Around 8:12 p.m. Friday, the Epsilon Alpha Sigma Sorority, the University of Michigan’s first Arab sorority dubbed the Empowered Arab Sisterhood, revealed its first class of new recruits. The seven girls recruited, the “Al-Afdal line,” marched into Auditorium D in Angell Hall, yelling “We’re the girls of Arab countries!” in Arabic.
As the girls were revealed, a founding member of the sorority’s chapter at the University removed a pink bandana from each girl’s eyes and wrapped a flag from their country of origin around her shoulders. Arab music blared as the girls announced themselves to the audience.
“I’m number nine, the leader of my line, and my name is Maria Ulayyet,” one newly initiated sister said. “My sisters know me as bint al-sham (Daughter of Sham-Damascus) and I’m from Damascus, Syria, the oldest capital in the whole world.”
“My name is Layla Jawad, my sisters know me as Amena,” another sister said. “I’m from Lebanon and I am one of the only Arab women in the Ross School of Business.”
Public Health junior Nour Eidy and LSA junior Silan Fadlallah first played around with the idea of an Arab sorority during their freshman year after deciding they didn’t feel comfortable joining a Panhellenic sorority.
“It actually started a couple years ago, when I was a freshman and Sese was a freshman,” Eidy said. “We were talking about rushing for IFC sororities, and we’re kind of just like, ‘No, we’re not interested, that’s not for us.’ We’re very different from those people and we didn’t want to assimilate.”
Two years, after one retreat and a visit to a sister chapter in Las Vegas, the Epsilon Alpha Sigma Sorority chapter at the University of Michigan became a reality. Eidy and Fadlallah were joined by founding sisters including LSA sophomore Angie Achkar, LSA junior Sally Kafelghazal, LSA junior Reem Khatib, Engineering juinor Ellen Khoury, LSA junior Zeinab Elreichouni and LSA junior Mirette Habib
LSA senior Sally Kafelghazal, the director of recruitment for EAS at the University, said the colony is a step toward equal representation. The new group is riding on the coattails of increased Arab activsim on campus—last year, students successfully advocated for a Middle Eastern/North African self-identification box on University documents.
“There was a space like this for a lot of other minority groups, which in itself is legendary and amazing, but I feel like Arabs specifically get shut down a little bit more,” Kafelghazal said. “Even if you’re talking about the census for example, we have to go under ‘White.’ We don’t get enough acknowledgment of our identity.”
LSA senior Rasha Jawad, a former co-president of the Arab Student Association, attended the probate Friday night in support of her sister, Layla Jawad. Rasha Jawad expressed the importance of an Arab community in retaining Arab identity.
“Giving Arab women a community on campus, right off the bat, is really important,” Rasha Jawad said. “It brings them in and not straying away from their Arab identity. Especially at a campus like U of M, it’s very easy to. It’s nice to see them still enthusiastic to be a part of it, just like I was, including my sister.”
Engineering freshman Bushra Habbas-Nimer, said EAS and the female Arab community it provides is the reason she decided to commit to attending the University.
“Growing up, I never really had a group of girls that were driven that shared my same identity, and actually the reason I chose to commit to the University of Michigan is because of Arab Welcome Day,” Habbas-Nimer said. “That day, I saw that there was an Arab sorority, and I knew that was exactly the community I was missing my entire life. And from the first informational session, I knew that this was what’s going to give me a sense of home on campus.”
Now officially part of the sorority, Habbas-Nimer said she is extremely happy with the decision. As an Engineering student, EAS more easily connect to her Arab identity and find a sense of home on campus.
“Especially in the College of Engineering, I can look around and I won’t see anyone with my identity; I’ve probably only seen one,” Habbas-Nimer said. “So after classes, just coming home and seeing my girls, it’s like those are my sisters. I know I’m in the right space. I not only feel empowered, but I feel safe. I feel like I have my team by me.”
According to Habbas-Nimer, EAS provides a community as well as role models who share her identity, something she lacked growing up.
“I went to predominantly white schools. I also did predominantly white sports, such as rowing, so it was always just me being ‘the first’ to do ‘this’,’” Habbas-Nimer said. “The first to be a hijabi in a boat, to go to an international competition. There was an Arab Welcome Day and I saw the girls that are now my sisters, like Nour, initiate these programs. So just like I was the first to be a hijabi in a boat, they were the first to start the Arab Leadership Network. So I knew that finding girls who had the same initiative and ambition as me, was going to get me to where I want to be in life ultimately.”
According to Eidy, the sorority aims to create sisterhood, advance educational and professional skills, break down barriers for Arab women and raise awareness about humanitarian crises, specifically in the Arab world.
One such crisis is the displacement of millions of Syrian refugees. The University EAS chapter will hold a “Remembering the Refugees” banquet on March 23 to raise money for Friends of Kayany, the U.S. branch of the Kayany Foundation, which educates Syrian refugee children living in Informal Tented Settlements in Lebanon.
Three Syrian girls are part of the University’s colony of EAS. During the probate, two girls opted to wear one flag, while the other wrapped a different flag around her shoulders. The different flags represent differing political beliefs about the current situation in Syria, one supporting President Bashar al-Assad and the other supporting opposition groups that oppose Assad’s government.
“We have three Syrian pledges and they identify differently with political beliefs in Syria, so we support what our sister identifies with,” Eidy said. “We are an apolitical organization, but you can see there is a lot of diversity in belief, a lot of diversity in identity in the room, and I think it’s really, really powerful to see women with different perspectives working together. You’re going to have your own beliefs, but you still have a common mission in the space and you still support each other.”
Above all, Eidy expressed the importance of having an organization devoted to just Arab women.
“What makes EAS special is the focus that it is just women,” Eidy said. “And I think that it’s really important to have that space for women, especially Arab women who every single year come to the University in numbers. It’s really easy for women in general, whether they’re Arab or anything else, there’s a lot of toxicity between them and all the other drama that comes with it. But having a space where that is alleviated and is focused on developing each and every single woman, given a space to really embrace her identity, whatever her identity is, (is really important).”
Correction appended: A previous version of this article misrepresented the nature of the performance.