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
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.
|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
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
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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
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
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The listening session included four youth representatives: two students each from high school and
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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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
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.
|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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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