Curator of Education
Arab American National Museum
In 1999 I began working at the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in Dearborn, Michigan, teaching the public about Arab culture and Islam through educational and arts programming. I loved dedicating 40 hours of my week to promoting a better understanding of Arabs, Arab Americans, and Islam. I truly felt like we were making a difference to the students and professionals who participated in ACCESS’s programs. Then came the 9/11 attacks.
When it became known that the planes were hijacked and flown by Arab Muslims, I envisioned all of the efforts we’d worked so hard to accomplish completely vanish. Following the attacks, ACCESS employees received physical and verbal threats. In addition, Arabs, Muslims, and others who appeared to be Arab and/or Muslim faced discrimination, assault and even murder all across this country. Hearing about the uptick in such incidents made us to fear that our work in the Cultural Arts Program would be thwarted and that all of the progress we had made was in vain. What happened next came as a surprise.
Within a few weeks of the tragic events of 9/11, our department received an increase in requests for presentations on Arab culture and Islam by those who desired to understand our community even more. The increased demand for cultural competency programs, along with other services of the Cultural Arts Program, were the driving forces behind creating the Arab American National Museum (AANM).
AANM, the first and only institution dedicated to telling the Arab American experience, opened to the public on May 5, 2005. Annually, the museum hosts 50,000 visitors who come from across the world to learn more about Arab and Muslim Americans. Hearing about journeys like that of Anna Yousef – a Lebanese immigrant who, along with her two sons, were Titanic survivors – comes as a surprise to many visitors. Through our cultural competency workshops, award-winning youth programs, world music concerts, film festivals, and other events, visitors learn that there is significantly more to Arab culture and Islam than what is portrayed in Hollywood films and the media.
Since the opening of the museum, I have witnessed increased demand for our programs from law enforcement officials, government employees, educators, and others who recognize that biases may inhibit the work they do with members of the Arab and Muslim American communities. The AANM has made significant strides in enlightening these and other groups about Arab and Muslim Americans. This is made evident by the requests we get from all over the U.S. and even in countries like Egypt and Jordan.
We continue to face challenges and setbacks, however. In the past 10 years, other events in addition to 9/11 have combined to create an environment of even further hostility towards Arab and Muslim Americans. These include U.S. military actions in the Middle East, the controversy surrounding building a mosque near the World Trade Center site, and the recent Congressional hearings on the radicalization of Muslims.
How do we promote understanding within a climate of hostility? How do we share the pain of those who lost their loved ones when we are sometimes seen as the cause of their grief?
This year, in addition to its general programming, the AANM is developing a special traveling exhibit entitled Patriots and Peacemakers: Arab Americans in Service to Our Country. The AANM recognizes that many false ideas about Arab and Muslim Americans come from misinformation and a lack of knowledge regarding the sacrifices that these immigrant communities have made for our country. It is our hope that Patriots & Peacemakers will help bring forth their contributions by highlighting the stories of over two hundred individuals who have served in the United States in one of three areas: the U.S. Military, Peace Corps or Diplomatic Corps.
The horrific events of 9/11– and the events that have followed in the past 10 years – continue to shape people’s views about Arab culture and Islam. Although we are as grief stricken as any other Americans by these acts, we are taking the opportunity to refocus the attention given our community and present a positive and more balanced view of the Arab and Muslim people.
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