One of the most disappointing moments for Arab-Americans at UCLA occurred when I asked a room of 15 UCLA Arab and Arab-interest students about going to Harvard Arab Weekend, or HAW – the largest pan-Arab conference in the Western Hemisphere, as a UCLA delegation (with airfare and other fees almost fully covered). I received four enthusiastic yeses and 11 indifferent stares. I was shocked. The apathy across that room had rendered me speechless. Unfortunately, such incidents have been the norm among too many Arab-American UCLA students, and such apathetic attitudes have led to further Arab-American isolation on campus and the demise in the unity of our actions on local and national platforms.
Following such a surreal meeting, and despite the lack of enthusiasm, I proceeded to search for funding sources. Thankfully, UCLA has historically endorsed principles that encourage student participation in and awareness of impactful settings like HAW. In particular, the Undergraduate Students Association Council External Vice President’s office welcomed my proposal for sending a delegation to HAW and thus effectively became an ally in the endeavor to augment Arab-American UCLA student advocacy. With immense help from the EVP office, the UCLA delegation listed goals, Arab-American UCLA student concerns and platform suggestions to be projected at a conference with more than 1,300 student attendees. Attendees also included heads of states from across the Atlantic Ocean and U.S. government officials from multiple federal departments. We were all set. For the first time in UCLA’s history, a diverse Arab-interest delegation – in conjunction with the EVP office’s advocacy – was sent to HAW.
HAW touched upon almost every important topic imaginable, from the Syrian refugee crisis, engineering and reconstruction principles for post-conflict states and Arab-Iranian relations to Arab-American civic engagement platforms, hate crime against Arab-Americans and Arab-American voter participation (California has the lowest voter participation in the country, despite the current political climate on Arabs in general). UCLA’s delegates left the conference with more hope in their abilities, work and aspirations as Arab-Americans/Arab-interest individuals. As the only Los Angeles-based delegation, we learned a lot from other student delegations and Arab-American personalities, and we garnered much attention for our new views, insights and for simply being from L.A. This was the deal-breaker; if you’re getting attention simply for being from somewhere else in the United States, then it means that we UCLA Arab-Americans and UCLA students in general have not stayed in adequate touch with other Arab-American communities.
Here’s how poor of a job UCLA Arab-Americans are doing in terms of American national engagement. California has the largest Arab-American population in the country; however, the high numbers in California have not reflected high activity. Californian Arab-American students are less engaged with their greater communities relative to their counterparts in Michigan (look up Dearborn, enough said), New Jersey (Paterson is on its way to one-third of its population being Arab-American voters), New York (home to outspoken Arab-American student entities) and Ohio (its student delegations frequently travel across the Midwest for Arab-American symposiums). At HAW, student delegations from across the country (University of Illinois, University of Florida, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cornell University, etc.) had attended the same conference for years. Where was UCLA when much of the nation’s students were getting together during such important times? Where has UCLA’s student voice been?
One of the six delegation members – Ahmed Hassan, a fifth-year electrical engineering student – had this to say following the conference: “Few things are as detrimental to the unity and collective success of a minority as the growth of its apathy and disconnect with community resources, professional network and sociopolitical issues at home and abroad. This is exactly what HAW very successfully combats. HAW reminded me of the strength of the Arab community in the U.S. and rekindled my interest in many issues that affect Arabs in the U.S. and the Middle East. In the future, I see HAW as a very important outlet for every Arab and Arab-interest Bruin looking to broaden their network and develop their cultural and political interests.”
We, as UCLA students, need more representation and less apathy at Arab-interest national forums in order to project our voices and advocate for better treatment of our respective communities. UCLA Arab-Americans need to be more civically engaged in order to increase our say during a time when we are being scrutinized. UCLA Arab-Americans need to fight apathy so that we don’t get subjected to discrimination, neglect and irresponsibility from our own elected officials any further (take a look at some of our country’s governors). UCLA Arab-Americans need to defeat apathy so that we can be an asset not only to our American community, but also our troubled societies across the oceans. What better people to have a say in such domestic and foreign policies regarding Arab affairs than UCLA Arab-Americans?
Basrawi is a fourth-year engineering geology student.