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SAMHSA News - May/June 2008, Volume 16, Number 3

Communities Join Together To Promote Behavioral Health

Arab American and American Muslim Youth Speak Out

By Leslie Quander Wooldridge

Echoing SAMHSA’s vision of a life in the community for everyone, a recent Agency conference continued an ongoing community conversation about the mental health and substance abuse challenges faced by Arab American and American Muslim youth and their families. (See SAMHSA News online, March/April 2007, to learn about last year’s listening session.)

The 2-day conference, “The American Experience: A National Summit To Promote the Well-Being of Arab and Muslim Youth,” convened in Dearborn, MI—the U.S. city with the highest concentration of Arab American residents.

“We have been building over time a deeper and greater awareness and understanding across the Arab American and American Muslim communities and a mutual understanding of the behavioral health needs that are unique to these communities,” said A. Kathryn Power, M.Ed., Director of SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS), in her plenary address. “SAMHSA sees this summit as an opportunity to bring action to some of those understandings.”

"We really have more in common than we might think."

—Laila Mokhiber, workshop panelist

Participants included mental health treatment providers, substance abuse prevention and treatment counselors, families, clergy, other members of the communities, and youth representatives. They gathered with SAMHSA staff to share concerns, hear personal stories, and consider how to provide support and promote well-being for members of the Arab American and American Muslim communities, with a special focus on young people.

Workshops encouraged participants to speak freely about their experiences involving mental health, including stress management and coping with negative stereotypes. For some families made of up first-generation immigrant parents and American-born children, discussions focused on bridging the gap between an “old country” mindset at home and a “pop culture” mindset at school.

Other topics included substance abuse, the consequences of trauma, ethnic and religious profiling, communications between family generations, funding opportunities for providers, and the importance of youth involvement and leadership.

“The participants represent people from many races and cultures as well as multigenerational Americans, recent immigrants, and refugees,” said CAPT John Tuskan, R.N., M.S.N., Director of SAMHSA’s Refugee Mental Health Program and a planner for the conference. “All Arabs aren’t Muslims, and all Muslims aren’t Arabs, but members of these populations do have some aspects of culture in common.” Several speakers provided historical perspectives on these diverse communities, noting that Arabs and Muslims cannot be treated as monolithic groups.

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Listening and Learning

One dynamic, interactive youth panel addressed ways to cope with stress, deal with negative stereotypes, and inspire youth leaders. Participants included Asma Mirza, president of the Muslim Students Association (MSA) National; Laila Mokhiber, a student at George Mason University; Abdifatah Barre, president of his high school MSA chapter in Virginia; and moderator Altaf Husain, Ph.D., Executive Assistant for Academic Affairs at Howard University.

Coping with stress and negative stereotypes. Even now, 7 years after 9/11, panelists pointed out that some individuals still view Arab Americans and American Muslims negatively, calling them all terrorists. “Kids joke around now at schools. They say, ‘Oh, you’re an Arab—so you’re a terrorist—ha, ha, ha,’ ” Ms. Mokhiber said. “But it’s not funny.”

Ms. Mirza, an American who is of Pakistani descent, remembered when people began looking at her differently after 9/11—looking at her like something was wrong. “I’ve always seen myself as an American,” she said. “It’s stressful because this is the only home I’ve ever known, and the only home I want to know.”

In general, some youth and adult participants said that they continue to be profiled at airports because of their appearances or last names. Ms. Mirza has her own way of coping with security checks that seem to focus on Arab Americans and American Muslims. “You pretend it’s not happening,” she said, noting that she still avoids praying at airports to avoid the stress of potential discrimination. “Someone may call security,” she explained matter-of-factly. “It’s happened before.”

Ms. Mirza’s other coping mechanisms included not watching the news on television for a year after 9/11 to avoid negative coverage of people of Arab and Muslim heritage. Although she insulated herself from news coverage during that time, she noted that people in America need to look for common ground. “If you step back far enough, you’ll find something that everyone at the table agrees upon,” she said.

Encouraging support. Considering the mental health and substance abuse issues on college campuses, as well as the stress factor, panelists emphasized the need to have support systems in place to assist young people who need help.

“With the MSAs, you try to reach out to everyone on campus. . . . But it’s hard,” Ms. Mirza said, noting that youth don’t usually focus on how to cope with stress and discrimination. “I don’t think it’s something that we talk about very often.”

Still, panelists said community involvement comes with benefits, and Ms. Mirza added that parents and community providers are showing increasing support for youth. “Home is a safe place,” she said. “Having people in your life who positively reinforce you, to me, is key.”

Inspiring leadership. Even though students may experience high levels of stress, participants noted that youth leadership is important for community outreach. Although young people may seem preoccupied, panelists said service providers should make special efforts to recruit youth for community activities. It just takes some creativity.

“Let’s meet the youth where they are,” Dr. Husain said. Although volunteering may be the last thing on young people’s minds, talking with youth while they engage in everyday activities can result in real progress.

Panelists also noted that social interaction is important. “You have to make it cool,” Ms. Mokhiber said of outreach, explaining that her local community groups sponsor networking parties to encourage participation. “If you can have 5 strong leaders, it’s better than having 100 leaders who don’t really care.”

Ms. Mokhiber is hoping that social interactions—from friendly get-togethers to formal discussion panels and presentations—will help young people of various backgrounds understand each other better. “We’re all people,” she said. “We really have more in common than we might think.”

Details about other panels on domestic violence, substance abuse treatment, and refugee experiences are included in this issue of SAMHSA News. For more information on topics discussed at the summit, visit SAMHSA’s Web site at

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