ae, who represents the district Little Arabia is located in, addressed at the end of the June 7 city council meeting residents and business owners who called for the designation.
“From the first day I sat on this dais I have heard calls for a designation for Little Arabia. Contrary to what some may lead you to believe I have been listening and I have been taking action,” she said.
But when Ma’ae was first appointed to the city council last year by Sidhu and his council majority, she had a different stance to the issue.
“When you start creating more lines and division within an area, it creates more disunity,” she said when asked about Little Arabia at a Sept. 14 city council meeting shortly before being appointed.
“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,” Ma’ae continued.
Ma’ae did not respond to requests for comment on Monday.
To watch the Sept. 14, 2021 meeting, click here.
Her initial response echoed a statement Sidhu had sent to Voice of OC last year.
“The area home to Little Arabia includes a range of people and backgrounds, with Hispanics making up half of the area’s population. There’s also a mix of businesses along Brookhurst Street and some may not see themselves as part of Little Arabia,” Sidhu’s statement read.
But a non-Arab business owner in the area spoke in favor of officially recognizing the area at the June 7 city council meeting.
Jack Huerta, who said he owns a Mexican restaurant close to Ball Road and Brookhurst Street, said Arab businesses aren’t the only ones that would benefit from a Little Arabia designation during a time of inflation and economic hardship.
“The area has been vibrant for many years because of the notion of Little Arabia, which was very needed due to the increased crime and drugs in the area. Therefore, I’m sure that an official designation would bring even more vibrancy because of more investments and tourists that will know more about the area,” he said at the meeting.
Despite her initial opposition to Little Arabia, Ma’ae at the June 7 meeting said she has attended meetings with Arab Americans on the issue – the first she said took place a month after her appointment.
She also said she has toured the Arab American owned small businesses in the area.
“That day, I got a firsthand look into some of the businesses that enrich the Brookhurst corridor and I developed a better understanding of the Arab American community in Anaheim,” Ma’ae said.
Ma’ae said the next step is to co-host a community meeting with the Arab American Civic Council, a group who has been advocating for the designation for years.
“We want to bring the businesses along the corridor together so that we can hear their voices. What do they want? What do they envision for the corridor?” she said, adding that the civic council is working on organizing the meeting.
Ma’ae also asked her colleagues on the dais to hold off on calling for a discussion on recognizing Little Arabia.
“I will agendize the next steps. At this time, there is no action for this Council to take. I asked my colleagues to give me the prerogative to decide when the time is right to bring forth a well developed proposal that lifts the corridor and the businesses along it,” she said.
“I don’t want to bring forward a half baked idea.”
But city council members don’t have to wait for Ma’ae to call for a discussion on Little Arabia.
Under a council policy spearheaded by Sidhu in January 2019, three council members must support an agenda proposal for it to be scheduled.
The policy may soon change at tomorrow’s city council meeting following the FBI corruption probe and criticism that the policy was intended to silence minority voices on the dais to allow for one person to add an item on an agenda.
It’s the same policy that stopped a discussion on Little Arabia from happening in 2021 after Councilman Jose Moreno called for the discussion on the issue, but did not receive any support from his colleagues.
But for people like Judeh, now is as good a time as any to have a discussion people in the city have waited to have for over 10 years.
“It’s about time, Anaheim. It’s about time,” she said.
“What are you waiting for?”
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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