- Max Herman
- Arab American Family Services cofounders Nareman Taha and Itedal Shalabi in their office in suburban Worth.
On a hot Saturday in August, the parking lot of the Middle Eastern Immigrant and Refugee Alliance in West Ridge is filled with the sound of festivities. Kids jump in a bouncy house, Arabic pop music blares on the speakers, and a group of aunties chat as they watch over their charges. The organization, formerly known as the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society, hosts this yearly event as a way to connect the families they serve with the rest of the immigrant community.
Children gather round a foldable plastic table with a tawula set, playing a Turkish version of backgammon popular throughout the Middle East. Among them is Asal Alshammari, 11, who lives in West Ridge with her grandparents and sister. She immigrated to America with the rest of her Iraqi family after living in Dubai for nine years. Since moving to Chicago, Alshammari has been puzzled by the way Americans categorize race. "I identify myself as Middle Eastern, but [on school forms] it says I'm white, and that's kind of confusing," she says.
Sometimes she'll even whip out her smartphone to show other kids at school exactly where Iraq is located: western Asia. "If someone says, 'Oh, you're white,' I tell them 'No, I'm Asian.' But they're always like, 'What? You don't seem Asian,' because I have blue eyes from my grandpa," she says. Alshammari wishes there were a box that was a better fit for people from countries like Iraq, Syria, and Libya, and she's not alone.
As the 2020 U.S. Census approaches, local groups are working to ensure there's an accurate count of their communities. But the census has never included any racial or ethnic category for Middle Eastern or North African communities. That, along with the current climate of fear surrounding immigration status, is a big challenge for folks hoping a full census count can help the community build political representation and gain access to crucial social services.
More than 20 years ago, when the federal government made major changes to the way race and ethnicity are reported on official forms, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget recommended additional testing on a category that would be called Middle Eastern North African, or MENA. Without a MENA option on the form, people from this region usually chose the white category, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2015 Race and Ethnicity Analysis.
- Max Herman
- Ekram Hanna of the Iraqi Mutual Aid Society
In a 2015 community forum held by census officials to discuss the MENA category, participants indicated that "MENA responses should not be classified as White. They thought classifying this group as White makes them invisible in the data, even though they face discrimination in many aspects of society."
With the support of advocacy groups like the Arab American Institute, the census bureau began testing a potential MENA category addition in 2015, and in 2017 released preliminary results that stated, "The use of a distinct Middle Eastern or North African category appears to elicit higher quality data for people who would identify with MENA."
Despite all this, the bureau announced in 2018 that a MENA category would not be included in the 2020 census, claiming that "more research and testing is needed" since some in the MENA community felt that the designation should be treated as an ethnicity rather than a race.
"Some of us identify as white, some as Brown, some as Black," says Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute. "We don't necessarily need a category that reduces us to one race, but we do need visibility, inclusion, and to be seen as a group of Americans with needs and not just the focus of counterterrorism programs or political bigotry."
With the decision made, local groups serving MENA residents in the Chicago region are now focused on ensuring that their community participates, period.
An accurate count is essential, they say, since census numbers determine the allocation of funding for services like cultural diversity training for institutions that interact with the community. Though federal funding formulas are complex, a George Washington University study in 2018 estimated that for every Illinois resident not counted, the state would lose $840 in Medicaid funding.
- Max Herman
- Fouzia Othman works with a client at the Arab American Family Services office. Case managers help community members with translating mail, applying for WIC and SNAP benefits, immigration paperwork, and other needs.
In Cook County, where an estimated 100,000 residents are of Middle Eastern, North African, or Southwest Asian descent according to a Los Angeles Times analysis, outreach efforts are beginning. It won't be easy, says Imelda Salazar, an organizer for the Southwest Organizing Project, noting that many MENA residents are descended from immigrants or are immigrants themselves. Salazar says outreach to immigrants in general is difficult given the Trump administration's policies, including increased restrictions on who can seek asylum and the executive order restricting entry of foreign nationals from some Muslim-majority countries.
"We give a lot of know-your-rights trainings and we tell people, Do not open the door [for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents]," she says, which makes it hard to allay their anxiety about opening the door for census workers. To try to dissipate these fears, SWOP precedes many of its workshops with a conversation about current deportation and detention issues and then talks about the legally mandated confidentiality of U.S. Census data. Salazar emphasizes that "fear won't take us anywhere" and that if "we really want to build power, we need to be counted."
Distrust of the federal government is particularly salient in the sizable Arab American community of Bridgeview, a southwest suburb. In the 2018 documentary The Feeling of Being Watched, Bridgeview native Assia Boundaoui uncovered evidence that Muslim residents were under FBI surveillance as far back as 1985 as part of a counterintelligence effort known as Operation Vulgar Betrayal.
With Trump administration policies like the public charge rule and the Muslim ban, some people have become wary even of receiving public benefits, according to Nareman Taha, cofounder of Arab American Family Services, a nonprofit social service agency in the southwest suburbs. They're afraid the government is collecting their personal information through the institutions that dole out benefits.
"Clients would come and say, 'Close my file. I don't want anything from the government. I don't want food stamps. I don't want medical cards,'" she says. "And these are people who are working poor, they're eligible. . . . Imagine that detriment and the impact that had on families."
- Max Herman
- Samir Alomar at the Festival on Devon in September. Alomar, who performs classical Arabic music and is originally from Syria, came to Chicago’s West Ridge community two years ago after spending four years in a refugee camp in Turkey with his family.
To counteract that fear, groups like AAFS are relying on the relationships and trust built over years working within communities.
AAFS founded the Arab American Complete Count Committee, which meets at their office, and they are local members of the national Yalla Count Me In campaign—both are aimed at increasing census participation. AAFS is asking people to mark the "other" box on the form and write in "Arab" or their country of origin, in the hopes that when the Census Bureau reevaluates the MENA category there will be evidence to support its inclusion. Other groups, like the Arab American Action Network, say they have not yet decided what to recommend; they're planning more conversations with community and national partners before making a decision.
Though race and ethnicity data in the census are rarely tied directly to federal funding, local organizations say that if the data were available, it could help them raise money from other sources and draw publicity for their work.
When Hatem Abudayyeh of the Arab American Action Network raises funds for the group's work to protect youth against discrimination in schools, he says government representatives and donors will ask questions like, "What are the academic levels? How do they do in school? What are their literacy rates?"
"We were in a coalition with Black and Latino organizations, and they all had these stats about how Black and Latino kids were being suspended and expelled from school at much higher rates than whites for the same alleged activities," he explains. "And we didn't have any numbers for the Arab kids, even though anecdotally we knew that those things were happening to Arabs as well."
Taha, at AAFS, says most of their funds come from state government, corporations, foundations, and private donors. The group has been encouraging local universities and other nonprofits to collect data using the MENA category to help them make the case for the services they provide, like domestic violence prevention and immigration legal consultation. One funder, the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority, did just that, adding a MENA category to collect better health data statewide.
Some organizations rely on their own surveys or draw noncensus data from sources like Chicago Public Schools. CPS conducts an annual survey asking what languages are spoken in students' homes, and Arabic was the third-most common non-English language in 2019, preceded only by Spanish and Cantonese, according to data City Bureau received through a public records request.
- Max Herman
- Laura Youngberg says the census category gets at “the bigger issue of, how does a community define itself and how the families define themselves.”
Laura Youngberg, the executive director of the Middle Eastern Immigrant and Refugee Alliance, says her group was able to use CPS data to advocate for federal and state grants that support its youth and family services. "It's a battle of like going back to the state and saying, your data is wrong," she says. "This is the correct data [from the school district]. This is why we deserve to have funding."
The census category gets at "the bigger issue of, how does a community define itself and how the families define themselves," Youngberg says. Better data around MENA communities could improve language access for Arabic-speaking people, increase visibility and political representation, and contribute to a larger sense of belonging.
Beyond the census, Taha wants to push for the MENA category at the state level, asking newly elected governor J.B. Pritzker, "How would you recognize the Arab American community? I mean, you came to us when you needed our votes." Now, more than ever, her community needs to be counted. v
Sarah Conway contributed reporting.
This report was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Woodlawn. Learn more and get involved at citybureau.org.