Three years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, more than 50 Arab American leaders in Anaheim gathered with city, county and state representatives, recognizing the importance of promoting the cultural and economic contributions of Arab immigrants to Orange County’s largest city.

At that meeting, they jotted down ideas on how to uplift their community, including an idea for the city to officially recognize a popular part of Brookhurst street filled with Arab owned restaurants, stores and businesses as Little Arabia.

“The city has done a poor job of reaching out to ethnic groups,” Former City Councilman Richard Chavez told the Los Angeles Times at the time. “There wasn’t the political will to learn about their culture and the benefit they bring to the city.”

After 18 years, many in Orange County and Southern California’s Arab community wonder if anything has really changed.

Now following years of pushing for the designation, the idea to recognize Little Arabia could soon turn into reality next Tuesday when city council members are expected to discuss an official designation.

[Read: Anaheim’s Little Arabia Could be Officially Recognized]

Arab Americans like Amin Nash, part of the Arab American Civic Council based in Anaheim, are excited that a discussion is finally going to happen.

“I really want to hear their thoughts on Little Arabia. Do they know our history? Do they know people’s experiences?” he said in a Wednesday phone interview. 

“This is one of the first times at this high level that an Arab American district will be discussed. 

It’s historic.”

Amin Nash, Little Arabia Advocate

The idea of Little Arabia, however, seems to face a strong opponent in the local district representative for that neighborhood – Gloria Ma’ae – who argues a concept called “district prerogative” gives her first say over policy decisions in the district.

[Read: Will Anaheim’s Little Arabia be Officially Recognized After More Than a 10-year Push?]

The Stand Against a City Designation for Little Arabia

Ma’ae, a resort ally, was appointed to her seat by former mayor and Little Arabia opponent Harry Sidhu and his council majority after Jordan Brandman resigned

On the night she was appointed, Ma’ae herself spoke out against recognizing Little Arabia – echoing Sidhu’s stance on the issue – before a majority of council members voted her in.

But after an FBI investigation into Sidhu rocked city hall and led the former mayor to resign, Ma’ae publicly stated she was in discussions with the Arab American community about recognition.

“​​I will agendize the next steps. At this time, there is no action for this Council to take. I ask 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,” Ma’ae said at the June 7 meeting.

“I don’t want to bring forward a half baked idea.”

Anaheim councilwoman Gloria Sahagún Ma’ae at a city council meeting on Aug 9, 2022.

Yet there is a growing contingent of elected officials standing up to that notion in support of Little Arabia including Sharon Quirk-Silva – the state assemblywoman representing the area, Lou Correa – the Congressman representing the area and Anaheim City Councilman Jose Moreno.

Jonathan Echavarria, a Quirk-Silva staff member, read a letter from the assemblywoman at the Aug. 9 meeting in support of Little Arabia.

“Arab American immigrants arrived in the area in the 1980s and they transformed the rundown area into what is now known colloquially as Little Arabia, a thriving cultural hub,” he read. “This feat is a true testament to the hard work, dedication and powerful contributions that the Arab American community brings to the economy.”

Correa also sent a representative, Cassandra Perez, to read a letter he wrote in favor of Little Arabia on Aug. 9.

“The city of Garden Grove has Little Korea and the city of Westminster has Little Saigon – two tourist attractions that add to our community’s cultural richness. The designation of West Anaheim’s Brookhurst Corridor as Little Arabia will also be a welcome addition to our tourist based economy,” she read.

“Furthermore, Little Arabia will serve to familiarize us with Middle Eastern culture.”

And Moreno on July 12 called for a discussion on recognizing Little Arabia to be agendized for the Aug. 23 meeting.

That same night Moreno agendized the discussion, Ma’ae called on the council to hire consultants to study the Brookhurst Corridor but not once did she use the words Little Arabia when she called for the study.

The city already contracted a study of the Brookhurst corridor about 25 years ago.

In 1997, the city’s redevelopment agency contracted Aleks Istanballu and John Kalinski to conduct a study on the design and planning of the area to encourage revitalization and “eliminate blighting influences.”

The surveyors observed that the area had a “negative image and identity,” had “little identity” for adjacent neighborhoods and a poor streetscape along with other observations like “excessive commercial signage.”

One of their several recommendations to address the concerns was putting up “District & Intersection Identity Signage” in the area.

Mike Lyster, city spokesperson, said in an email Wednesday that the city doesn’t have any indication that the signage recommendation is referring to Little Arabia.

He said the study resulted in the West Anaheim Commercial Corridors Redevelopment Project which included “extensive widening, beautification, added bike lanes, median improvements on Brookhurst from Katella Avenue to Ball Road and from La Palma Avenue to the Riverside (91) Freeway.”

“The Brookhurst study and resulting project plan were also important in limiting additional adult and alcohol-oriented businesses along Brookhurst after a proliferation in earlier decades,” he wrote.

To view the complete study and its recommendations, click here.

Ma’ae, who is up for election this November, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday nor has she made herself available to answer Voice of OC questions on the issue in the past either.

What Would a Brookhurst Study Entail?

Forn Alhara and other Arab owned businesses make up many of the storefronts on Brookhurst street. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, VOICE OF OC

The goal of Ma’ae’s study, according to a staff report, is to consider various districting options for the area including: a historical district, cultural district and business improvement district and will include “robust community engagement” that include community meetings.

It’s also to determine recommendations for improving and funding the area and would include an economic assessment, parking assessment as well as real estate analysis to evaluate land values and real estate opportunities.

But for many business owners and community members, government funding or more studies isn’t what’s needed.

They just want signs to officially recognize the area – something they feel can help bring in customers and recognize their contributions to the city.

Leaders with the Arab American Civic Council, who for years have led the campaign to officially recognize Little Arabia, say while a study is important the focus right now should be on designation.

“A formal designation is what we’ve been talking about for two decades.That’s the agenda item that we are more interested in, because that is the agenda item that the community wants,” said Rashad Al-Dabbagh, founder of the Civic Council, in a Wednesday phone interview.

He said a designation is important to come first to center the immigrant business owners who have made the area a thriving cultural hub.

Al-Dabbagh also said there is a need for greater community input on what the study should look like.

Others are calling for more community input too.

At the Aug. 9 meeting, Masih Fouladi, deputy executive director of the Council on American Islamic Relations branch based in Anaheim, spoke out against the study.

Fouladi said more discussions were needed between Ma’ae and the community and that there needed to be commitments from council members that business owners won’t be unnecessarily taxed or kicked out.

“We do not believe that the Little Arabia designation should be tied to the study,” he said at the Aug. 9 meeting. “It seems to be counter intuitive to tie an effort that has been community led to something that a consulting firm with economic interests ultimately will come and really play a major role in.

Ma’ae’s proposal is sparking concerns from Arab American communities members who are worried that the study would target immigrant owned small businesses as real estate opportunities and drive them out of the area.

Nash said on Wednesday that immigrant business owners feel like the proposed study is an audit – which is what they don’t want and questions how equitable the study will be.

He looks forward to the discussion on the study to help clarify the vagnuess around the agenda item.

At the same time, Nash notes that from talking to people in cities like San Diego and Los Angeles that have moved forward with recognizing ethnic enclaves that they didn’t have to go through the same process nor the proposed real estate analysis like Anaheim’s Arab American community.

Arab business owners also want to know if the study will address quality of life issues in the area.

“One restaurant had their windows broken overnight, another individual found an unhoused woman behind his restaurant who passed away over a drug overdose – rest in peace. Another informed me about the lack of speed bumps that cause traffic accidents on Brookhurst,” Nash said at the Aug. 9 meeting.

Fighting For Recognition

Families gather during Ramadan in a restaurant located in Little Arabia on April 22, 2021. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

For years now residents, business owners and community members have called on various rosters of their city council members to take up the discussion on designation – a discussion council members have ignored.

[Read: Little Arabia: The Struggle to Get Anaheim to Recognize Its Arab American Business Community]

Al-Dabbagh said the council has for a decade now been doing the leg work of engaging with residents and business owners about recognizing Little Arabia.

“In the last year alone, there have been close to 400 Anaheim residents that we engaged that explicitly support the designation,” he said. “We went to some neighborhoods and spoke to residents. We spoke to more than 100 businesses in the area that support that designation.”

Some have signed petitions and others have written letters to city council members in support of Little Arabia. Others speak out in favor of the recognition in public meetings.

The civic council even conducted a poll with the U.S. Immigration Policy Center at UC San Diego that was released last year and found that 58% of voters support or strongly support signage identifying the area as Little Arabia and 75% of voters who have visited the area back an official recognition.

““We already know that there’s massive community support in Anaheim for a designation.

We’ve done part of the work. This is a reflection of the City of Anaheim. This is a reflection of the voters and what the voters want. A designation should come first. Little Arabia businesses should be centered before any further studies.”

Rashad Al-Dabbagh, Arab American Civic Council
Rashad Al-Dabbagh (left), founder and executive director of the Arab American Civic Council, and Maher Nakhal, owner of Le Mirage Pastries in Anaheim. Members of the civic council and volunteers met with business owners in Little Arabia to see if they will sign their petition to officially designate the area. Credit: HOSAM ELATTAR, Voice of OC

Still, some officials have spoken against recognizing the area officially despite themselves referring to the area as Little Arabia.

In the past, council members like Jose Diaz and Sidhu have said the area is too diverse to be called Little Arabia.

“We also need to ensure that all feel welcome,” Sidhu said in a statement last year, adding that the area is home to Hispanic people as well.

Non-Arab business owners in the area however have spoken in support of recognition in the past.

City officials, in turn, have never publicly pointed out any specific individual or group that is against the designation.

In addition, there hasn’t been any comment against designation from the public comment dais in recent memory. 

Ma’ae’s study is set to come before the council next Tuesday Aug. 23 along with the discussion on officially recognizing Little Arabia.

According to the staff report, the study would take 6-9 months to complete after consultants are hired. The cost of the study is still unclear.

Mirvette Judeh, an Arab American community leader, speaks at the May 24, 2022 Anaheim city council meeting. Credit: JULIE LEOPO, Voice of OC

Arab Americans are tired of waiting.

Mirvette Judeh, an Arab American, told Ma’ae at the Aug. 9 council meeting the Arab American community has been an important part of the city in terms of both businesses and nonprofits but the city doesn’t treat them that way.

“Oftentimes, we’re ignored,” she said at the Aug. 9 city council meeting. “There’s a feeling that we don’t matter, and that we’re not considered in decisions … I want this designation to happen. Not for myself, but for our entire community.”

“Our community deserves this.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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