Yolanda Wang, Contributing Photographer

Satia Hatami ’25, Noor Kareem ’25 and Koosha Maleknia ’26 are stepping into their roles as Yale’s inaugural peer liaisons for Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, students. 

The new PL program for MENA students is coordinated through the Asian American Cultural Center. The News spoke with the three new AACC-MENA PLs, who will serve until the end of the academic year, about their experiences supporting first years and MENA students’ continued advocacy for a cultural center on campus.

“The whole reason that I applied to be a MENA PL is because I really wish I had a MENA PL my first year, so just the fact that this is happening made me so excited,” Hatami said. “I wasn’t even really considering PL life, but just knowing MENA existed and that there was an opportunity, I knew I had to do it. And it’s been really great, really rewarding.”

The AACC-MENA PL program was first announced on June 21, when Eileen Galvez, dean of La Casa Cultural and the peer liaison program director, sent an email to the student body saying that the AACC would be opening its application process for the AACC-MENA PLs as well as additional PL spots for other cultural centers.

Before the AACC-MENA PL program started this year, there had been just one MENA student serving as an AACC PL for the 2022–23 academic year — Zahra Yarali ’24. She is now a co-head PL at the AACC.

Referring to new renovations and expansions to the MENA Space in the AACC, as well as the growing MENA population at Yale, Galvez wrote in her email that any students “invested in MENA communities” were invited to apply to become an AACC-MENA PL.

For MENA students, Kareem said, the AACC-MENA PL program provides more institutional support and a more permanent, stable support system on campus compared to student-run cultural organizations for MENA students, such as the MENA Students Association. 

“I’ve been a part of the Arab Students Association and MENA [Students Association] at Yale before, but it’s not stable like how a PL is stable,” Kareem said. “As a PL you’re obviously supported by the AACC. You’re supported by Yale, and it’s a paid position. Previously, there were communities available, but it wasn’t sustainable because they’re students and they’re just doing this in their free time. [The PL program] is much more structured.”

On Thursday, Sept. 7, the AACC held its MENA Welcome Mixer in collaboration with the Afro-American Cultural Center, introducing first years to their MENA PLs. 

As the PLs step into their roles for the year, they told the News that their role is a “tangible” step toward more MENA recognition, but they are still advocating for a dedicated cultural center.

“If you look at the history of the groups that have had cultural centers, they have typically been groups that were somehow marginalized in American society at the time,” Dean of Yale College Pericles Lewis said. “They’ve been centered around student interests and over time, and they developed into more formal University organizations with staff. Part of it is also having enough students who are interested in and want to participate, and enough people who have that background in the student body to make it work.”

Challenge of finding MENA PLees

MENA students do not have a formal classification at the University, making it difficult for the AACC-MENA PLs to identify MENA students as potential PLees.

Official identification, including the questionnaire on the Common Application platform, does not offer an option for Middle Eastern and North African students, so there is no administrative record of who identifies as MENA.

Because the U.S. Census does not recognize MENA as a unique racial group, the University’s admissions office and Student Information Services do not recognize it either, according to Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan. The only racial options for students to select are “white,” “Black,” “American Indian or Alaska Native,” “Asian” and “Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander.” 

“There is no way on any Yale form to indicate that we are MENA-identifying,” Hatami said. “We usually have to put that we’re white, but obviously most of us don’t identify as being white. We have to go through a lot of different people to get our message to all the first years.”

Because there is no formal way of identifying MENA students, the PLs do not have an official way of finding their potential PLees, unlike other cultural centers PLs, who receive a list of their first years. 

As an AACC PL, Yarali not only advocated for the AACC-MENA PL program but has also been involved in establishing these avenues of communication with MENA first years. 

“Since [FroCo groups] have the ability to have 12-on-one or 14-on-one small family dynamics, it’s a lot easier to convey things like this,” Yarali said. 

To find their first years, the AACC-MENA PLs have gone through several channels of outreach, including first-year counselors, residential college deans and fellow PLs at the AACC and other cultural houses, according to Yarali.

The results, Kareem told the News, have been mixed.

“We have good populations from some colleges and no kids at all from other colleges,” Kareem said. “With Pierson and Morse we have a really good [number of] people, but [in] Davenport or [Timothy Dwight] we have none, so it varies college to college.”

History of advocacy for a MENA cultural center

The MENA community at Yale, which is composed of students from 18 countries across the Middle East and North Africa, has been advocating for a dedicated cultural center and greater recognition from the University since 2018.

Previously, MENA students who requested a PL would receive one from either the Asian American Cultural Center or the Afro-American Cultural Center. Most students with North African heritage were paired with the Af-Am House, while those with Middle Eastern descent were assigned to PLs from the AACC. However, there was little specialized support for MENA students, and MENA utilization of either Af-Am House or AACC PLs was limited, per Yarali.

Several MENA students raised concerns about their community being split between the cultural centers. In a previous conversation with the News, Shady Qubaty ’20 said that MENA students do not fit into either the AACC or the Af-Am House. 

In 2018, a group of MENA students worked with Yale administration to receive a room at 305 Crown St. to host MENA cultural events. MENA students further cemented their physical presence on campus last year when the AACC converted one of its rooms into a MENA meeting space. Over the summer, Galvez said, the AACC expanded and renovated the space. 

There remains significant support among the undergraduate student body for a MENA cultural house. According to a survey done by the Yale College Council in 2018, 75 percent of students supported the establishment of a MENA cultural center. 

Moving forward, a goal of the AACC and MENA staff is to promote inclusivity for more identities.

“I think we definitely want to be more intentional about the AACC space, not only just to celebrate Asian American narratives, but also other narratives,” Mark Chung ’25, co-head AACC PL, said. “It’s important to understand that MENA is an intersectional identity, and there are individuals in the immediate community who identify with Asian America and those who don’t.”

Future plans

The new AACC-MENA PLs said they are planning to potentially expand the AACC-MENA peer liaison program for next year as they take more steps toward establishing a MENA cultural center.

With expansion, the PLs told the News there is a need for more North African representation among the peer liaison class.

“If it were to be expanded, I would like to see more diversity,” Kareem said. “None of us are North African, so I think it’s keeping some North African first years away.”

Lewis told the News that the University is searching for expanded space for student organizations, which could include a building for a MENA cultural center or room within a larger space for student clubs

He also said that opening a MENA cultural center, as with all other cultural centers on campus, comes with capital and operating costs for physical renovations, for hiring staff and for disbursing funds to student organizations affiliated with the cultural center. 

“The eventual goal is to have a MENA house, but obviously for now we need to really focus on recruitment,” Maleknia said. “Making sure that even if not every single MENA identifying first year wants to be a part of the community, they should all know that it exists at least at the very least, and that there is a space for them at the AACC.”

First years can request a peer liaison through the University PL page

Tristan Hernandez covers student policy and affairs for the News. He is also a copy editor and previously reported on student life. Originally from Austin, Texas, he is a sophomore in Pierson College majoring in political science.
Kenisha Mahajan covers Cops & Courts for the City desk. She is a first-year in Benjamin Franklin College from Queens, New York majoring in ethics, politics and economics.
Yolanda Wang (she/her) covers endowment, finances, and donations. She is a sophomore in Davenport College majoring in political science.