From Isolation to Belonging: Building Arab American Community in Berkeley Public Schools

Building the Community

“I wanted to find kids who were like me when I was in school – kids who feel alone, like they’re the only one.” Today Nabatah Ahmed works as a Family Engagement Specialist in Berkeley’s public schools. As a Yemeni American, Ahmed grew up as one of the few Arab Americans in her schools. “It was hard to fit in. [The other kids] didn’t understand my culture and as a kid, you don’t know how to explain these things. I couldn’t connect with them naturally.” 

With support from a LEARNING for Equity grant from the Berkeley Public Schools Fund, Ahmed is transforming isolation into community through the creation of an Arab American Student Group at Berkeley Arts Magnet (BAM) Elementary. Her effort may be the first of its kind in any BUSD elementary school.

“I started to hang out with these kids on the yard and realized there’s a growing population of Arab kids at BAM.” After checking the school roster and noting students in almost every grade, Ahmed thought, “I can bring this community together from within the larger BAM community, and kids won’t have to feel so alone.”

Family Engagement Specialist Nabatah Ahmed and her colleague Dontay Gallon explore the common African ancestry between Arab American and African American/Black student groups at Berkeley Arts Magnet.

The Monthly Circles: A Space for Belonging

Ahmed’s students meet monthly to engage in community building, identity exploration and culture sharing. There is always a lot of buzz about the meetings. “Ms. Nabatah, is today the day we get to meet?” an eager student will ask her in the hallways.

Guided by Ahmed, students are exploring a variety of aspects of their shared culture. Hands-on art is a prominent feature, including Arabic calligraphy, self-portraits, and cultural artifacts. Students will soon be doing some cooking, with samosas, falafel and a Yemeni dessert called the beehive on the menu. Listening and dancing to cultural music is up soon. “One of my favorite things to do is dancing to cultural music,” noted Ahmed. “It has its own distinct sound and rhythm, and I want students to become familiar with those sounds so they can recognize the distinctiveness of Arabic music.” 

Storytelling is also a part of many meetings. Ahmed shares Arab American children’s literature in their circles and as a monthly treat, each student goes home with their very own book. These titles center Arab American children’s experiences and identity and then can be enjoyed by the whole family. 

A final element of her group is exposure to Arab American role models. Through the real life stories of famous Arab Americans, including poet Noel Said Hassan, artist Yvonne Ayoub and farmworker activist Nagi Daifallah, Ahmed hopes to foster positive self-esteem and cultural pride. 

Finding Common Ground Across Differences

In addition to monthly meetings, Ahmed is helping students share their culture with the larger BAM and BUSD communities. She’s designed a school bulletin board that features each student’s photo, some fun “favorites” about their culture, and a map showing their families’ countries of origin. She is collaborating with students’ homeroom teachers to create opportunities for her students to showcase their home culture and language with their classmates. And at BAM’s upcoming Spring Fair, Ahmed plans to set up a living room-like space with cushions surrounding a teapot and a variety of teas. Her students will be invited to come in traditional clothing, a local parent will be offering up traditional middle eastern food, and a henna artist will be on site, dazzling students with cultural designs.

But Ahmed isn’t only building belonging within her Arab American group. In partnership with BAM colleague Dontay Gallon who leads a similar African American/Black student group at BAM, they designed an afternoon activity to help both student groups discover their common African roots.  First, they placed a world map in the center of their circle and invited students to pinpoint their family’s homeland. “You’re from Africa too?” was a common refrain. Next they taught students how to write and then paint their names in Arabic. At a future collaborative meeting, Gallon will teach all of the students the symbolism behind the Pan-african colors.  “We’re bringing all these kids together with different shades of skin. Regardless of skin color, we can all be from the same place!” 

So Much Support for Student Belonging

Ahmed has received a ton of support from both parents and the larger BAM community. “When I started to talk with families about the idea of creating this group, right away they were amazed!They saw it as a way to build confidence in students and really embrace who they are.”

For Adam Elmaghraby, a BAM parent whose daughter joined Ahmed’s group, the experience is all about nurturing belonging, which he says too often gets forgotten in between the lines of a school curriculum. “Growing up as an Egyptian American in Louisville, assimilation was a priority, but always a struggle. This group gives Soraya another entry point into feeling at home at school. And she’s very proud of her ancestry. Now she comes home with books from her group and shares them with her mom and me. I think it’s really building her self-esteem.”

Students take home a new book each month that centers Arab American identity and experiences and can share them with their families.

In addition, Ahmed acknowledged the wonderful support she’s received from BAM Principal Rene Molina. “He’s been on board since the start. He said, ‘Whatever you need, we can make this happen.’” When Ahmed was struggling to find a meeting spot for her group, Molina went out and purchased a big rug so the group could sit comfortably cross-legged on the auditorium floor. Each month, he gets excited to hear about their activities and features them in his weekly all-school announcements. “His support shows he really cares about uplifting students,” said Ahmed, “and ensuring they take pride in themselves.”

Stay tuned for more good things from Ahmed’s Arab American Student Group at BAM. Check them out at BAM’s Spring Fair (date TBD) or catch them later this spring at the De Young Museum, taking in the history of one of the most famous Egyptians of all times, Ramses the Great! 

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