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The Arab Americans in NYC: A Forgotten Community

The Arab Americans in NYC: A Forgotten Community

Living in an Age of Terror: Creating Spiritual and Psychological Resilience

Arab American Community

Nora Alarifi Pharaon, Ed.D.
Co-founder/Co-director
TAMKEEN: The Center for Arab American Empowerment
NYU Kimmel Center
October 27, 2004There are 3.5 million Arab-American and Arab immigrants in the United States.

Arab Americans constitute an ethnicity made up of several waves of immigrants from 22 Arab countries, stretching from Morocco in the west to the Arabian (Persian) Gulf in the east. Although a highly diverse ethnic group, Arab-Americans descend from a heritage that represents common linguistic, cultural, and political traditions. As a community, Arab Americans have a strong commitment to family, economic and educational achievements, and making contributions to all aspects of American life. While earlier waves of immigration encountered fewer acculturation issues, more recent immigrants are experiencing a range of assimilation challenges, namely language and cultural barriers that act as isolating factors for new Arab immigrant families when they first arrive in the US.

At an estimated 405,000, New York is home to the third largest Arab-American population in the United States. With a continued influx of immigrants from Egypt, Morocco and Palestine, the Arab American community also represents one of the fastest growing immigrant communities in New York City. Between1990-2000, the Arab immigrant community grew by about 30%. Official and unofficial estimates place the number of Arab immigrants in New York City between 70,000 – 200,000.

Traditionally, the social service and health care needs (including mental health) of the Arab American community – especially new immigrants – have been largely neglected as evidenced by the dearth of culturally competent services. Language and cultural barriers preclude new Arab immigrants from accessing available social services provided by the city or other service providers. Similarly, lacking the language skills and knowledge/sensitivity to Arab culture has prevented social service agencies from effectively reaching this under-served community.

Compounding matters is the scarcity of relevant data on the multi-dimensional needs of this community. A recent inquiry to the Population Division of the NYC Department of City Planning revealed a shocking absence of data on Arab-Americans and Arab immigrants. Prior to Census 2000, Arab Americans were grouped with “whites” – which is one reason why so little data exists on this community.

Mental health and mental illness are often stigmatized in Arab communities. An individual with mental distress may not seek advice from professionals; or even familymembers. As men are the primary wage earners for their families, male unemployment can affect the mental health of men more than women.

A major stressor for Arab Americans is racism and stereotyping. Political and social conditions may also make families vulnerable. Many new Arab immigrants face distressing events such as economic hardship, acculturation, racism and other forms of discrimination. Many immigrants may have held professional occupations in their home countries but are unable to find comparable employment in the United .

Stressors related to loss of previously held social and economic status may precipitate some forms of depression. As conservative Arab immigrant households tend to keep their women isolated from the wider society,
isolation is one of the factors precipitating depressive illness in women.

Because many of the new Arab immigrants have fled political instability and violence, and in some cases may have been torture victims, many of these newcomers are at high risk for severe depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, and substance abuse.

Impact of 9/11 on Arab-Americans

For many Arab immigrants and Arab-Americans, the period since 9/11 has presented numerous social, economic and political challenges, leading to a surge in the demand for social, mental health and legal services. Male members of the community have been hit with widespread job loss, deportation and dramatic delays in immigration processing; shop owners have witnessed a significant decline in revenue; and a general sense of isolation, anxiety and fear pervades the Arab-American family. Compounding the stress of heightened terror alerts, the Anthrax scare, the conflict in the Middle East, the war in Iraq as well as the volatile situation in postwar Iraq, the Arab American community continues to be vulnerable to an unprecedented backlash.

The first severe and broad based backlash to 9/11 was the Attorney General’s initiative in the form of the controversial Special Call-In Registration regulation as a response to national security concerns. It required men and boys from 24 Arab or Muslim countries to present themselves at the Department of Homeland Security where they were fingerprinted, photographed and questioned. Those whose visas had expired were arrested, detained and put in removal proceedings without regard to pending applications to legalize status. While not one terrorist was caught, thousands of Arabs and Muslims were threatened with deportation and separation from their families and the only home they have.

The second and ongoing backlash is Xenophobia or fear or hatred of strangers or foreigners. Xenophobia can be heightened under a terrorist threat and can become a social and psychological danger. The fear generated by terrorism can be exacerbated by

a population’s diversity if there is distrust between groups, categories and classifications of citizens. It is within this context that the Arab American population in NYC were impacted by September 11 national tragedy. Not only were they the target of terrorism as American citizens or as residents in the U.S., but they were also the perceived collaborators in the American tragedy.

While 9/11 impacted the community in similar ways to other New Yorkers, some aspects of the Arab-American experience have been distinct:

  • In a report surveying 1000 Arabs and Muslims in New York City, the NYC Commission on Human Rights found that 69% of the respondents believed they were the victim of one or more incidents of discrimination or bias related harassment and that 79% felt that their lives had been negatively affected by 9/11. Worse still is that 83% of the respondents did not ask for help because they were afraid, believed that nothing would be done, did not know who to contact, or thought the incident did not warrant reporting.

  • A recent survey of 1000 US adults conducted by the Council on American-Islamic Relations (July 2004) found that one in four Americans somewhat or strongly agreed with a series of anti-Muslim sentiments including: the Muslim religion teaches violence and hatred (26% agreed); Muslims value life less than other people (27% agreed); and Muslims want to change the American way of life (29% agreed). Interestingly enough, about two in three said they agreed that “the people who use Islam to justify violence are misinterpreting its teachings. Anti-Muslim views have been encouraged by a continuing string of terror attacks, including decapitations, in Iraq, as well as a violent attack on school children in Russia.

  • There has been also a terrible wave of racist violence and job firings directed against Arabs. “The Justice Department reported a surge in hate incidents following the terrorist attacks, and the DC-based Council on American Islamic Relations alone has tallied over 1,700 as of February.” (Village Voice, 8/6/2002).

  • Arab American family members of victims and displaced workers found their access to relief programs hindered by geographic restrictions, language barriers

and confusion in addition to outright bars placed on eligibility due to immigration status.

  • Social and school environments changed: Arab Americans are viewed as

suspicious, and have been made to feel less welcome and accepted. According to one poll, 34% of American teenagers perceive Arabs as terrorists.

  • The psychological impact of the federal government’s array of responses to 9/11 — most particularly the special call-in registration program of the Bureau for Citizenship and Immigration Services (BCIS) – significantly undermined the Arab American community’s sense of security. Since June 2003, the New York Times reported that over 13,000 Arab and Muslim men across the nation, many of whom are their family’s primary wage earners, are in deportation and removal proceedings. Tens of thousands of Arab women and children will be affected as families face the real prospects of being torn apart and lives being profoundly disrupted.

  • Many members of the Arab American community were not able to safely seek one of the most important traditional methods of healing offered by religious institutions. The FBI and other governmental agencies targeted mosques in particular following 9/11 thus creating panic and fear among those who sought them for counseling and support. Many Imams who have built strong relationships over the years with members of their community were themselves the target of those raids.

  • Family violence is one of the key factors affecting the health of families and contributes directly to problems experienced by the children at home and in school. There are increased incidents of family violence in the Arab-American community since 9/11 due to the high stress and frustration levels experienced by a community that has been subject to widespread discrimination, economic dislocation, and targeted federal initiatives.

  • Much of the trust previously cultivated with government agencies has been compromised by city legislative initiatives revoking immigrants’ confidentiality rights, such as the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) and the Human Resources Administration. Only the Health and Hospitals Corporation (HHC) has officially reassured immigrants that their confidentiality rights would be recognized and protected.

  • Many Arab Americans are refugees who have experienced trauma in their native countries and who are in the difficult process of acculturating to the United States.

Having believed that they had made it to a safe haven, many have been retraumatized following the 9/11 backlash.

  • There is not one “standard” pattern of reaction to the extreme stress of traumatic experiences. Many Arab Americans who have been faced with other emotionally challenging situations, such as serious health problems, family related difficulties, have been retraumatized repeatedly since 9/11. The field of trauma research

indicates that the degree and intensity of loss is a significant variable in healing and recovery. Events that last longer and pose a greater threat, and where loss of life or substantial loss of property is involved, often take longer to resolve.

Finding culturally appropriate mental health care and culturally competent services are especially difficult for immigrants who are cut off from traditional methods of healing.

The Arab American community is unfamiliar with the idea of therapy and afraid of the cultural stigma. According to the Health and Hospitals Corporation, there are only 15

bilingual Arabic/English mental health professionals in the public hospital system. Adam Gurvitch of the New York Immigration Coalition insists that the numbers are extremely small. He believes that “it is a crisis shortage, in terms of providers who are culturally and linguistically appropriate.” He also warns, “there are language issues, cultural concerns; New York is in the Dark Ages in terms of meeting those needs for this particular group.”

Second, limited provider awareness of Arab American cultural values and religious traditions is another factor inhibiting access to culturally competent care. Third, many immigrants do not have health insurance and are not aware of the free or low-cost services offered by federally supported community health programs such as Medicare and Medicaid, because these programs may be unfamiliar with the language and culture.

Several initiatives (Project Liberty, September 11 Fund, etc.) have been launched to provide critically needed mental health services for immigrant communities who have been under siege due to backlash of 9/11. Most of these initiatives were short term with a very narrow focus, which limited access to mental health services for many needy individuals. There needs to be a longer-term view of mental health service delivery that will attempt to address not only the immediate problems, but also provide continuity of care for the longer term. Programs that are guided by research and needs assessment studies should be instituted to insure coverage of a broad range of issues. Restructuring mental health services to better utilize scarce resources that meet consumer needs will improve the quality of care.

In response to these needs, TAMKEEN: The Center for Arab American Empowerment was established in September 2003. TAMKEEN is currently seeking NYS licensure to become a qualified mental health provider. Several partnerships have been forged and

are being sought with other social service agencies and health care facilities such as Safe Horizon and Legal Aid Society in downtown Brooklyn, Steinway Family Health Center

in Astoria, Al Salam Church and Muslim Youth Center in Brooklyn, Your Health is First in Bayridge as well as many mosques in NYC.

TAMKEEN has adopted the group therapy model to provide services to the community living in NYC in spite of very few resources. These groups include support groups for victims of domestic violence, which is referred to as “Family Well-being” due to the widely held cultural values that prohibit or discourage women from seeking help from outsiders. Arab American women generally adopt cultural taboos that disdain the act of shaming their own people since in the Arab World, domestic violence is treated as a family issue and not as a serious public health threat or a political-legal issue.

Other groups focus on parenting strategies and women’s issues. Groups are planned to provide support to adolescent girls who face the challenging task of negotiating the traditional and religious beliefs and practices and balancing the influence of peer pressure in an open and free Western culture. Group size usually varies from 6-10 women who meet weekly for 90 minutes. These women are at different points along a coping-collapse continuum. Although they come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, age groups, and educational levels, they express a wide range of variations in cultural norms based on country of origin. These differences may present some challenges particularly at the beginning of the group life. For instance, women from Yemen have more conservative views of male roles within the family than those held by women from Lebanon.

Indeed, if the critical mental health needs of the Arab American community are not addressed, the City, further down the line, will need to deal with an increasingly alienated and disenfranchised community, a condition that may create a number of social challenges and will come at a significant financial cost to the City.

http://www.aaiusa.org/demographics/NYdemographics.pdf


Council
on American Islamic Relations


The
New York Times


A
Forgotten Community: Newsday. Arab Americans: We lack Services by
Deborah S. Morris, Staff writer, September 10, 2003.


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