One Religion, Many Cultures

Being a graduate of the 169th class at Northeast High School, I was excited when Al-Bustan decided to start a Muslim Girls Club there this school year in December. As a Muslim girl raised in the United States, I know many of the challenges these girls face trying to balance both worlds—personal aspirations and traditional expectations. With the start of the club, I wanted to create a safe space for them to open up and express themselves, have mentors, and feel empowered in who they are.

We had approximately ten sessions thus far and in these sessions we typically have 25-30 girls in attendance. During our first few sessions our goal was to build trust to develop a safe space where these girls could tell their stories and experiences. We mainly asked questions and had discussions around them as a group. At first, I would ask the girls to write down their response and they had the option to share with the rest of the group. We asked and discussed personal questions about their experiences, idenNEHS-girls-1.jpgtity, and what it means to be Muslim within their family, community, and outside world. We also created dialogue about Muslim women in and out of their community. When we collected their responses, all the girls would have something written down but not all girls shared out loud. But as we continued meeting and became more familiar with each other the girls began to share more and found out how they relate to and also distinguish themselves from one another.

Once I got back to the office, I would type up all their responses and when we met the week after, I would give them back – providing a way for them to reflect. From these questions and their responses, we started thinking of ways for them to express themselves and share in an artistic form, discussing different ways such as plays, videography, and self-portraits/photography. We brought in different arts books for the girls to get ideas from. The books of photographer Wendy Ewald, as well as Ghassan Kanafani Cultural Foundation (GKCF)’s “Like Roses in the Wind” inspired us.


We asked the girls to think of an object, body part, or anything else that we could photograph and then they would describe the photo through writing and drawing. For example, one of the girls wanted us to take a photo of her gold bracelet that she received from her grandmother in Syria. She wrote about how she never takes it off because it reminds her of her homeland, loved ones, and her journey as a refugee. Others wrote about their new life in the United States, their homelands, and how they feel living in America with everything happening in the media now.

During our session last week, we started working on a world map that we made 77×40 to display their work on. The girls decided to color in the 10 different countries they are from and bring in photos to represent the different countries and cultures. We also planned on using mosaic pieces to show their migration patterns. Meanwhile, another group of girls thought of different ways they can present this within the school other than physically displaying, such as a presentation to teachers or making a zine.

Girls working.JPG

The last few sessions at Northeast High School’s Muslim Girls Club have been especially thought-provoking, productive, and inspiring because even though we are all different, we have found a way to come together and see how much we are actually alike. It’s great seeing the girls come such a long way from our first session, where they were shy, hesitant, and not as comfortable speaking.  Now, they are full of energy, ideas, and are excited to share their stories and display their work for others. These young Muslim girls living in Philadelphia want to be heard, their feelings and concerns acknowledged, and that’s what I hope this Muslim Club will do for them.

Eman Haj, Program Coordinator




Returning to the Classroom in the Garden

When I finished my graduate studies at Penn, I started looking for opportunities in education since I wanted to be back in the classroom as soon as possible. Luckily for me, I learned about a fellowship opportunity at Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture though a professor at Penn GSE and I decided to apply because I could put in practice what I learned in graduate school.

Beginning Drumming

Photo by Emily Ganser

After being interviewed by the program director, I was offered a fellowship position and I immediately got involved in one of their projects: the Arab Arts After-School Program. The After-School Program is implemented at the John Moffet School, an elementary school in North Philadelphia, where students learn about the Arab world through music, songs and arts.

The program is composed of a program coordinator, three teaching artists, and two teaching assistants. All of them work really hard at the Arab Arts After-School Program and this is reflected in students’ artistic development. As a behavioral assessment fellow, I work across the different classes of the After-School Program.

When I joined the program, I had a conversation with Max, our program coordinator, to talk about the tasks that I would like to conduct as a fellow. One of my ideas is mini-workshops for students about essential topics for their educational development, such as discussing stereotypes. I think it’s an important topic since many of the kids are first generation students and the school is located in a multicultural neighborhood.

Art 3

Photo by Emily Ganser

Moreover, I expressed my desire of conducting a qualitative research study about how the program has a positive impact on students’ behavior. For this reason, I started making observations since day one. As part of this task, I also plan to conduct interviews with teachers, students and their parents. However, I might leave this part as one of the final procedures since I don’t want the students to see me as an outsider.

Three months have passed since I joined Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture. Now, the students already recognize me as an active member of the After-School Program and I feel I can continue with my tasks.

During the first two weeks, the students were a little bit distant with me but after the Moffet Art Show and Musical Demonstration, everything has changed. I have to say – nothing worth doing comes easy.


– Edgar Felix, Moffet Arab Arts Behavorial Assessment Fellow