This article was originally published August 2016 in Palestine in America’s second annual print issue.
When visiting the southwest side of Chicago—specifically 63rd Street and Kedzie Avenue—observers will see a currency exchange, a family-owned electronic store, and an impressive array of Mexican restaurants. What they probably won’t notice, however, is a 40-year-old Arab gem, the Arab American Action Network (AAAN), or what Arabs affectionately call the Markaz or “Center” in Arabic.
The Markaz, founded in 1972 as the Arab Community Center , was an organization that Arab immigrants in Chicago depended on for services, social connections and an Arab identity. It was a place for Arab immigrants and Arab Americans of all generations to share a safe political and social space together. It was also a hub for Arab women’s groups, students, and political activists.
“I’ve been a part of this place for over 30 years, since my folks started bringing me here in 1982 during the first Israeli war on Lebanon, when it was the Arab Community Center and organizers were giving us up to date news on the resistance,” said Hatem Abudayyeh, Executive Director of the AAAN. “It shaped my political views and raised my consciousness, not only about issues related to Arabs and Palestinians, but also about local and global struggles for liberation, like those in Chicago’s Black community, in Puerto Rico, in Ireland, in South Africa, in Central America, and in a dozen other places.”
Chicago’s Arab community dealt with many changes in the early 1990s, including the Oslo Accords, which caused many who were organizing for Palestine to move away from community work, under the assumption that victory had been achieved. As many Arabs’ careers blossomed, they moved their families out of Chicago and into the suburbs;the resulting dispersion left mostly low-income Arab families in the city, and made it clear that their needs—as well as the needs of the increasing number of immigrants moving into the area—had to be met.
It was also clear that it was hard for community members to organize while having to provide for their families at the same time, so Markaz leaders began discussions with other Arab community leaders, leading to the formation of the AAAN. The new organization was housed in the Markaz and began operations in 1996.
The AAAN board—consisting of professionals, academics, activists, and working people—immediately organized forums, focus groups and other opportunities for the community to offer input. A report entitled “Meeting Community Needs, Building on Community Strengths” authored by current board member Louise Cainkar, allowed the AAAN to institutionalize Markaz programs, such as after school activities for children and youth, domestic violence survivor services, and English as a Second Language (ESL) courses.
In the early 2000’s, especially after the events of 9/11, the AAAN expanded, and the work began to shift. AAAN began to focus more on community education around civil, immigrant, and human rights.
Three months after 9/11, an arsonist attacked the AAAN and badly damaged the facility. The organization was forced to operate at sites of allied organizations like the Southwest Youth Collaborative (SWYC) and Metropolitan Family Services. SWYC hosted one of the very few youth organizing programs on the southwest side of Chicago, and afforded Arab youth the opportunity to organize alongside Black and Latino youth on issues they faced in the city.
In 2004, the AAAN finished rebuilding and moved back into the Markaz. The arson did not deter the organization from continuing its work; in fact, it expanded.
Today, the AAAN runs an afterschool and summer camp program that provides homework assistance, tutoring and mentoring for elementary school students. Program staff work to build relationships with parents, teachers, libraries, and schools to support comprehensive youth development.
Silent Echoes is a hip-hop and spoken word program designed for high school youth to embolden and empower writing, creativity, performance and civic engagement. It offers youth a safe space to better understand local and global issues that affect their lives, from war and occupation to the criminalization of youth of color. Currently, Silent Echoes leads a campaign to end racial, national, and religious profiling of Arab and Muslim community members. In three years, AAAN youth leaders have created a “Know Your Rights” video which is used across the country, organized the first Arab youth-led protest in Chicago in decades, wrote and disseminated a survey to over 450 community members, and launched the campaign with a townhall meeting in the heart of Arab Chicago.
“The AAAN is an incredible organization that taught me so much about my own culture, history, and identity when I was in its youth program,” says Inas Affaneh, a former administrative assistant, “and also a ton about being a professional in the workplace when I was an employee.”
The campaign also addresses the narratives of activists who are the target of political repression by the U.S government for their activism, like the Midwest 23—a group that included 7 Palestinians—who were all subpoenaed to testify in 2010 in front of a federal grand jury. This “witch hunt” was, and is, an attempt by federal law enforcement to harass, intimidate, and pressure anti-war and international solidarity activists into providing information on the activities of friends and colleagues in the social justice movements. All 23 grand jury resisters reserved their right not to testify, and the “investigation” is ongoing.
This attempt at criminalizing Palestinians and international solidarity led to the trial of Rasmea Odeh, the Associate Director of the AAAN. In October 2013, Rasmea was arrested at her home on the charge of “unlawful procurement of naturalization,” an allegation based on answers she gave on a 20-year-old immigration application. She was ultimately convicted and sentenced, but thousands of people across the country and world have taken up her defense, calling the immigration charge nothing but “an excuse to attack this icon of the Palestine liberation movement.” She recently won a huge victory in her appeal, and supporters are hopeful that she will be fully exonerated.
Odeh oversees the AAAN’s Family Empowerment Program (FEP) which includes components of social services case management, adult education, support in accessing public aid benefits and community education and outreach. FEP staff also provides much-needed advocacy for community members and clients, who often face linguistic, religious and cultural barriers in accessing government institutions. Odeh also founded and still leads the Arab Women’s Committee that has approximately 700 Arab immigrant members from Palestine, Iraq, Yemen, Egypt, Syria and other countries, coming together in a safe social space to discuss and organize around issues such as patriarchy, racism, assimilation and immigrant rights.
Even in a political context that is hostile toward Muslims and Arabs, especially Palestinians, and with massive funding cuts caused by the Illinois budget impasse, the AAAN continues to provide professional social services, youth development programming, advocacy and education to Arabs in Chicagoland. The organization’s response to political and racist attacks on the community is to promote even more leadership development, and organizing training, which will help empower Arab families and individuals to continue the fight to end racial profiling and defend their own rights.
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