It’s been a year since zaghareet or ululations echoed in the chambers of Anaheim City Hall.
The centuries old Arab celebratory sound came after the Anaheim City Council voted to officially designate a stretch of Brookhurst Street as Little Arabia in August 2022 after decades of advocacy from Arab American business owners and residents.
Yet one year after the recognition, city officials have still not put up official Little Arabia signs on Brookhurst Street and the nearby 5 freeway.
It’s something the community noticed as Little Arabia recently celebrated the one year anniversary of winning an official recognition from the city.
Mirvette Judeh, a Little Arabia advocate, said in a Tuesday interview that many people want to know where the signs are.
“That’s something that I’ve been approached about several times by business owners and my own kids that were with me at that city council meeting a year ago,” she said.
“I’ve been told this over and over again, from so many people in Anaheim but to have your child say it shows you that someone so little understands that that’s a step that should have already been taken.”
Arab American community members gathered with elected officials on Aug. 23 to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Little Arabia’s official designation at the House of Mandi restaurant with Yemeni food and a live oud performance.
The Arab American Civic Council, who have long advocated for the official recognition, hosted last week’s event and honored former City Councilman Jose Moreno with a solidarity in action award for his support of the Little Arabia recognition.
Rashad Al-Dabbagh, founder and executive director of the Arab American Civic Council, said in a Wednesday phone interview that it is important for the community to celebrate its victories.
“This is one of the rare victories in our community. It was a two-decade campaign to recognize our existence, to recognize the Arab American community in Anaheim,” Al-Dabbagh said.
“On the anniversary, we wanted to take a moment to come together and recognize the people that helped make this happen and feel good about this accomplishment.”
Over decades and without city subsidies, Arab American entrepreneurs helped convert a seedy rundown part of town into a cultural oasis – a business hub and destination that attracts people from all over Southern California for a taste of the Middle East.
For several years they pushed for city council members to officially recognize the area.
Last year, their efforts paid off.
In the wake of a corruption scandal in which the FBI accused resort interests of holding outsized influence over city hall, Anaheim City Council members voted to officially recognize a portion of Brookhurst Street as Little Arabia.
Judeh points to the alleged corruption in city hall from keeping Little Arabia from being designated for so long. She adds that signs will show the community they matter and bolster pride.
Al-Dabbagh said signs will help attract people to the area and bring in business.
“Right now, it’s only on paper,” he said about the recognition. “We need to move that to make it real. We need a sign on the freeway and a sign on the street that indicates where Little Arabia is. That will give us the recognition we deserve.”
“Imagine thousands of people driving on the freeway and now there’s a sign there that says Little Arabia. That will bring more attention to it and more business and hopefully it will elevate the area and uplift the small businesses in the community.”
Hussam Ayloush, Executive Director of the Council on American Islamic Relations – Greater Los Angeles (CAIR), said in a Tuesday phone interview that Little Arabia’s recognition turns a page in the long history of marginalization of the Arab American community in Anaheim.
Ayloush said not a lot has changed in Little Arabia since the designation.
“It’s a process that involves the need to do some study on the ground on what is needed and what could be done,” he said, adding that they don’t want other communities to feel left out.
Earlier this year, city officials hired a consultant to study how to best help businesses in the area succeed with input from residents, business owners and community members.
City Councilman Carlos Leon, whose district encapsulates Little Arabia, said he is unsure what signs will cost and the city is still conducting a study of the Brookhurst corridor.
“Once we have some of those recommendations from the corridor study, we’ll have concrete next steps based on the feedback we receive,” Leon said in an interview at the Aug. 23 anniversary celebration.
In a follow up text, Leon said the study is expected to be done in December.
Judeh said regardless of the study and its outcome, signs should go up.
“It’s already been a year, we think the city should at least have that,” she said. “The signs definitely matter.”
Ayloush said that while signs are important, it shouldn’t be the only change the city makes in the area, including increasing walkability and supporting the local businesses in the area.
“If the intent is truly to make it part of a full package, a comprehensive approach, I’m okay with it,” he said on the delay of the signs.
The weekend prior to the anniversary event, Leon and Mayor Ashleigh Aitken took a walking tour of Little Arabia with community leaders.
“It’s important to recognize the decades worth of contributions made by the Arab American community and the business owners,” Leon said.
Aitken in a Wednesday text message said the designation is the result of decades of hard work from the Arab American community and also pointed to the Brookhurst study as the first step to enhancing the corridor.
“I want to hear the community’s feedback on signage and regional branding, as well as potentially expanding the boundaries to Crescent Avenue,” she wrote.
“I believe everyone who has come to the table and participated in the Brookhurst Corridor supports the greater mission- to elevate the corridor and help develop a destination in Southern California centered around authentic middle eastern culture that is welcoming to all.”
Her father, Wylie Aitken, chairs Voice of OC’s Board of Directors.
Former Councilman Moreno said in a Wednesday phone interview that it was extremely disappointing that the city hasn’t at least put up temporary signage that can help people find the area and shop there.
“It’s important that on daily drives, on daily excursions, and for visitors, that they see a sign that says it is real and absent the signage, you have to ask yourself, is it real?” he said.
For some Arab Americans, like Lina Mousa, the lack of city signage in Little Arabia means that the community’s fight for proper recognition is not yet over.
“We need to work harder and push harder to reach our goal,” Mousa said in an interview at the celebration. “We have strong community leaders that advocated for this recognition and together we need to keep pushing.”
Mousa, a teacher at the Anaheim Union High School District, with help from the Arab American Civic Council and CAIR pushed to keep her class alive when the district threatened to cut her Arabic language course over funding and low enrollment rates.
For her, the recognition has helped amplify the Arab American voice in Anaheim.
“It makes our community stronger, promotes our businesses and makes us proud of ourselves,” she said.
Ryan El-Aman, a 24-year-old Lebanese American from Norwalk, said in an interview that he often goes to Little Arabia and said Arab Americans need more recognition.
“People deserve those signs. It’s a good way to represent the community,” he said.
Nahla Kayali, founder and executive director of Access California Services – a nonprofit that started in Little Arabia to help immigrants, said last year’s recognition means a lot to the community and increased visibility for Arab Americans.
“We are one of the threads of the tapestry of the U.S.,” Kayali said. “It’s easier for people to look for us if they can follow the signs.”
Samera Sood, a Mission Viejo resident who sits on the Arab American Civic Council’s board of directors, said in an interview that she is proud of the recognition that the community pushed so long for.
A community that she says has heavily contributed to the City of Anaheim and Orange County.
Like Mousa, Sood says the lack of signage means there is still work to be done and more people need to get involved.
“Seeing the signs is a matter of respect and about bringing people into the area,” she said.
Her daughter-in-law, Sajida Sood, said the recognition brings her security.
“It makes me feel safe to see people who are like me have a place in the community and are not shunned,” she said.
When asked when she would like to see the signs go up in Little Arabia, Sajida replied:
Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.
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