April marks Arab American Heritage month as Arab Americans in Houston hope to receive recognition

HOUSTON, Texas (KTRK) -- Friday marks the beginning of Arab American Heritage Month, a time to recognize diverse cultures and celebrate the contributions of people living in the U.S. with heritage from 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. The monthlong observance wasn't federally recognized though until 2021 when President Biden issued a proclamation through a letter published from the White House.

A resolution introduced by Michigan Representatives Debbie Dingell and Rashida Tlaib in 2019 stated that there are roughly 3.7 million Arab Americans living in the country, according to the Arab American Institute. However, recent numbers at the local level for the Greater Houston area are not as clear.

An analysis of long-form census data conducted by ABC13's media partner, the Houston Chronicle found with some margins of error that the Middle Eastern population, which includes people from Turkey, Iran, and Israel -- was more than 281,000 in Texas for 2013 and more than 98,300 in the Houston metro area.

Rachida Benamar, who is a board member for the Arab American Cultural and Community Center (ACC), says that her brief research only came up with a rough number of 200,000 Arab Americans -- with mostly Palestinians, Lebanese, and Iraqis who live in the Greater Houston area. She said the poor availability of data is due to the U.S. Census Bureau opting not to provide MENA -- Middle Eastern and North African -- as an identifier on its census survey forms.

"It's really important for Arab Americans to be recognized as an ethnicity in the United States. Some people would say, 'It's just a square on a form.' No. For us, t's very important," said Benamar.

SEE ALSO: The census doesn't count Arab Americans. That leaves some Texans feeling invisible

The lack of independent designation for Arab Americans has limited options for funding for the ACC, according to its president, Jill Yaziji. She explained that the center which sits on 14 acres of land near the Alief area of Southwest Houston, has been around since 1995. But it's slowly outgrowing its building, due to the demand for its services.

"This has stood in the way between us receiving federal money and grants. We're working on changing that," said Yaziji. "When the center was established, we had less than half the number of members we do now. In the last ten years alone, Arab Americans have doubled, probably tripled in the Greater Houston area."

The ACC offers refugee resettlement and citizenship services that assist those beyond the Arab American community. During holidays like Ramadan, Christmas, and Thanksgiving, the nonprofit organization hosts food drives. The center also provides weekly Arabic language classes on Sundays for all ages. Aside from one paid full-time staff member, the center is operated entirely by volunteers.

"Our mission is to really preserve our heritage and fight stereotypes that Arab Americans are violent, terrorists or they come to the U.S. because they don't have a culture," said Yaziji. "Some of the most prominent people in the Houston area -- artists, doctors, musicians, doctors, philanthropists -- come from Arab backgrounds. We want to show that we are a thriving community that's not only taken from the great tradition and freedom of this country, but we're also giving back."

One of the ACC's main focuses during the past year is to improve voters among the Arab American community during the primary election. Ghaidaa Makki said she would like to see more representation of Arab Americans in politics and the media. One of her fellow board members, Lema Barazi ran for district judge in Harris County's 189th judicial district but did not win. She hopes to see her try again and others emerge for candidacy in the next election cycle.

"We really need to have more people represent and talk about our culture and community in a good way," said Barazi.

Instilling pride in their Arab American identity is something Makki wants for her children, who have to juggle the intersectionality of two cultures. As April 1 also kicks off the beginning of Ramadan, she said she encourages her kids to share their culture and religious practices with others in the school.

"I feel like our children's generation has a big responsibility on them. They have to represent the Arabic community in a good way and deliver that information about us. So it's very important to preserve culture with them because I feel that they are our messengers with the rest of the community," she said.

Arab Americans practice a number of different religions including Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. Benamar and Makki are Muslim and explain that Ramadan is a time when followers of the Islamic faith will fast by not eating food or drinking water from dawn to dusk each day.

"In Algeria, where I am from, they teach us from a young age that we fast to feel how the impoverished feel when they cannot eat all the time. It teaches us to be more generous when we meet with the less fortunate. They tell us it's also to be closer to our divine creator," said Benamar. "You may suffer a bit during the day. But there is a reward and you're teaching yourself to abstain from a lot of things. You're abstaining from bad things, from hurting people. It's a soul cleansing, a soul detox."

SEE ALSO: Ramadan 2021: What you need to know about the Islamic holy month

Makki encourages businesses that have Muslim employees to be more accommodating during the period of Ramadan, by allowing them breaks to pray and lightening their workload, if possible. She explains that the holiday lasts about 30 days and Muslims will celebrate the end with Eid al-Fitr or the "Festival of the Breaking of the Fast."

For more information about the Arab American Cultural and Community Center, visit acchouston.org.

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