This story is jointly published by nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune, in collaboration with The Utah Daily Chronicle at the University of Utah, to elevate diverse perspectives in local media through student journalism.
Last fall, the Arab Student Association at the University of Utah had its first-ever social event — with trivia, dancing and food, all providing an inviting community space for the university’s Arab students.
Amer Al-Shuqairat, the association’s president, said he and the group’s vice president, Mariam Safeudien got the idea to launch the U.’s ASA when they were attending a first-gen cohort and saw a post about their friends launching an ASA at Brigham Young University.
“So we jokingly said, ‘Let’s make an ASA for the U.,’” said Al-Shuqairat, who is Jordanian and Palestinian. “Once we completed the long process of making the club, a lot of people expressed interest very quickly, and we realized that it would be much more serious than we anticipated.”
‘Making a change’
For Al-Shuqairat and Safeudien, the association isn’t simply a club. It’s a place where passion and community collide.
Safeudien, who is Egyptian, said the concept of community is important to Arab culture, and that her love for family and her culture play a monumental role in her dedication to ASA.
“We wanted to create a community on campus [for] students who come from a Middle Eastern background ... especially those who are international students,” she said.
Safeudien said she and Al-Shuqairat refer to the club as their child, because it’s something that they’ve already seen grow in the short time it’s been around, and hope to see it grow a lot more.
“This organization doesn’t just mean an organization on Campus Connect,” she said, referring to the U.’s web portal for campus groups. “For me, it’s making a change. I genuinely believe this club is like a seed — it’s something that we get to see, and we water through every single event, every single [piece of] advertising, every single social that people come to.”
Before they started ASA, Al-Shuqairat said it was difficult to find a place where he felt he belonged on campus.
“Being a freshman living on campus last year was difficult in regards to not finding people who can speak Arabic with and relate to things that pertain to us on a personal and cultural level,” he said.
Newly recruited secretary Fatima Al-Saedy, who is Iraqi-American, said the association’s presence has had a profound impact on her life.
“The Arab Student Association to me is like a warm blanket,” Al-Saedy said. “I feel it is a club where I get to truly be who I am and belong.”
For Al-Saedy, it’s exciting to have a place on campus where people of Arab background can be who they are without judgment.
“It makes me proud to be Arab American,” she said. “I hope we can make those who feel that their ‘Arabness’ is not enough feel that the rich culture they come from is beautiful — just like their souls.”
Although ASA provides a social hub for those from a Middle Eastern background, Safeudien said it also promotes inclusivity, to provide a safe space for people who don’t identify as Arab.
“I just think ASA definitely has a mission and a vision [to] very outwardly welcome everyone,” she said. “ASA tries to teach about our culture as well, so we are not just celebrating one another — we’re sharing our culture with everyone on campus.”
In January, ASA held a game night where music, food and tea were provided. Safeudien said it was inspired by Middle Eastern traditions of going to a cafe late at night to play board games with friends.
“We want others to experience what we experience in the Middle East, and we want to be able to experience what our parents have experienced,” she said.
No events are currently planned, with the semester winding down in May. The association’s last event, Arabian Night in collaboration with the Union Programming Council, was scheduled for March, before the start of Ramadan.
The leaders of ASA say they want the association to be a place to unite people of diverse backgrounds on campus, to provide a community for those who need one.
“We are here for you and we know the struggles you must face by the day due to your identity,” Safeudien said. “We hope this club is just a place where you get to be who you really want to be and make friends who will understand you, not friends where you have to change yourself to fit their status quo.”
Breanna Giang wrote this story as a news writer intern at The Daily Chronicle at the University of Utah. It is published as part of a new collaborative including nonprofits Amplify Utah and The Salt Lake Tribune.