Flint, MI—When Lucine Jarrah got to the race and ethnicity questions on her application for the University of Michigan-Flint, she faced a problem all too familiar to her: being Lebanese, none of the options for race fit her identity. 

“It’s just disappointing,” said Jarrah, who now serves as the executive director of the Arab American Heritage Council (AAHC). Although the U.S. Census groups Middle Eastern people into the “white” category, she said she’s not seen or treated as white in broader American society. 

That was seven years ago, and now, Arab students attending UM-Flint have an option that more accurately describes their ethnicity, a category called MENA, which stands for Middle Eastern/North African. 

Summer Salman walks through a corridor on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich. on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

The MENA option comes in the form of a dedicated question on UM-Flint’s application, similar to the more common inquiry into a person’s Hispanic or Latino heritage. The University of Michigan’s two other campuses include options for students to identify as MENA on their applications as well. 

“We’re really focused as an institution on how we can better support our students and their success,” said David Luke, Chief Diversity Officer at UM-Flint. “If we don’t have that information disaggregated like that, then we won’t know what’s happening.”

UM-Flint added the MENA question to its application this past semester, Fall 2022, after a push from the AAHC, Luke said. The campus initially added the category back in 2020, he noted, but removed it just a semester later during the process of consolidating its application.

Beyond the University of Michigan, Jarrah said, including the MENA category in data collection tools both local and national would help advocacy organizations better understand and identify the socioeconomic and healthcare needs of the communities they serve. 

But it’s also about doing justice to the identities of MENA people, many of whom check the “white” or  “other” categories on the census without a more accurate option, she said.

“Aggregating the MENA population into the white reference category is just dismissing the lived experiences of our community,” Jarrah said. “We are certainly not treated as white in the world that we live in, and our community has been repeatedly discriminated against…We live in a world where the data makes us invisible.”

Students perform Dabke during a class organized by the Arabesque Dance Troupe in the Trotter Multicultural Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. Dabke is a traditional Levantine folk dance performed at weddings and other celebrations in countries like Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)
Students perform Dabke during a class organized by the Arabesque Dance Troupe in the Trotter Multicultural Center at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. Dabke is a traditional Levantine folk dance performed at weddings and other celebrations in countries like Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

AAHC is far from the only organization pushing for the MENA category. It works in conjunction with organizations across the country through the National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC). Many of NNAAC’s member-organizations, the AAHC included, are planning to send letters to the U.S. Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which oversees the federal standards for race and ethnicity statistics, urging the agency to pursue adding the MENA category to the U.S. Census. 

The OMB has already announced that it will revise those standards for race and ethnicity data. The agency has yet to present its preliminary ideas to the public, and it estimates its formal recommendations to modify the standards will be ready by summer 2024. 

Adam Beddawi, the federal policy manager at NNAAC, expressed confidence the OMB will recommend the MENA category. 

“They have already kind of alluded to the MENA question as one that they’re going to be considering in this revision,” Beddawi said. “We’ve had some conversations with them. My sense is not that they’re opposed, but just that they’re going through the formal process.”

There was promise the Census Bureau would add the MENA category to the 2020 census, too, but that fell through after the agency seemingly reversed course and opted to stick with the race and ethnicity questions from the 2010 census. 

Without the MENA category on national data collection tools like the census, MENA advocacy groups like NNAAC and AAHC often rely on private studies to inform their programming for the communities they serve. 

Private studies, however, usually aren’t as comprehensive or conclusive as federal data would be, Beddawi said.

“All levels of government, civil society, the research community, they all refer to [federal] data when they’re talking about who they represent,” he said. “They all refer to those data collection sets, and none of them have any information about our community.”

The Arab community’s lack of designation in federal data means its members end up missing out on federal dollars, too.

For example, Jarrah explained, when the AAHC sought to develop a vaccine education and distribution program during the COVID-19 pandemic, the council wasn’t able to access federal funding that was earmarked for organizations serving minority communities.

“Because we’re not considered an organization that services a minority population, that was funding that was no longer accessible to us,” she said. 

Having the option to check the MENA category feels refreshing, said Summer Salman, a member of the AAHC’s leadership committee. Salman checked the category on her application to the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor when she filled it out last year.

Summer Salman gives a shoulder massage to her friend Leyla Dumke while they study in the IdeaHub at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

“I distinctly remember being very excited about it,” she said. “I think it was the only application that did have one.”

She moved into her dorm in August, she said, and faced a culture shock. Salman, a Syrian-American from the Flushing Township area of Michigan, was used to being one of few MENA people in her community. Not anymore. 

“Being here and being around all these Arabs, it’s fun,” she said. “A lot of my friends right now are Arab, and I’m like, ‘This is so weird.’ My best friend is Arab? That’s so fun.”

Salman participated in the SALAM Mentorship Program, a partnership between the university and the Arab Student Association. She and other SALAM participants moved in early and met with upperclassmen to familiarize themselves with university resources and connect to the broader MENA community on campus.  

“We did mixed events with other multicultural groups,” she said. “It’s just good for meeting people and starting to get used to the environment, and seeing people who are like yourself and not like yourself.”

Leen Sharba, who immigrated to the U.S. from Syria in 2012, also attended the University of Michigan’s main campus, graduating in 2021 with bachelor’s degrees in biology and international studies. Now, between filling out applications to medical schools, she’s taken on a fellowship with NNAAC and AAHC.

“I think there’s still a long way for the university to go in terms of fostering a welcoming environment,” Sharba said of her experience in Ann Arbor, but she said that the inclusion of the MENA box was a positive step.  

Summer Salman’s phone, with a case from Syria that a loved one painted vines on, rests on a table in the IdeaHub at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)
Summer Salman (left) and Leyla Dumke (right) study in the IdeaHub at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Mich., on Wednesday, Oct. 26, 2022. (Michael Indriolo | Flint Beat)

Sharba said the university’s climate made her feel as if she’d be chastised for speaking out about human rights abuses in occupied Palestinian territories, citing a 2018 controversy that left a UM professor punished for refusing to recommend a student for a study abroad program in Israel. 

Sharba also questioned why the university’s Arabic classes included discussions of the political trends in the Middle East. Her sister didn’t learn about political trends in France during her French class at the university, she said.

“The curriculum is very politicized,” Sharba said. “In Arabic class, you learn about the [United Nations], and you learn about war and terrorism.”

The University of Michigan Office of Public Affairs & Internal Communications did not respond to Flint Beat’s request for comment on Sharba’s statements by press time. 

The stereotypical association of MENA people and terrorism is a key reason why having to check the “white” category on the census is out of the question for Omar Mansour, the communications coordinator at AAHC. 

“Look at the last 20 years,” he said. “The violence against Arabs from whiteness, from Western superiority. The rhetoric against Arabs, you know, ‘savages, barbarians, terrorists invading countries.’ There’s no possible way that I could, in good conscience, associate with that.”

In 1915, however, a Syrian immigrant in South Carolina named George Dow did seek to associate with whiteness. He appealed two court decisions that denied his application for naturalization because, at the time, the law stated that only immigrants who were considered “free white persons” were eligible to become U.S. citizens. A higher court sided with Dow, effectively labeling a broad range of MENA people as white in the eyes of the law. 

“Looking back at the history of that push to be white, you see, obviously, a strategic decision to try to get societal benefits, and to not be discriminated against,” Mansour said. “We actually were legally classified as white, and we still weren’t treated that way.”

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