Just a few minutes before 7 p.m. on Thursday, the front steps of the University of Michigan Museum of Art were dotted with students dressed in a collection of cultural attire and winter jackets. Despite the cold, more than a hundred students were all there for the same reason: Paani Culture Night. 

Paani is a non-profit organization comprised of student volunteers dedicated to creating sustainable, evidence-based solutions to supply clean water and improve health disparities. The organization has built more than 200 wells and donated around $100,000 towards alleviating the sanitation crisis in Pakistan.

To host the event, Paani partnered with 10 cultural student organizations across campus, including the Bangladeshi, Egyptian, Iraqi, Jordanian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Pakistani, Persian, Syrian and Yemeni student organizations. 

Last year, Paani launched their first culture night at Rackham Graduate School which drew more than 100 attendees not just from the University but also from across metro Detroit, including from schools such as the University of Michigan-Dearborn, Michigan State University and Wayne State University.

LSA sophomore Sukaina Himmati said the organization hoped to make this year’s event even bigger. 

“It was very important for those who initially started it and for us now to uplift the community that we started from,” Himmati said. “We noticed that a lot of our friends were a part of cultural orgs, and all the countries that we represented, all of them suffered from serious sanitation issues that affected the lives of the people back home.”

Comedian Abdallah Jasim emceed the event, entertaining the crowd and helping to bring awareness to Paani’s sanitation efforts. Decked in colored lights and music, the UMMA was filled with people of all backgrounds and interests. From card games to papyrus making, each organization set up a booth where attendees could learn about traditions and activities most meaningful to their organization’s culture.

LSA senior Yara El-Tawil, Egyptian Students Association representative, shared the process of making bookmarks decorated with hieroglyphics. She said this is a part of her culture’s history. 

“Culture night is a night of a unity of a bunch of cultures to come together and showcase something about themselves that they’re really proud of,” El-Tawil said. “It’s a night of appreciation of everyone else.”

Murad Ali, a graduate student at the University of Texas at Dallas, said he traveled to Ann Arbor to attend the event.

“Paani is the reason we’re here,” Ali said. “It’s pretty cool to see the different cultures, different perspectives, and the different dresses. … So it’s cool that they’re putting their name out there by combining all the cultures and introducing themselves to all these cultures and ethnicities.”

Himmati said she believes the event helps attendees contest negative media representation of their countries and cultures. 

“The reason culture night came to be was because modern media usually portrays a lot of the countries that are going to be showcased at this event solely as victims of political warfare,” Himmati said. “We wanted to have a celebration where we could showcase more than that.”

According to Himmati, Paani ultimately hopes to bring together different cultural communities toward positive change. 

“These are all so rich and beautiful, and culture night is supposed to be a celebration of that cultural empowerment, so that all the different orgs on campus can be at a unified front,” Himmati said. “We can not only learn to honor the generations of love and pride from where we come from, but also to take away that victimized narrative and highlight the diversity of all of us.”

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