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.

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