Ibrahim: Northwestern renders Middle Eastern and North African students invisible


Commissioned by Sara Ibrahim, Illustration by Hank Yang

MENA students at Northwestern are rendered invisible, Ibrahim argues.

Sara Ibrahim, Columnist

Three weeks ago, my fellow Coptic-Egyptian friend, Weinberg freshman George Mousa, and I administered an anonymous survey to the Northwestern community via social media about Middle Eastern and North African students at the University to gather statistics before creating a petition to send to Multicultural Student Affairs. The petition urges for the creation of an MSA branch — with its own content expert and graduate student expert — dedicated to MENA students at the University.

The first question on the survey was “Do you know of any Middle Eastern or North African students at Northwestern?” Out of 67 respondents, 80 percent answered “Yes.”When asked, “In your opinion, are Middle Eastern and North African students a minority at Northwestern?” 81 percent of respondents answered “Yes.”

98.5 percent of respondents stated that they were not aware of any programming held for MENA students at NU.

NU needs to better represent the MENA community, beginning with Multicultural Student Affairs creating a branch dedicated to the MENA minority.

As a Coptic-Egyptian student navigating my first year of college at NU, I feel as though the University has failed to create a community for students with similar backgrounds as myself. As one of the smaller minority groups on campus, it seems that MENA students have been forgotten in NU’s goal to promote diversity and a sense of belonging for all students. Even during Arab American Heritage Month this April, there was not a single program held for our minority group or even recognition of the month.

None of the groups that claim to represent MENA students have any active programming, and many are exclusively for Sunni Muslims and/or Arabs, which excludes religious minorities in the MENA region such as MENA Christians (Copts, Protestants, etc), Yazidis, Shiites and North Africans who do not affiliate with Arab culture. We have no place to gather and celebrate our unique cultural identities or speak about our experiences as a marginalized identity group on campus. Most of the classes offered about the MENA region focus solely on the role of Islam in the region, which communicates a flat understanding about the populations that exist within the region, further perpetuating the stereotype that all those of MENA descent are Sunni Muslims.

80 percent of survey respondents stated that Middle Eastern and North African students should have their own branch of Multicultural Student Affairs, while the other 20 percent stated they were not sure. When asked to explain their responses, answers ranged from “They are a distinct group that is a minority, so they should have a branch” to “Unique cultural background — should not be grouped into White, Asian or African.”

One articulate response stated: “It’s important for Middle Eastern and North Africans to get the representation they deserve because they are often ignored when it comes to diversity conversations. They are discriminated against basically everywhere but their stories go untold. In the case of Middle Eastern civilians, they are often not included in Asian American groups.”

Another response stated: “American society can be pretty hostile towards those of Middle Eastern and North African descent, so I think it is important that members of that community have a safe space and a form of support on campus.”

Unfortunately, those of MENA descent are not represented in America via the census, and that underrepresentation trickles down into other institutions, including Northwestern. MENA students lack a sense of community and connection to their roots — there is no place at NU for our cultures to be noticed, heard, and celebrated, but rather we are forgotten about once we come to NU’s campus.

Many of our experiences go unnoticed and unheard. A large population of MENA students have dealt with religious discrimination, anti-immigrant/anti-refugee rhetoric, racism and other identity conflicts here in America. We are not foreigners to hate crimes, prejudice, discriminating policies and governmental scrutiny.

It’s obvious that MENA should have their own branch here at NU. I think the issue of our invisibility lies central to how the U.S. census fails to categorize those of MENA descent.

How can there be a community for a group that is invisible and does not exist on paper?

Programs and community-building cannot take place if our population is not formally recognized. Despite decades of lobbying for a Middle Eastern and North African category on the US Census, many MENA-identifying people have been forced to check other boxes. Some check “other” and write, “MENA.” Others from North Africa may put African American, some from other countries may put Asian and others may put White.

When our minority group does not have its own category, our population, at least 3.7 million Arab Americans, is rendered invisible.

Our struggles and challenges as a marginalized group are completely overlooked because our population is not represented. Without acknowledgment of our identities, there is no way to lobby for racial, health, income, and economic equality for our minority group since there is no data present about our population.

We are invisible in American society even though we have been here for centuries.

Our struggles are overlooked as there is very little research done on our population. Northwestern also fails to include a MENA category on many of their forms and research projects. The Office of Institutional Diversity and Inclusion states, “We are committed to supporting a diverse and inclusive campus community,” but MENA students continue to be excluded from conversations about diversity. Northwestern also does not do anything to recruit more MENA students despite the fact that there is an estimated amount of 150,000 Arab Americans in Chicago alone.

The final question on the survey asked, “Which category do you personally believe people of Middle Eastern and North African descent fall into?” 92.5 percent of respondents stated “Other: they do not fit into any of the above other categories” when asked which category the people of MENA descent fall into.

Here are just a few of the responses:

— “Genetically, culturally, linguistically etc. people from the Middle East and North Africa are distinct from those categorizations, and I can barely even see an argument for including them in any of the above”
— “They are a minority and deserve their own category; they are not White some people literally refer to them as terrorists”
— “While I am aware they are officially defined as White within the census, their cultural and racial heritage and experience differs greatly from White Europeans such as myself.”
— “I think race is subjective and grouping them within “White” is cultural erasure.”
— “Even though some can be White-passing, we have our own experiences and culture that differentiate us from the categories above”

By creating an MSA branch for MENA students, NU can take one step closer to truly being a place where students of all backgrounds and cultures are appreciated and welcomed. I urge you to sign the petition below and join me in advocating for the representation of MENA students at NU.

I am proud to be able to represent our population through The Daily Northwestern’s platform. According to The Daily’s 2021 Winter Quarter Diversity Report, only 2.5 percent of the staff are MENA.

Please sign this petition advocating for more MENA representation in meetings about diversity and inclusion as well as MSA creating a branch dedicated to MENA students. MENA students have a unique set of experiences, as immigrants, refugees, and religious minorities. Our diverse experiences should be recognized by NU through MSA to provide equitable representation on campus. 

Sara Ibrahim is a Weinberg and SESP freshman. Sara can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.