In February 2015, three Middle Eastern students from the University of North Carolina were horrifically murdered in an act of hate. The incident spurred discussion at college campuses throughout the United States.
At the UW, the ensuing discussion focused on improving resources available to Middle Eastern students.
Over the past year, a group of 12 students has been working as a part of a task force to outline a plan for establishing a Middle Eastern Student Commission (MESC). On March 17, the ASUW board of directors passed a Board Bill to establish the MESC.
“A Middle Eastern Commission is something that has been brought up at least once a year for the past decade,” said Mitchell Chen, ASUW director of diversity efforts and chair of the MESC task force. “Middle Eastern students face obstacles to access important resources on campus.”
Chen said through research for the commission, he discovered the UW was behind many other schools who had already established similar groups.
“The UW has not done a great job for access,” Chen said. “The community has been rendered invisible because they have no institutionalized space.”
Chen explained Middle Eastern students face a unique set of issues because, unlike other minority groups, they have been lumped into the White/Caucasian category. This has prevented them from accessing important resources.
Reem Sabha, a member of the task force, said that without a formal voice, Middle Eastern students are less likely to bring concerns to an entity capable of tackling them.
“There are hurtful and hateful things that happen,” Sabha said. “We need to combat that hate and bridge the gap.”
The task force identified several opportunities for the UW to improve resources for Middle Eastern students, including starting discussions with the Ethnic Cultural Center about Middle Eastern student representation, providing more Halal and Kosher options on campus, and starting a dialogue with the Seattle and UW police departments about slow response rates to harassment and vandalization of the Islamic House.
The task force also worked to identify the MESC’s potential constituents. Since “Middle Eastern” is such a broad term, it decided to define the region as beginning in North Africa and continuing into inner Asia.
Varisha Khan,a member of the task force, explained how both geographic terminology and political terms were used to identify the region.
“There are many differences between populations,” Khan said. “However, they all face similar issues and the average American often lumps them into a singular identity.”
Khan has seen that for many Americans, the Middle East has become synonymous with the word “conflict.” She said there is a singular view of the community and that many picture someone who is Middle Eastern as an Arab Muslim, ignoring the diversity of the region.
This is what fuels a lot of the misunderstanding and causes violence toward all those who identify as Middle Eastern, Khan said. Anti-Muslim bigotry affects Middle Easterners and even South Asians who are not even Muslim, like Sikh men who wear turbans as a religious practice.
In the weeks following the November Paris Attacks, the Council on American-Islamic Relations said it received more reports of acts of discrimination targeting American Muslims, or those perceived to be Muslim, and Islamic institutions than during any other limited period of time since the 9/11 terror attacks.
Khan explained it is not just anti-Muslim bigotry that contributes to acts of discrimination, but Anti-Semitism, xenophobia, and racism too.
Sabha identified one of the most important issues facing Middle Eastern students on campus as the prevalence of microaggressions and stereotypes.
“The first step to reverse this is to foster a cohesive community,” Sabha said.
Chen said the MESC hopes to combat ignorance in a variety of ways. The commission requested a programming budget of $8,000, a majority of which would go toward a Middle Eastern Cultural Fair. In addition, Chen hopes uniting Middle Eastern Registered Student Organizations already in existence on campus will open the door for more collaborative programming and discussions.
“We’re hoping to create change in the minds of students, faculty, and others,” Khan said. “We want to change the narrative surrounding the Middle Eastern identity.”
Reach reporter Susana Machado at email@example.com. Twitter: @smacha1995