An Eye Opening Journey

Coming to the United States was not my choice, however, it is not a regret.  It’s been the most challenging experience yet, the most empowering for me as I continue to learn and meet extraordinary people. Thinking back to the first time I arrived here, it felt like I had started from square one. I had to work hard to improve my knowledge of the language, cultures, and different ideas.  We were first brought to Kentucky, where we lived for a year and a half trying to fit in, until my family decided to move to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This small change expanded my view once again. When I arrived in Philadelphia I was amazed at the diversity that it held.  

When I came to America, Arabic was the only language I knew to speak, read, and write. The only words I knew in English were “How are you?” and “good”. English was taught in Syria but it was much different, with different words and pronunciations. I had to go through the difficulty of learning to communicate with my classmates and people around me. Even when I started to understand people talking to 

Doha and her schoolmates working on the making of ‘An Immigrant Alphabet’ while at Northeast High School, April 2017

me, my accent had kept me from speaking much. I would get replies like “can you repeat that?” or “sorry, I didn’t understand what you just said.” This problem continued until my second year in Philadelphia, where I made new friends who came from two different countries. To me, their English was a great motivation for me to improve my language, they began sharing their favorite books with me to help.

In seventh grade, reading had became a hobby of mine; the words I didn’t understand, I would translate. When I started at Northeast High school four years ago, my English was much better, allowing me to be the translator for my family. Whenever my parents went to the doctor or someone would call I would translate to help.  At Northeast  High, I was astonished at the many cultures present, most of which I did not know much about. The ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) community was filled with students trying to assimilate into the new environment.  I started to volunteer to translate for the newly arrived students who spoke Arabic, as I didn’t want them to go through what I did when I first came to the United States.

During my sophomore year I had started to understand the importance of college especially since neither of my parents were able to attend school after their high school. My sister, who is a year older, and I weren’t sure of the college application process although we had lots of help from our counselors and teachers at the school. Pursuing higher education had became a primary goal for me, especially as it was also my parents’ dream. We had left our relatives and close friends for our future and education. I would constantly tell myself to be thankful for my education and to achieve the dream we came here for.

Being an immigrant has been challenging, although it was a big change in my life which made me more responsible, understanding, and open minded. As I became aware of all the diversity at Northeast High School, I didn’t see myself as an outsider. It is a place where people have similar understandings, especially if they shared experiences.  After setting aside my native language, Arabic, to develop a better understanding of the English language I am now enjoying reading books in both languages for improvement.

-Doha Salah, NEHS Alumnus, current freshman at the Community College of Philadelphia

Doha is one of the students who participated in ‘An Immigrant Alphabet’ —  a collaboration between artist Wendy Ewald and eighteen students at Northeast High School that will be on display in the Thomas Paine Plaza from September through December 2017. The students reflected on their journeys and ways of representing their stories through images and words. Expressed as an alphabet of 26 large banners installed around the exterior of the Municipal Services Building, their stories give insight into the complexities of immigration in America.  Click here to learn more about the project!

 

Hug Parties & Birthday Reflections

Hello Al-Bustan Community!


This is Soumya Dhulekar, your Program Coordinator for Al-Bustan Camp 2017.

I just returned from a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains. On my birthday, I decided to hike with my dad and my brother to the top of a mountain called Charlies Bunion. When we got to the top, I stood on a cliff and witnessed one of the most amazing views I have ever seen. You could see all of the mountains before your vision panned into the great, booming, metropolis city of Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, that we all know and love.

While we hung out on the cliff, I climbed over a huge rock that was jutting out from the cliff to get a better view. It took 30 seconds for my dad to yell at me in front of strangers to get down from the rock. I am 25 years old.

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I was, in my mind – understandably, very annoyed. Then I realized that my dad is super afraid of heights and had already pictured me dead from falling off a cliff, even though I was right in front of him. I also realized that my dad is 55, has a messed up knee, and still decided to take the ten-mile hike with me. I remembered how generous that was of him.


This is the kind of generosity I saw with all of the families involved in

Al-Bustan Camp 2017, and I cannot emphasize how happy I was to be a part of this experience. To the parents of these families — you are all raising extremely generous people. Your children weren’t just campers at Al-Bustan, they were artists, dreamers, interpreters, leaders, translators, and storytellers. It is clear that all of you would hike ten miles with your children, even if your knees get weak.

 

I will always remember playing the parkour version of Red Light Green Light, talking about what we want to be when we grow up (a rapper!), my long overdue fan base for my unnoticed basketball *skills, unsolicited updates about Star Wars, sharing sketchbook drawings, the girls of group Awraq who became my crew of assistants for our final celebration, and my all-time favorite conversation from camp:

 

Soumya: “Okay, we’re going to play Red Light Green Light.”

Seraj, Group Funun: Nope, change of plans. Hug party!


You are all so special, and I wish you all of the hug parties you could ever hope for. See you next year!


Love,

Soumya

*I can shoot free throws and dribble a ball one time through my legs.

The Al-Bustan Experience: Camp 2017

I’m Adam. I was the counselor in charge of Group ‘Baladi’ (Arabic for ‘my country’) at Al-Bustan Camp. Despite my height and spattering of facial hair, I was pretty much a camper myself. That’s because everything the children did and learned, I did and learned, too. Shoulder to shoulder, we recited Ustadh Yaseen’s Arabic lessons and songs and banged on the Tabla with Ustadh Hafez. We crafted radial designs and herbal concoctions with Ustadha Lisa, told stories with Momma Sandi, Brother Nashid Ali, and Kala. I have to say there’s no better way to learn than by being ten years older than all the other students in the room.

I’m quite versed in the ways of Al-Bustan, being I was actually a camper myself from a young age, both my own and the program’s. As I greet parents dropping their children off in the morning, I realize that I can’t tell them about all the magic that goes down once camp begins. Much of the experiences I’ve had, that I wanted to tell them their children would have, remain unavailable for articulation. But I know. I’ll try to share some of what I know now.

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I know what it’s like to sit there and loll my oversized head and then all of a sudden, a teacher has directed me back to Earth where there is Arabic before me. Arabic! Yep the language that my parents speak at home. The one that I understand but I’m not confident enough to speak. The one that’s responsible for making unpronounceable the names of all those dishes I love but my American friends have never heard of. The one that gave me my name! Masha’Allah! Yes that one!

Anyway, I know what it’s like in the art room, waiting for Ustadha Lisa to finish her explanation because I’ve already snatched one of the colored pencils from the middle of the table, and this color is mine, and I’m going to make a fish, and I’m so excited, and as soon as it’s time to actually let loose I have no idea what I’m doing because I wasn’t really listening. Yeah. That happens. I always loved art.

I definitely know the drumming circle, the drum that’s too big for my little lap, so it wobbles when I play it. I know how to say “Dum, dum, tik-a-tak, dum, tik-a-tak, tik-a”, and then how to play it, and then how to tell you what that rhythm is called. It’s called baladi. (woah, isn’t that, like, the name of our group?!) I know the impulse to tap, tap, tap that tabla while Ustadh Hafez is talking but I refrain so I don’t miss a beat!

Something we brought back this year is the Dabke. We learned to dance. Sort of. Group Baladi was the absolute unruliest of the three when trying to teach the thing. They just wanted to play ninja. I’m a sucker for ninja. I beat everyone my second time around. But we had to learn it! So together we counted the steps, wahed, ithnan, thalatha, arbaa, khamsa… Or around the circle, holding hands, and we’d go wahed… ithnan… wahed… ithnan…. wahed, ithnan… Funny. We could never get the whole thing down unless the word ninja was mentioned.

Playful learning aside, Al-Bustan reminds me of home, which, Isuppose was the original mission for young Arab-Americans like myself. It’s never just Arab-Americans, however; there are campers with heritages from around the world and some whose histories lie in mystery. Some who shrug their shoulders when asked where they’re from and say, “Ana min Philadelphia!” (‘I am from Philadelphia’) It’s all great. We all get reminded of our homes, the ways in which culture and language express our lineage and livelihoods.
– Adam Bdeir, Temple University Class of 2020

A Journey In How Arabic Language & Arab Culture Shape Perspectives

In my freshman year at Motivation High School, I was exposed to something that would be instrumental in shaping my future and career goals.  I had  the opportunity to study the Arabic language, which is unique and rarely taught in American secondary educational  institutions. As I continued my academic journey,  I had the great privilege of traveling to Morocco in North Africa, where Arabic is one of the primary languages. This experience allowed me to gain better understanding of different cultural traditions and even develop friendships that will last a lifetime. As my passion for  the Arabic language grew, I was able to further my studies at Middlebury Monterey Language Academy, and now at West Chester University.

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Soumya Dhulekar (Programs Coordinator) and Byquill Mosley (Counselor/Intern) working together at Al-Bustan Camp.

Arab culture and the Arabic language have opened an abundance of doors for me and will continue to pry open more doors of opportunity for me in the future. Through my participation in Arab cultural traditions and institutions, I was able to gain a broader perspective on life. The language has also given me a wonderful opportunity to intern this summer for Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, an arts based non-profit organization in West Philadelphia.

Interning for Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture over the years has been an eye opener for me on many levels. I never realized how big of an impact one organization has on an entire cultural community. During my internship I had the opportunity to meet immigrants and refugees from Syria and Iraq, who sought sanctuary in the city of Philadelphia. Just interacting with the families and hearing their stories made me realize that I will be continuing my career as a humanitarian domestically and internationally far into the future. As Al-Bustan continues to be very supportive of immigrants and refugees in the community, I am glad to to be a part of an organization that tries to improve the lives of others  through altruistic deeds.  Al-Bustan’s mission is not just to expose Philadelphia to Arab culture, but to develop better relationships in our city regardless of ethnicities, religion and political affiliation.

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Wrapping up the last day of Al-Bustan Camp with an amazing team of campers, educators and counselors!

One of Al-Bustan’s key contributions to the Philadelphia community focuses on helping people understand Arab  culture through initiating  conversation and through the arts.  That’s huge to me because Arabic language and culture helped me reach certain heights. These heights are reachable for anyone, you just need to be open to experiencing new things. Through this internship program, I was able to see first hand the day-to-day operations in running a successful arts based non-profit organization in a major city. I also  learned certain aspects and the amount of diligence that goes into running a non-profit organization. Thanks to Executive Director, Hazami Sayed, for establishing  Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, as it truly taught me how to use my knowledge of Arabic language to benefit my community.

Byquill Mosley- Intern at  Al-Bustan

West Chester University

Class of 2019

Reflections on (DIS)PLACEMENT – Through The Arts

Weeks of planning from Al-Bustan’s staff led up to the (DIS)PLACED Arts Workshop on June 22nd. The theme of our (DIS)PLACED project is to highlight not only the physical reality of moving or immigration (whether through coercion or choice), but also the mental state or condition of being displaced. Over fifty people participated in the workshop, from a variety of backgrounds and with a great diversity of experience. All different age groups, ethnicities, nationalities, races, and religions were represented; the enormous diversity and plurality of experiences seemed to encourage increased connections and communication between different individuals.

What struck me the most was the fact that in a group with such divided experiences, almost everyone could reflect on and express their own emotions, thoughts, and experiences stemming from displacement. It has become clear to me over the course of this project that displacement is a universal condition of the human experience. My own life experiences have been shaped by displacement: First the displacement of my grandparents from Pakistan to Europe, and then that of my parents and I from Europe to America. Not everyone has experienced the forcible displacement that refugees in the Middle East and around the world are experiencing on a daily basis, however, being able to understand the feelings associated with displacement is a step towards developing the empathy to relate to their stories. This became tangible to me during the workshop.

Syrian installation artist Buthayna Ali had been invited to participate in a workshop with us during the summer months as an artist in residence, but the reality of the travel ban eventually made this impossible. This did not deter Al-Bustan from showcasing Ali’s work, and Ali helped participants engage with difficult themes and topics using her artistic process as a means of expression. She managed to present her work and lead the workshop by videoconference from Damascus against the odds. As I watched her interact with audience members in Philadelphia, a location where she was expressly forbidden from physically being by the current American administration, I felt that this was truly a symbol of artistic vision and exchange overcoming the bigotry and hate that divides our world today.

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My final thoughts as I helped lead workshops and watched as audience members continued to engage with the challenging theme of displacement was the power of varying and diverse kinds of arts as modes of expression. Through music, poetry, and visual art, participants in the workshops were able to unlock and express their own narratives, as well as understand those of their fellow participants, bridging gaps in culture and experience.

Anisa Hasan-Graneir – Summer 2017 Intern, Sociology Major at the University of Pennsylvania, Class of 2020

Tracing Roots of (DIS)PLACEment in Philadelphia

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A commonly seen sign on the front porches of homes in West Philadelphia

The term “melting pot” has itself melted into a vaguely generic notion of people arriving from different places to a location where they all coexist, when the reality is that the term is misleading because, oftentimes, there is an institutional and societal hierarchy still embedded within. Hearing the term applied to the entirety of the United States, unfortunately, still raises eyebrows and doubts to this day. It is no secret that privilege and prejudice remain widespread across the nation and the globe, but it is comforting to know that their existence does not erase the sincere goodness many people have for their fellow human beings. Nonetheless, individuals from different ethnicities, races, faiths and other identities come together and celebrate what they have in common in addition to their unique traits. In settings such as the first (DIS)PLACED Public Forum that took place on March 25, it is evident just how prominent the themes of diversity and displacement are within our community.

The politics of a community greatly influence its inhabitants’ capacity to welcome diversity and inclusivity. Perhaps that is why Philadelphia, a sanctuary city, has a proliferation of neighborhoods with front porches adorned with signs that serve as a reminder of the community’s innate sense of camaraderie.

The Philadelphia community itself encompasses people of diverse backgrounds, which innately strategized the discussions held at the (DIS)PLACED Public Forum. The event began with a simple yet thoughtful activity: Asking attendees to place a yellow sticker on a giant, walkable map of Philadelphia in the Philadelphia History Museum to pinpoint an area where they trace back their arrival to Philadelphia, or their first significant memory there. In no time, the map was marked with yellow dots across different locations in the region that signified pivotal and meaningful locations to many different individuals. What was a mere memory or fact of a person’s arrival to Philadelphia soon became a conversation-starter for the attendees, who genuinely expressed interest in one another’s background regardless of outwardly differences or even mundane similarities to some.

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Huda Fakhreddine and Nazem El Sayed mark meaningful locations to them on a map of Philadelphia

In addition to sharing their own personal stories, attendees participated in thought-provoking dialogues when they were asked to be divided into groups to learn about certain displaced persons whom Al-Bustan has been keeping in touch with for a period of time. Upon learning about these individuals, participants shared personal insight on themes such as what struck them the most about these stories, what issues rise with this new information, and if these real-life stories confirmed or challenged any notions they already held about displacement. Themes such as privilege were critically discussed by participants. After concluding this activity, artists Kinan Abou-afach and Hafez Kotain performed traditional Arabic pieces that blended beautifully into the atmosphere of the event and its theme. They were followed by Nazem El Sayed, who recited powerful Arabic poetry directly related to displacement as Huda Fakhreddine meticulously translated the verses into English.

The final activity involved critical discussions on identity transition, home and belonging. Participants engaged in analytical dialogue, and were soon carrying the formal event discourse into casual conversations as lunch, beverages and dessert were served by local favorite Manakeesh Cafe Bakery and the popular Halal Guys. The genuine interest participants had in each other’s stories had expanded by the end of the event, and manifested itself in the connections and friendships that were forged that day.

 

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One of many signs hung by local businesses and organizations across Philadelphia

Philadelphia is undoubtedly a city where diversity is proudly embraced by its inhabitants, but that does not mean it has reached a utopian status in achieving total and unquestionable egalitarianism yet. Recent political and social events have played a role in bringing people together, forming allyships and facilitating people to look after one another, but issues such as macro- and microagressions have a long way to go before citizens begin a significantly cognizant mission of unlearning these systematic methods of discrimination.

 

Being an ally is a conscientious and methodological task, but it is not by any means too challenging to achieve. In order to become an efficient ally and community member, one must remember that it is a constant state of learning (and unlearning) how to be supportive to those around you. One must also never underestimate their capability to impact positive change within their own community. The (DIS)PLACED Public Forum has met expectations by being a space for critical and eye-opening discussion, and Al-Bustan looks forward to holding more (DIS)PLACED events of the same caliber this year.

Positioning Arab American Identities Within the Nonprofit Sector

This fall season has and continues to offer me valuable experiences. Joining Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture as a NNAAC Transformative Leaders Fellow in early September and learning how matters operate behind-the-scenes of community events and educational sessions that Al-Bustan hosts has truly amplified my appreciation for the nonprofit sector.

An important part of the Transformative Leaders Fellowship involved a recent orientation in Dearborn, Michigan. The orientation was an incredible opportunity to network with inspiring mentors including Mike Corbin, Amer Zahr, Rachid Elabid and Asha Noor – to name a few. Meeting other NNAAC fellows across the States was also a unique opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals, as well as enhance my and their knowledge as to how we can become effective members in our respective organizations and the nonprofit sector as a whole.

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Front entrance design of the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

As we learned new skills to help us navigate through our present and future goals, we were frequently reminded of how important the voices of Arab Americans, along with the voices of other people of color, not to mention Millennials, with an emphasis of how much stronger our social responsibilities are than our predecessor’s given the current state of Arab American issues. We were encouraged to think critically about the roles we play in our communities as individualistic Arab Americans, and how we can bridge socio-political gaps between ourselves and other identity groups around us. In addition to challenging ourselves and thinking outside of the box, we learned more about grant writing and devising work plans that will be of use not only in our respective organizations, but also for accomplishing personal future goals.

Within the span of our two-day orientation, we held meetings at the Arab American National Museum and ACCESS, both locations which are apt environments for the themes we were discussing and learning about. We also had some time to explore Dearborn quite a bit, which truly felt akin to familiar cities I have been to when I lived in the Arabian Gulf region. The proliferation of Arab restaurants, halal options and shisha lounges did make Dearborn stand out to me next to other cities I have been to in the States.

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NNAAC Transformative Leaders Fellows 2016-2017

Having gained a new set of skills and an expanded perspective of how grand the nonprofit sector is, I feel incredibly fortunate to have been accepted into this fellowship and the chance to work alongside Al-Bustan, whose work I had been impressed with the minute I learned about them earlier this year. I have always been an advocate of identity inclusivity and intercultural exchange, but I find myself reiterating that now, more than ever, the need for comprehensive compassion and deference can make a world of difference in creating and sustaining a safer America that encompasses diversity the way it was always meant to.

— Bushra Alfaraj, Transformative Leaders Fellow