“How we form solidarity”: Middle Eastern and North African students continue push for cultural center
The AACC recently cleared a room for use by MENA students, marking a step forward in students’ push for more MENA recognition on campus. Student leaders hope to eventually obtain a peer liaison program and cultural center.
Tenzin Jorden, Staff Photographer
As Middle Eastern and North African students continue to fight for an increased campus presence, a potential room for MENA students set aside in the Asian American Cultural Center marks a step forward, ten students told the News. But many demands remain unmet by the University, including those for a peer liaison program and a distinct cultural house.
Yale’s MENA students have called for a more established presence on campus since 2018, working specifically toward an official cultural center and a peer liaison program. MENA students spoke to the News about the potential of a space in the AACC and their hopes for the future of MENA representation at Yale.
“The purpose of having a cultural center is having a safe space where you’re with other people who share the same backgrounds and experiences, where you can come together and be like, ‘We all can identify this as something that plagues us, and here’s how we form solidarity and fight for social justice,’” Anastasia Ibrahim ’23 said. “We don’t have that. We’re kind of set up to fail here, because you don’t know what your community looks like and you don’t really have a distinct place for that community.”
Joliana Yee, the director of the AACC and assistant dean of Yale College, told the News that while she has yet to set a meeting time with MENA student leaders to discuss the logistics of the room, a space in the AACC had been cleared out for potential MENA student use. Yee emphasized the support that the MENA Student Association, or MENASA, had received from both the AACC and the Afro-American Cultural Center since the group’s founding in the 2018-2019 academic year.
Joaquín Lara Midkiff ’24, the community policy director of the Yale College Council, has advocated for the establishment of a MENA room in the AACC. He told the News that setting aside a room in the AACC would mean designating a “real space” for the MENA community on campus.
“This isn’t sexy in the sense that it’s a PL program or a cultural house, but this is important because it’s a physical space,” Lara Midkiff said. “It is a representative entity of the [University] — recognizing the community and the necessity for the community to have communal space.”
Ibrahim, the former MENASA president, told the News that she hoped the MENA community on campus would soon be able to establish a cultural house of their own.
While she would support the designation of a room in the AACC, Ibrahim said, an individual cultural house would provide additional structure for the MENA community. She pointed to the ability of other cultural houses to host both formal and informal gatherings in which members of underrepresented communities on campus could come together.
“We’re kind of just left on our own to grapple with so many rough things, and it would be so much better if we could come together as a community to face them,” Ibrahim said. “I think that recognizing us on campus is the first step to doing that.”
The representation of MENA students on campus and beyond has long been a contested issue. Because the United States census does not recognize MENA as a racial group, Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan told the News last year that the University’s admissions form and Student Information Systems also don’t. Instead, students applying to Yale must choose between one of five racial categories, including “white,” “Black,” “American Indian or Alaska Native,” “Asian” and “Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.”
According to Ibrahim, this policy makes it challenging for either the University or MENA student organizations to quantify the number of MENA students on campus.
“There’s really no identifiable or concrete statistic for how many MENA students there are,” Ibrahim said. “So that’s kind of a prerequisite to getting a cultural house because if we want a cultural house, we have to go to the administration with the numbers, saying, ‘This is how many students identify as MENA on campus, and we still don’t have a cultural house.’”
Without an official statistic, Ibrahim explained, the best metric for tracking the number of MENA students at Yale is the amount of students that sign up for the MENASA mailing list at the extracurricular bazaar held at the beginning of each academic year. This, in turn, has been affected by the gathering restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ibrahim said.
Although the MENASA mailing list currently has about 400 members, Ibrahim said that this also includes graduated alumni.
President of the Arab Students Association Tanya Jomaa ’23 said that regardless of the exact number of MENA students on campus, the distinct culture of the MENA region should be reason enough to provide MENA students at Yale with a place to congregate.
“It’s lonely coming to college if you’re from a country in the Middle East, or if you’re not, and you’ve grown up with your parents cooking your traditional ethnic food, speaking a specific language and whatever it is, and then you come to college and nobody does that,” Jomaa said. “You long for that sense of community. I think that it’s not that big of an ask … that the school provide it, particularly because there’s already a precedent for providing that type of cultural community.”
Because no cultural house or peer liaison program exists on campus for members of the MENA community, Ibrahim explained that MENA students at Yale are largely split between the AACC and the AFAM House, depending on the specific country with which they identify. According to Ibrahim, this has created a division between members of the MENA community at Yale.
Youssef Ibrahim ’25 agreed, noting that he did not feel represented by either the AFAM house or the AACC. Ibrahim, an international student from Egypt, told the News that he generally shared more traditions and cultural touchstones with people from countries like “Syria, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia” than with people from other African countries.
“Just because Egypt lies in Africa does not mean that I’m culturally identified as African,” Ibrahim said. “[MENA] is a distinct culture. It’s very different from African culture. It’s very different from Asian culture as well.”
MENASA Vice President Zahra Yarali ’24 explained that even the term MENA is not universally accepted.
“‘Middle East,’ as normalized as it is in both English and languages such as Arabic and Farsi, inherently produces a colonial and imperial understanding of the region,” Yarali said. “It reduces this span of land to being acknowledgeable only in its proximity to the West.”
Yarali noted that she preferred the term SWANA, or Southwest Asia-North Africa, which she said generally better encapsulated the experiences of people from these areas and referred more objectively to their places of origin.
MENASA was founded with the stated mission of advocating for a MENA cultural center on campus, planning programming similar to that of Yale’s other four cultural centers alongside its advocacy.
Dean of Yale College Marvin Chun told the News that increased on-campus representation for the MENA community would likely come gradually.
“We’re keen to expand our support for the MENA community,” Chun said. “Everything around here happens in steps. Their first step was to form a student organization, and show that strong interest and that it is vibrant and active. They’ve done that, and I’m very proud and grateful that Dean Yee is trying to help support them as a separate community within the larger community, so this is a good next step.”
Because establishing a cultural house would require securing a space and hiring staff, Chun said, he thought that members of the MENA community would first need to establish a peer liaison program. Although Chun will soon depart his role, he expressed hope that the next Dean of Yale College will oversee that process.
Lara Midkiff, who advocated for the addition of a PL program for students with disabilities last year, emphasized the importance of PL programs to developing the community necessary to pave the road to a cultural house.
But even establishing a PL program, Lara Midkiff noted, can be difficult without the structural support of a cultural house, creating a type of vicious cycle.
“You start butting against this realization that we don’t have for MENA what [Student Accessibility Services] is to the disability community or what the AACC is to the Asian community or the House is to the African American and Black community or what the NACC is to the Native community,” Lara Midkiff said.
Ibrahim further emphasized the importance of cultural houses on campus to supporting students from underrepresented communities in the face of discrimination, both on campus and in the world more broadly.
Without a cultural house, Ibrahim said, Yale’s MENA community lacks that institutional support. Although Ibrahim voiced her gratitude for the AACC’s recognition of the MENA community, she emphasized that MENA students would be best served by a body specific to their interests.
“The AACC struggled to get their house as well, so I think that will be a part of our process too,” Layla Hedroug ’25 added. “But I don’t necessarily define myself as Asian American, because I’m from the [North African] region of MENA … I want an area that encompasses all of the MENA region.”
The AFAM House was established in 1969 and the AACC was established in 1981.
Yeji Kim contributed reporting