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SAMHSA News - March/April 2007, Volume 15, Number 2

Arab Americans & Muslims Assess Emotional Well-Being

“When my 14-year-old son was in sixth grade, and [the U.S.] declared war on Iraq, he said he wanted to go to sleep forever and never wake up,” said Hindy Zayed Mokhiber, an American daughter of Palestinian immigrants and the mother of four children living in Northern Virginia.

She described her son’s wrenching experience at a listening session on Arab American and American Muslim Youth Behavioral Health hosted by SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS) on February 26.

“He does not stand alone in his feelings,” Mrs. Mokhiber added. “He is not Iraqi, but he understands and feels for the country. He [also] had two cousins fighting in Iraq for the United States Army. There are children from other countries of Arab heritage who feel the same way.”

The February listening session was a followup to the initial session held in early November 2001—just 2 months after the September 11 terrorist events (see SAMHSA News online, Winter 2002). The goal was to gain more understanding of the emotional consequences of the backlash against Arab Americans and American Muslims and to respond to their needs. The second listening session sought to identify the issues facing this group since 2001 and in particular, the issues for youth.

Participants included mental health service providers, researchers, representatives from prominent Arab American and American Muslim community organizations, clergy from both American Muslim and Arab Christian communities, and teenagers and young adults of Arab American or American Muslim descent.

photo of (left to right) Imam Johari Abdul Malik, Dr. Radwan Khoury, Dr. Mona Amer, Abdi Wehelie, Lena Alhusseini, Dr. Sayyid Syeed, and Abdallah Boumediene
At the recent listening session on Arab American and Muslim Youth Behavioral Health, participants included (left to right) Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, Dr. Radwan Khoury, Dr. Mona Amer, Abdi Wehelie, Lena Alhusseini, Dr. Sayyid Syeed, and Abdallah Boumediene.

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Participants spoke about the discrimination that has continued into the present.

Tony Kutayli, J.D., of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination committee, described it this way: “Lots of Arab Americans and American Muslims feel that they were discriminated against twice following 9/11: as Americans and as Arabs and Muslims.”

Imam Johari Abdul-Malik, the Muslim chaplain at Howard University and Director of the Outreach Program at the University’s Dar Al-Hijrah Islamic Center, explained, “First there’s the fear that every American has that something could happen again and they could be victims. Then, American Muslims fear that whether or not something happens, they have to be concerned about an attack from within, from their neighbor.”

Participants cited the types of discrimination that they observed, including profiling and harassment at airports, phone taps, and the creation of lists of potential terrorists.

Imam Abdul-Malik, one of two participants who attended both the first and second SAMHSA listening sessions, said that the discrimination can be very subtle. “No one says [anything directly], but you won’t get the job, the apartment, or the place on the team. But you can’t prove it’s because of your background.” He also compared the situation to that of Japanese Americans during World War II.

Almost all participants spoke about negative stereotyping by the media and entertainment industry. Mr. Kutayli pointed to the latest season of the hit television show “24” in which a character portraying an Arab articulates a desire to kill thousands of Americans. “Perception is reality for a lot of mainstream Arab Americans,” he said.

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Asma A. Ejaz, M.D., a practicing psychiatrist and chairwoman of the Domestic Harmony Committee of the Islamic Center of Long Island, NY, noted that some American Muslims have reacted by turning to the roots of their religion and culture and displaying more of their ethnicity.

Nahid Aziz, Psy.D., Associate Professor and Assistant Director of Training at Argosy University in Washington, DC, said that some of her own Muslim colleagues who had previously not worn a veil now choose to do so, to assert their Muslim identity.

But Dr. Ejaz also acknowledged that many people disassociate themselves from their roots for fear of reprisal and persecution. Mona Amer, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at the Yale University School of Medicine, agreed. In a focus group of Arab American youth that she conducted, she heard a 13-year-old boy say, “I don’t want to go to school with Arab kids because, dude, being with Arabs brings you down.”

Other participants identified the emergence of a new coping mechanism: Islamic comedy such as the television show “Little Mosque on the Prairie.”

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Several discussants distinguished between the problems of refugees and other immigrants. Omar A. Eno, a doctoral candidate in African history at York University and Director of the National Somali Bantu Project at Portland State University-Oregon, spoke of the special problems of Somali Bantus distinct from those of other Somali immigrants.

He explained that the Bantu people were originally brought to Somalia from other parts of Africa as slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries, and they remain a persecuted minority to this day. During the Somali civil war in the 1990s, many of the Bantu went to refugee camps in Kenya. In 1999, the United States offered resettlement to approximately 15,000 Somali Bantu refugees. Mr. Eno described the Somali Bantu as doubly challenged, seeking acceptance among fellow Somalis and adjustment to American culture.

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The listening session included four youth representatives: two students each from high school and college.

Kushalata Jayakar-Ahmed, M.D., a psychiatrist and consultant in mental health at the Islamic Center of Long Island, said that many youth lead “double lives.” Often they are “very good Muslim children at home and very American children outside the home,” she said. She cited the example of a girl who wears the Muslim hajab at home but removes the traditional head-covering when she is in public.

Abdifatah Barre, a high school junior from a Somali immigrant background, spoke of the “tug-of-war between tradition from parents and change.” Many of the adult participants alluded to the concern of parents that their children would lose their ethnic and religious identity if they integrate too much into American culture. In addition, parents fear that their children may engage in risk-taking behavior such as using drugs.

But Fordham University student Corey Rados, a fourth-generation Lebanese American Orthodox Christian, cautioned participants to “consider the context of the larger society. . . . marijuana, alcohol are things that American college students do. Depression is prevalent in this entire age bracket.”

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Future Directions

Participants suggested many areas for improvement. Dr. Amer emphasized the need for more academic research on Arab American and Muslim mental health. Mr. Eno said that to counter media stereotypes and educate the public, he partners with community television in Portland, OR, for 2 hours every week to broadcast Bantu culture, traditions, dances, and interviews. Participants also expressed the need for community education efforts to reduce stereotyping and to sensitize schoolteachers, counselors, religious communities, and others to cultural issues.

Acknowledging the stigma of mental health problems among members of their own community, participants also called for educational efforts for Arab Americans and American Muslims.

Abdallah Boumediene, the Operations Manager of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services in Dearborn, MI, suggested having workshops for imams since so many people in distress go to their religious leaders first. This would help the imams “deal with issues outside a strictly religious realm,” he said. He promoted the idea of working with existing community-based organizations to offer best practices that have already been developed.

photo of (left to right) Laila Mokhiber, Corey Rados, Mariam Obeidallah, Abdifatah Barre, and Jennifer Spendlove
Youth participants included (left to right) Laila Mokhiber, Corey Rados, Mariam Obeidallah, Abdifatah Barre, and Jennifer Spendlove.

Several participants emphasized the benefits of community centers for youth. Corey Rados spoke of the benefits of after school programs and clubs. “I’m very pro-sports,” he said. “Another great way to help youth become more comfortable with themselves is through the arts—music, theater, art, and dance.” In addition to creative expression, he said, “the arts are also a great medium to enrich people with your culture and learn more about the host culture.”

SAMHSA staff members plan to use the information to guide development of a national summit on the needs of Arab Americans and American Muslims, projected for later this year.

For more information on the listening session, please phone Captain John Tuskan at SAMHSA’s Center for Mental Health Services at (240) 276-1845 or email john.tuskan@samhsa.hhs.govEnd of Article

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Inside This Issue
Social Security Benefits: Outreach, Access, and Recovery
Part 1
Part 2
Promising Practices
Resources on Homelessness

From the Administrator:
Obtaining Benefits, Attaining Recovery

Funding Opportunities

Stop Underage Drinking - Portal of Federal Resources Surgeon General Issues Call to Action

Ads, Billboards Highlight Younger Children

Reach Out Now Educates Teachers, Students

President's Budget Sustains Key Programs

National Outcome Measures

Transforming Housing for People with Psychiatric Disabilities

Arab Americans & Muslims Assess Emotional Well-Being

Evidence-Based Practices: Online Registry

Screening, Referral Tools Available Online

Recovery Month Web Cast en Español

Treatment Update: Increasing Motivation

Inhalants Report

DAWN Report

Workforce Development Resources


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SAMHSA News - March/April 2007, Volume 15, Number 2