The University of Michigan Museum of Art Apse came alive Friday evening as the Arab Student Association celebrated the school year at the Arab Unity Ball. With more than 100 people in attendance, the black tie event reflected on the achievements of the Arab community and all of its organizations over the past two semesters.
Public policy junior Arwa Gayar and Engineering junior Nicola Nunu, the newly elected ASA co-presidents, began the night by recognizing the executive board for the upcoming year. They then welcomed LSA senior Ali Farhat and LSA junior Mirette Habib, outgoing ASA co-presidents, who highlighted the Arab community’s accomplishments throughout the past year.
“A lot has happened this year, thanks to all of you, thanks to the board, thanks to the community,” Farhat said. “This has all been done because of the hard work of all of you.”
Farhat and Habib mentioned more than a dozen events sponsored by ASA this year, including the first-ever ASA Share-Out, Backpacking with ASA and Arab Xpressions. Farhat and Habib also discussed events put on in conjunction with other student organizations on campus, such as the Beyond Black and White panel, which ASA co-sponsored with United Asian American Organizations, Black Student Union and La Casa, as well as a survivorship and allyhood dialogue co-sponsored by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center.
On behalf of Farhat and herself, Habib thanked the ASA community for being an amazing support system during their time as presidents.
“We also want to recognize that as much as ASA has done, you have done so much for us,” Habib said. “Giving us personally a community away from home, we all know it can be isolating being here on this campus when you don’t know a lot of people. ASA is not only a community, but it’s our family and we want to thank you all for being extremely accepting, opening and loving.”
Following the reflection, multiple ASA members spoke regarding the many ASA initiatives that were implemented throughout the year. LSA junior Silan Fadlallah is the president of the University’s chapter of Epsilon Alpha Sigma. EAS, dubbed the Empowered Arab Sisterhood, is the nation’s first Arab sorority. It started its chapter at the University in December 2018.
Originally from Dearborn, a city with a high Arab population, Fadlallah said she went to a high school in Bloomfield Hills where she was one of six Arab students.
“I really missed being around the Arab community and feeling that sense of comfort because that wasn’t something that I had for those four years of high school,” Fadlallah said. “For me, high school is a really important time, as is college. After freshman year (of college) … I felt that there was something missing. There was something that I needed that wasn’t here on this campus yet, and so I decided to start it with seven other girls.”
Fadlallah said the purpose of EAS is to educate others on Arab culture and empower one another. Though she did not consider becoming involved in Greek life upon arriving at the University, Fadlallah said she fell in love with EAS once she learned more about the organization.
“I’ve honestly learned so much about myself through interacting with all of these girls,” Fadlallah said. “This past fall we pledged our first line and yesterday we actually pledged our second line, which is really exciting. To be honest we couldn’t have done it without all of your (ASA’s) support and encouragement.”
The University’s first Arab fraternity was also established this year. LSA senior Mohamed Mazeh is one of 16 founding fathers of Omega Beta Eta.
“As an incoming freshman, I struggled with finding a mentor within my community that could help me navigate the Arab place at the University of Michigan, an institution that can often times feel like it wasn’t built or meant for us to succeed in,” Mezah said. “Throughout my undergrad, I had many mentors throughout the community that have helped guide me to the point where I am at today, and although I’m very thankful for the continued support, I always seek to have a lot of mentoring in my life, and that is a large part of why we decided to create Omega Beta Eta.”
Mezah said OBH hopes to establish a support system and platform for their brothers to excel academically and develop personally and professionally. Like EAS, the fraternity also educates others on Arab culture and identity.
“I am proud to be able to say that I was a part of this from the beginning and helped to found this,” Mezah said. “I look forward to seeing the amazing work I know you are going to continue to do long after many of us are gone.”
The celebration also included a keynote speaker. Ghida Dagher, University alum and current director of appointments for Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, spoke to attendees about her experiences growing up as Arab and her previous experiences at the University. She discussed the values of passion, pride, community and family, reflecting on Arab tradition.
“I think about the music,” Dagher said. “I think about the lullabies my mom sings to me as a child, or my dad, the things he greets me with when I walk into the door. The fact that I will always be their baby, regardless of how old I get — that is so Arabic. That is so Arab. Don’t ever shy away from that … there is a deep sense of pride.”
During her time at the University, Dagher became actively involved in ASA, directing Xpressions and becoming a member of the executive board. She discussed the growth in the presence of the Arab community on campus since she has graduated.
“This is a community of doers,” Dagher said. “We see a need, we stand up and we do something about it. We don’t sit and watch things happen … that’s that value of community that I’m talking about, where if there isn’t one we create one. Where there’s nothing to be proud of, we create something to be proud of. When there’s a lack of empathy, we create opportunities for compassion, and I want you to never lose sight of that on campus.”
Dagher asked the community to continue to contribute to Arab identity.
“Looking at this room, it blows my mind that there are so many of you that choose to be here on a Friday night,” Dagher said. “It blows my mind the programming that you guys are putting together, and the fact that there’s so many other student associations … I love that you guys are doing all of that, busting through the wall. Take that mentality and apply it to all that you do.”
After Dagher’s presentation, Gayar and Public Health junior Nour Eidy talked about an additional new initiative they co-founded this year: Successful Arab Leaders At Michigan, the first-ever Arab specific freshmen orientation. In an interview with The Daily before the event, Gayar said SALAM gives Arab freshmen a different orientation that is more tailored toward their cultural necessities and time on campus.
“We recognize that there’s a gap for people who don’t know anyone here, and so we wanted to mend that by creating an orientation that creates a pipeline so people don’t end up finding the Arab community by their junior year like most people do — they can actually get started from the start and really build and grow with it,” Gayar said. “This was an institutionalized way for us to pass down all of the things that we learned from our mentors and make sure that that is something that is continued after we leave.”
Gayar is also a co-founder of Arab Leadership Network. She described the program as a second part of SALAM where freshmen meet bi-weekly during their first semester to learn professional skills such as making a resume and schedule building.
“Every year, our community would see such amazing leaders and such amazing students,” Gayar said. “A lot of times we wish that people were able to find themselves in this community and develop those strengths a lot earlier. That was the reason we started Arab Leadership Network.”
LSA freshman Celine Nasser took part in the first cohort of ALN. She said she felt very privileged to be part of the program.
“I know not a lot of other people have that experience or have the chance to have a long-term mentorship throughout the year,” Nasser said. “I know that the people that were mentoring us in the program did not have that when they were here. It taught me how to interact with faculty, staff, administration, how to speak up for our community, how to advocate for our community, as well as navigating all of the resources on campus.”
At the conclusion of the event, ASA presented four awards. The Alumni Award was given to Dagher and the Ally Award was presented to La Casa. Additionally, Samer Ali, associate professor of Arabic language and literature, was given the Mentor Award and Dilip Daas, assistant vice provost for academic affairs and the Office of Diversity, Equality and Inclusion, received the Administrative Ally Award.
Nasser emphasized the sense of community she found through her participation in ASA and its programs.
“I think my biggest takeaway would be looking around in the room, and the fact that so many of the students there didn’t come from the same high school or didn’t know each other upon entering but feel so comfortable and so close when they’re together,” Nasser said. It’s just such an amazing thing, because it’s a community that doesn’t go away, it’s something you’ll always have no matter what.”