April is National Arab American Heritage Month! Do you know any Arab Americans? What do you think of when you hear the term Arab? What images or words come to mind? The answers to those questions can be telling. 

Being a fourth-generation Arab American, I’ve always felt it was my duty to be an ambassador for my beloved culture and the people of my ancestral homelands, Lebanon and Palestine. My purpose has become raising awareness about the challenges Arab people face, as well as celebrating their remarkable accomplishments, highlighting their indomitable spirit and resilience. You’ll see this in my advocacy as Director of Communications at UNRWA USA, where we strive to evoke empathy from Americans with the plight of Palestine refugees and transform narratives by sharing their stories. My social media presence (follow me @lailamo) extends that work. I use my platform to showcase news and happenings in the Arab American community nationwide — it also reflects my style, music, and food tastes, which are heavily influenced by my culture. I am just one Arab American; Arabness is not a one-dimensional identity. We must resist any homogenization of the Arab American community. To achieve accurate and fair representation, we must create a world where Arab Americans, and everyone, are seen and understood in all their beautiful complexity.

I know I’m not alone in saying the curriculum we were taught growing up left many of us who identify as minorities feeling invisible or misrepresented. It took great effort on my parents’ part to introduce our Arab heritage and history into my academic setting. They had to fight strong opposition to establish an inclusive diversity festival at my elementary school in Northern Virginia. Unsurprisingly, the media did not portray any representation I could identify with. Arabs have often been shown negatively in most mainstream media (TV, film, and the internet). This lack of representation only reinforces harmful stereotypes, ignores the perspectives of real Arab and Arab American individuals, and can harm one’s self-image. 

I’m blessed to have grown up in a family of civil and human rights activists who did not sit idly and watch discrimination be perpetuated. One of my Arab American heroes, Dr. Jack Shaheen, wrote a book Reel Bad Arabs, which analyzed 900+ films portraying Arabs of which only 50 were considered balanced, and a mere 12 included positive depictions. Most Hollywood productions vilify Arabs as the “bad guy.” Just imagine the potential impact those movies have on millions of consumers who watch them: What is their idea of an Arab? To combat this, in the early 90s, Dr. Shaheen and my father helped to persuade Disney to change the racist lyrics of Aladdin’s main theme, “Arabian Nights.” The original lyrics went, “Where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face. It’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home!” This was just one victory in a struggle that continues to persist in mass media today…

Social media is one of the only places where folks can candidly share first-hand accounts of their stories and struggles. Yet, according to groups like Human Rights Watch, “Facebook has suppressed content posted by Palestinians and their supporters speaking out about human rights issues.” I can attest to this as my own views plummet whenever I post similar content. Still, with all of social media’s problems, it remains a transformative means to enlighten and include voices not often heard in mainstream media. But minorities should not have to champion their inclusion alone. Inclusion is a shared responsibility, and some are already joining the effort…

Who would’ve thought a hashtag could give me hope for the future? Yet, as I’ve been scrolling through posts tagged #ArabAmericanHeritageMonth, my heart sings! Schools, nonprofits, government entities, and brands like Sephora, Better Help, and PBS, among others, are starting to embrace this special new month. This is the result of decades of tireless advocacy by Arab Americans. We’re also witnessing a surge in Arab American stories being shared through major platforms such as Netflix with shows like “Mo”, a comedic telling of Mo Amer’s actual experience in Houston as a Palestinian refugee. In music, we’re seeing music artists like my brother Anees being featured by MTV, answering questions about his heritage. Just this week at Coachella, vocalist Elyanna made history as the first Palestinian to perform and the first-ever artist to perform a set entirely in Arabic. Did you hear any of these stories?

As women in communications and PR across sectors, we have the power to set the tone and put forward more inclusive messaging and media. Let’s leverage this to lift up Arab Americans not just this April but every day.   

Here are five tips to get you started:

  1. Please educate yourself about who Arab Americans are: Let’s start with a little Arab America 101!
    • Arab Americans are US citizens with roots tied to the 22 different Arabic-speaking countries: Algeria, Bahrain, the Comoros Islands, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
    • Arabs are often associated as Muslims, and while many are, Arabs and Muslims should never be conflated. Plenty of Arab Americans are Christians (like me), Jews, other faiths, or unaffiliated.
    • The first significant wave of Arab migration to America dates back to the 1880s. Today it is estimated there are about four million Arabs in America. Exact data about the total population of Arab Americans remains unknown as the US Census Bureau classifies Arab folks from the “Middle East” and North Africa as “white”, effectively erasing our community. Imagine that.

Looking for a fun resource? Last year BuzzFeed enlisted a group of Arabs, including me, to tackle the most Commonly Googled Questions About Being Arab (warning: may not be entirely suitable for work).

  1. Recognize National Arab American Heritage Month! Highlight your Arab American colleagues and clients, use and engage with #ArabAmericanHeritageMonth on social, include content in your newsletter, or host an event.

    Several brands are doing this well and providing guides you can draw inspiration from:
  2. Listen to Arab American voices and amplify their perspectives: As more and more brands and platforms, including yours, start to embrace this month, they’re likely looking for Arab American stories and voices – you can be a conduit for these voices. Build relationships with Arab Americans within your orgs and community and create a directory of institutions and individuals you can feature, consult, or meaningfully involve.

    Here are 8 Arab Americans challenging perspectives in the digital age that you could consider connecting with. You can always message me for more names!
  3. Collaborate with Arab American artists and creators: Utilize Arab American artists and creators for your campaigns, content creation, and events. This could include writers, photographers, videographers, filmmakers, visual and music artists. Hire them, feature them at your events, and share their work with your audience.

    MTV curated a playlist of healing music, with the help of Arab Americans, to guide us through Arab American Heritage Month.
  4. Engage actively in advocacy and allyship: As you create and strengthen your diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility (DEIA) practices, make and hold space for Arab Americans.

To help you, here are some Suggested Corporate DEI Activities and Best Practices for National Arab American Heritage Month compiled by the folks at ArabAmerica.com.

You can also support Arab businesses and make reservations to indulge in Arab cuisine at Albi (it’s not only DC’s #2 best restaurant according to Washingtonian magazine, it’s also Palestinian-owned), and invite the Arab Americans in your life to a celebratory meal in their honor. But don’t stop there. Dedicate time to educating yourself about the rich experiences, culture, and history of Arab Americans so you can then better lift their voices and perspectives.

By taking these few steps and incorporating this knowledge and understanding into our work, we can help foster and create a more inclusive, just, and equitable society where everyone, including Arab Americans, feels seen and heard. 

Yalla, let’s connect! I’m eager for my fellow Washington Women in Public Relations (WWPR) members to share with me the work you, your brands, and your clients have already done this April, as well as your game plans to lift up Arab American voices beyond this month.