Growing up Arab American in Genesee County, Devin Bathish often heard racist comments, but some were especially rude.
“They’d ask, ‘Are you a terrorist?’ or they would call you a terrorist,” he remembers.
Whenever spoken the comments were offensive, but in the wake of the September 2001 attacks that shook the country, statements made out of fear and ignorance became almost commonplace, he says.
Today Bathish is better positioned to work toward eliminating stereotypes than when he was a child in Flint. As executive director of the Arab American Heritage Council (AAHC) he wants to help the community gain understanding of the contributions Arab American citizens make locally and nationwide.
“It’s mixed,” he says of Flint’s receptiveness to his culture. “There are many, many people who are willing to learn, particularly through food. Many people love our food and I think that’s a great thing.”
But there are also harmful misperceptions that remain, says Bathish. At 24, he still recognizes negative behaviors he encountered from non-Arab Americans as a child.
“Even today I have a lot of little cousins who get some of the same questions I got,” he says.
There are some inquiries Bathish treats as ignorance about the Arab world rather than malicious attacks on identity.
Do Arab Americans live in huts?
Do they have running water?
Much of the blame, he says, belongs on contemporary media portrayals of his culture as violent and primitive.
There’s also confusion about diversity among Arab Americans, he says. For example, not all Muslims are of Arab descent and not all people of Arab descent are Muslim. Bathish’s parents are Palestinian immigrants from Nazareth, the city where Christ lived.
“Most people don’t understand that Nazareth is an Arab-Palestinian city,” he says.
Bathish attended Catholic schools before graduating from University of Michigan last year. His academic focus on political science and international studies, emphasizing the Middle East, prepared him for the executive director’s position, representing general interests of about 16,000 Arab Americans in Genesee County.
Bathish sees his role as an extension of the Arab American Heritage Council founders’ goals. “The brainchild” of four immigrants from Palestine, Lebanon and Syria, the organization was formed in 1980 with the goals to both preserve their culture and share it with others.
“From that start we’ve come a long way in 40 years,” Bathish says.
Along with programming and other efforts that combat stereotypes, the Council offers English classes, citizenship courses and related support to immigrants. The organization has served 300 clients who were seeking various forms of assistance in naturalization since 2013.
It has also awarded $40,000 in scholarships to Arab American students since 1996 and hosted 14 Arab American Service Day events since 2004. As part of the national service day, Arab Americans choose a community agency or program and volunteer to assist it.
To further community outreach, this past January the Council hosted an education event for the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Flint to share the basic aspects of Arab culture including language, fashion, and dance. The children modeled traditional Palestinian clothing and learned the dabka, a traditional Arab line dance.
The AAHC also has partnered with students from the University of Michigan – Flint to interview local Arab-Americans about their experiences since 9/11.
Other community outreach events include:
- Arab Film Festival
- Arabic musical performances
- Trips to Dearborn and the Arab American National Museum
- Cultural diversity/Competency workshops
- Arab Dabka performances
The Council’s annual gala attracts 200 to 400 people, and its golf outing fundraiser is scheduled for July 14. AAHC’s community picnic, which is open to the public, will be on Aug. 5.
Challenges for Bathish and the organization include finding the best way to assert their identity as Americans. He says many elders the Council seeks to support have faced intense discrimination, but few openly challenged it, viewing the hostility as a price of entry for coming to America.
“It’s like the immigrant tax,” he says.
But Arab Americans in Bathish’s generation are eager to challenge the status quo, while maintaining cultural pride, he says.
Another identity goal is gaining recognition through the U.S. Census Bureau.
“It’s a little difficult because we don’t have a box on the census,” says the executive director. “We haven’t had a box since 1944.”
Black, Hispanic and other citizens of color are listed in census form categories, but Arab Americans have largely been left to identify as white. Lack of federally documented population can adversely impact funding and resources designated to support Arab American households, so it’s vital to record their presence, adds Bathish.
“That’s like a bare, bare, bare minimum for us to function in the United States,” he says.
He says positive role models and high-profile figures, like Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, credited with exposing Flint’s lead crisis, help illustrate the daily contributions made by Arab Americans. But many business owners, lawyers and other professionals in the culture are overlooked.
Increasing dialogue about acceptance and inclusion of others is key.
“Having the conversation is the biggest thing,” Bathish adds. “Maybe admitting that we’ve got some work to do.”
“There are so many people in this community who make the community run, and people don’t realize they’re Arab American. A lot of people want to make sure their culture is being preserved, in addition to being a part of the American narrative.”
Photos courtesy of the Arab American Heritage Council