Culturally-competent multi-service agency assisting NYC's Middle Eastern and South Asian communities
Place Matters Profile
Founded in 1994, the Arab American Family Support Center (AAFSC) empowers new immigrants to become active participants in their communities and to successfully acclimate to life in the United States. With a fifty-member staff speaking over twelve languages, the Center specializes in providing culturally and linguistically competent, trauma-informed, social services for Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian (AMEMSA) immigrant communities across the five boroughs.
AAFSC operates six main programs out of six sites located around the city. Legal services related to immigration, citizenship, green card and visa applications, are provided through their Court Street headquarters in Downtown Brooklyn and new offices in Long Island City. Offered in collaboration with the Family Justice Centers in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island -- public-private partnerships established with the Mayor’s office to combat domestic violence and sexual abuse -- AAFSC’s Anti-Violence Program prodives crisis intervention, counseling, empowerment and support groups, court accompaniments, and community outreach, while their Preventative Program assists families in improving relations, problem solving skills, and coping mechanisms.
In 2009, AAFSC adopted the settlement house model and officially registered with United Neighborhood Houses (UNH), a 90-year old membership organization for settlement houses and community centers in New York City. “We’re very proud to be part of that tradition!” says Deputy Executive Director Ambreen Qureshi. “In the settlement house model, staff members are embedded in the communities they serve. Our staff invariably come from these communities, so they understand the languages, cultures, the historical contexts -- all of the nuances in order to work respectfully and effectively.” Indeed, AAFSC’s staff hail from across the globe and speak Arabic, Bengali, English, Farsi, French, Hindi, Urdu, Punjabi, Tibetan, Nepali, and Spanish, as well as other languages and dialects.
In addition to professional development support, UNH membership provides AAFSC with a seat at the advocacy table. As a member, the Center’s leadership is able to meet with elected officials at the city and state level to lobby for issues, funding, and policies that help AMEMSA communities. In 2015, AAFCS drafted statements against anti-Muslim advertisements placed on subways and buses. Other UNH members signed on, and joined AAFSC in meetings with the Mayor’s Community Affairs Unit. “It was much stronger as a collective. We all went together, representing leaders in the social services sector, with a 130-year tradition of helping immigrants to acclimate to life in New York City.”Shortly thereafter, the ads were removed.
From their Brooklyn headquarters, AAFSC also runs various adult literacy and education programs to help clients improve English-language skills. The Center offers multiple levels of English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, both in co-ed and gender segregated formats, as well as BENL – Basic English in the Native Language -- for clients who are illiterate in both Arabic and English. Students in these classes learn to read adn write both languages at the same time. The Center’s successful Civics ESL course prepares clients for the U.S. Citizenship Exam by teaching English through relevant topics including American history, the political system, and the Civil Rights movement. The Center boasts a 100-percent passage rate of clients who take the citizenship exam after completing this course. “The exam is quite a big ordeal, and it can be rather intimidating for our clients because they’re just struggling to learn the English language,” says Qureshi. “I know because I naturalized just a few months ago so that I could vote in the 2016 election. I’m a fluent English speaker, but it was still intimidating. So I really appreciate what it means. When clients pass, they will often cook up a feast or pass around chocolates, so it’s a big deal for them, and very joyous moment for all of us. ”
AAFSC serves as the founding agency and lead community partner for the Khalil Gibran International Academy, an International Baccalaureate (IB) public high school focusing on Arabic language and culture, located in the same neighborhood as AAFSC's Downtown Brooklyn office headquarters. The Center also partners with Packer Collegiate Institute, a private school in Brooklyn Heights, on a reading buddy program that pairs Packer’s 4th graders with the Center’s adult learners. The Packer students have “adopted” the program, and since 2014, they have donated all raffle and sales proceeds from the school’s annual international festival to the agency. “This is about building bridges, about being neighbors together, so very much a part of the settlement house tradition,” Qureshi notes. “It’s really magical and heartwarming to see the two groups interact. Often this is the first time that the young students will have interacted with someone from Yemen, Bangladesh, or Sudan. And our clients love it because they’re engaging with young people. The students make about $5,000 each year, so they’re actually one of our major donors!”
Brooklyn’s (no less New York’s) Arab American community is incredibly diverse and has deep roots in New York. In the early 20th century, one of the city’s first Arab-American neighborhoods, known as "Little Syria," grew up in Manhattan’s Lower West Side neighborhood. From the late nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century, the area west of Broadway, and extending north from Battery Place roughly to Chambers Street, was home to New York City’s largest Arabic-speaking settlements as well as a large concentration of Central and Eastern European settlers. As the community’s main street, Washington was lined with commercial concerns including import-exporters, restaurants, clothing stores, lingerie shops, and grocery stores like A. Sahadi and Company, founded by Lebanese immigrant Abrahim Sahadi, which opened in 1895. Syrian World, the first English-language Syrian American journal, and the Pen League, an experimental and influential literary group, were also headquartered in the Lower West Side. Lebanese-born author and activist Ameen Rihani lived on Washington Street and featured his surroundings in his powerful 1911 publication, The Book of Khalid. The construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel and the World Trade Center successively displaced the community, which joined a smaller colony in South Ferry in Brooklyn, comprising today’s Brooklyn Heights and Cobble Hill. Sahadi’s moved to Atlantic Avenue in 1948; many Middle Eastern and Arab-American-owned businesses followed and are still in the environs. AAFSC's Downtown Brooklyn headquarters is just a block away from the historic Atlantic Avenue, which, to this day, is lined with shops, restaurants, and travel agencies bearing signs in both English and Arabic.
Although New York’s Arab and Middle Eastern Americans established a base in Downtown Brooklyn decades ago, the area has gentrified since the mid-twentieth century, prompting large portions of the Brooklyn-based community to shift to Bay Ridge, where Moroccans and Palestinians, Yemenis, as well as Egyptians, are regularly joined by other newcomers from Middle Eastern and South Asian countries. However, despite Downtown Brooklyn’s rising cost, AAFSC staff attest to the significant number of AMEMSA families, particularly those recently arrived from Yemen, who still call the area home. These families commonly live in small, one to two-bedroom rent-stabilized apartments with up to six or eight children, and often with extended family. Although they live in what is considered a prime area, they do so under very difficult circumstances. In the nooks and crannies between Atlantic Avenue’s Barney’s and American Apparel, there are real pockets of poverty.
In addition to cramped living quarters, the Center’s clients face a number of complicated, compound issues. They have trauma resulting from turmoil in their homelands, the flight of migration and resettlement, low incomes, language barriers, and being marginalized and discriminated against in the United States, where, as after 9/11, they are again subject to publicly sanctioned hateful rhetoric, this time from the president-elect. Indeed, in November 2016, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that hate crimes against Muslim Americans, and those perceived as such, increased by over 67% from 2014 to 2015, reaching levels not seen since the aftermath of September 11th.
The Center works hard to both counter animosity toward the city’s greater AMEMSA populace, and to honor these communities’ heterogeneity. “Generally, in the United States, about sixty to seventy percent of the Arab population is actually Christian. That represents much of the old wave of immigration, who largely hail from the Levant,”Qureshi says. The new wave -- some Christian and many Muslim -- have overlapping identities, but different origins and traditions, both from the older communities and from each other.
AAFSC has conducted research and advocacy around identity, particularly with regard to the U.S. Census, wherein all Arabs are classified as Caucasians. As a result, there is a dearth of detailed data available about the communities served by the Center, which, in turn, yields problems of research and citing evidence to better elucidate and support AAFSC’s culturally-specific work and impact. From the communities’ part, some prefer the existing categories, while others would like to see change toward more varied representation. However, President Donald Trump's promise to create a Muslim registry and/or ban all Muslim visitors from entering the United States has she new light on the perils of data collection.
To confront the potentially discriminatory policies of the incoming administration, the Center plans to continue its advocacy on behalf of the community. In 2016, AAFSC saw a number of accomplishments in their community advocacy: the City Council passed a legislation package that increased the ability of LGBTQ and other minorities (including Asian Americans and Arab Americans) to self-identify on City Agency forms, one of AAFSC's youth program students testified to City Council at a hearing on bullying and harassment in schools about his experience being called a "terrorist" by a school bully, and the City released new voted registration forms translated into Arabic. AAFSC is a member of over fifteen local, state, and nation-wide coalitions, including the Coalition for Asian American Children and Families (CACF) and New York Immigration Coalition, which allows AAFSC to amplify their message and build partnerships across immigrant populations.
In 2014, AAFSC became a trauma-informed agency, meaning that all of the Center’s staff -- from front desk staff to program managers to executives – have been trained in trauma-sensitive approaches to client engagement. “We see a lot of trauma, and we’ve learned in our training that the arts really helpful in calming clients down, and helping them move beyond that distress state,” Qureshi explains. “Psychiatrist Dr. Bruce Perry says that patterned, repetitive, rhythmic somatosensory activities help, like dancing, drumming, and singing. Such is traditional folk art, which forms one very therapeutic aspect of our program and approach.”
Indeed, the AAFSC’s Youth Program offers healing Traditional Arts workshops in addition to other enrichment programming, filmmaking, leadership training, as well as homework help, subject tutoring, Regents Exam preparation, and ESL tutoring. Held on Saturdays at the Center’s Court Street headquarters, and attended mainly by high school-age women, the Traditional Arts program invites teaching artists from the AMEMSA communities, or those who are experts in the regions' arts and cultural traditions, to give lessons in dance, written arts, literary arts, and folk arts like henna, calligraphy, and belly dancing. “We want to make sure these cultural traditions are not lost,” Qureshi notes. “There’s Ramzi Edlibi, he’s really a renowned teacher of dabke (an Arabic folk dance), an elder from the community, and an expert. He’s passing this on to the next generation.” In tandem with conversations about tradition, identity, Orientalism, and cultural appropriation, the Center’s arts enrichment program helps students improve self-esteem, pride, and appreciation of their own heritages in the face of discrimination directed at their cultural backgrounds.
Beyond simply learning traditional art forms from North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia, students are asked to bring their own, contemporary interpretations on their practice. “The result is a really rich diasporic perspective,” says Development and Communications Associate, Jordan Greenberg. “It’s empowering for them to build a positive connection to their cultures, especially for these children of immigrants, who are straddling two worlds, where the world of their home is so different from the world of their school. We see this as a bridge space for them to express their unique identities through art, which is healing for them individually and as a group.” Additionally, the youth program offers ample opportunities for volunteering, with high school students often helping younger children through tutoring and mentorships.
The Youth Program at AAFSC has long integrated traditional Arab folk dance, including dabke, and the Center has invited various instructors to teach different styles over the years. Youth at AAFSC have enjoyed lessons in dance, hand drumming with the tabla or darbuka, and, vocal styling. In 2016, the Center scaled up their artss focus and expanded the program to include workshops in a wide spectrum of art forms. In a recent meeting, students focused on songwriting. Officially there was no prescribed song form, but the teacher asked the students to work with a four-count, which is common in Middle Eastern music. Over the course of two hours, most of which was taught in Arabic, the girls created a group song.
AAFSC’s arts programs provide a space free from expectations -- parental, cultural, or otherwise. “It’s really empowering to see the girls let loose,” says Esraa Saleh, Youth Program Assistant Coordinator, and director of the burgeoning AYWA initiative, an acronym for Audacious Young Women of Action (AYWA!). Aywa!, meaning “yes!" in Arabic, facilitates a variety of activities throughout the year focused on female leaderships, self-expression, and empowerment, including a podcast, which is currently in development. “Here the girls know they can express themselves freely without internalizing a lot of the things that we’ve grown up with.” The young women who participate in AYWA! programming confront power structures on two levels: they discuss issues they face within their communtiy, such as parental or cultural expectations, and the anti-Muslim bigorty they encounter from mainstream culture.
In AAFSC's Traditional Arts programming, social justice is a key focus point: through this program, students are encourage to reclaim control over how their culture is represented. Even in a place as culturally mosaiced as New York, this can be an issue. One can see all types of great concerts, featuring any number of artists from all over the world. But often as not, the performers and the people who create the music lack control over how and where they are represented. “I think this is an important problem for the students to address,” Saleh says. “Many of the performers and musicians are people from our communities, and it’s important for us to harness the power and control over how we express ourselves musically and artistically, without feeling like it’s sabotaged, essentialized, or colonized.”
To that end, as of 2017, the Center has incorporated project-based learning into the Traditional Arts initiative, which will help build the students’ leadership skills. Through the program, students will organize and run a summer youth folklore festival showcasing music and dance performed by fellow participants. Here the students can present and represent themselves as they would like to be seen in the context of the neighborhood, the city, and the world. As a significant corollary, part of the festival’s purpose is to be an intercultural education initiative, the Center hopes to support their students in sharing traditional Arabic culture with the broader community.
In addition to the Traditional Arts program, AAFSC runs an impressive participatory youth media program called I Need To Be Heard!
, through which students write, direct, produce, and act in short films addressing issues they face as young Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian immigrants in New York City. Kids as young as elementary school can join the program, which is run in partnership with The New School. In late 2016, elementary school-age participants filmed a mock debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. “It was actually really funny,” Saleh laughs. “They usually make really funny things because it’s a means for them to have control over how they talk about an issue like their families, or parents being strict, or sexism in schools. There have been lots of great videos about topics that are difficult even for adults to discuss, like Islamophobia.” The students use film to replicate incidents that they have experienced or witnessed, and although the vignettes are technically fictional, the situations that are close to the students’ daily lives and concerns. The films -- strikingly mature, thoughtful, and, quite funny -- are available to view on the Center’s website.
Although founded to assist New York’s Arab American communities, all of AAFSC’s services are free and open to anyone who needs them. “We have a very diverse fellowship in our adult education program," Deputy Executive Director Qureshi said. "We’ve had West African students, Hispanic students, Chinese students. We have a Tibetan monk who comes in robes. So it’s a wonderful mix of cultures, and they build bridges and they learn about each other’s stories, and they build this community.”
(Posted January 2017)