Arab American Family Services Co-Founders Nareman Taha (left) and Itedal Shalabi call themselves 'stubborn' women who helped make history. (Photos by Jeff Vorva)
‘Stubborn’ Arab American women spearhead change in MENA designation
Illinois first state to create category for Arab Americans
By Jeff Vorva
Two stubborn women were happy to make state history.
Palos Park’s Nareman Taha and Bridgeview’s Itedal Shalabi, co-founders of the Worth-based Arab American Family Services, have been working for decades to have Middle Eastern North African citizens counted for use of data collection and for funds and services.
Their work, and the work of an army of others, paid off on Aug. 4 when Gov. J.B. Pritzker put pen to paper to sign legislation differentiating MENA residents to their own racial and ethnic category and Illinois became the first state to do so.
Taha, Shalabi and others gathered Aug. 31 at the Arab American Family Services facility for a celebration and press conference.
“This is history,” Taha said. “I’m so proud of this moment and what we stand for.
“We are two stubborn Arab American women. When it comes to meeting the needs of our community, we are very stubborn. And we have a hard time taking ‘no’ for an answer. Aren’t you glad we didn’t give up?”
And they plan on seeing this through so that similar legislation becomes federal.
The bill that the governor signed requires state agencies to include the MENA category in addition to white, Black, American Indian, Alaskan native, Asian, Hispanic, native Hawaiian or other. The change will take place in 2025.
Shalabi is happy MENA will have its own category. She said this is a project 30 years in the making.
“When it comes to grants, we are excluded because we are not recognized as a culturally specific group,” she said. “[This bill] marks a significant historic step in changing the scenario, at least in the state of Illinois.
“In a larger context, accurate detailed data on our nation’s race and ethnic composition and information about how those data intersect with education, employment, housing, health care, political representation and other important institutions are essential for realizing our nation’s goal of equity, diversity and inclusion.”
Rashid, a Palestinian American whose legislative district runs from Bridgeview to Berwyn, said the two women have been working on getting this changed since he was little.
Speaking of his youth, he recalled filling out forms and being flummoxed.
“This issue is really deeply rooted for Arab Americans and all minorities from the Middle East,” he said. “Every one of us has stories about filling out forms and I can remember filling out forms when I was in middle school and high school and looking at the racial classification and trying to figure out which box I should check. Is there a box for me?
“I’m not white. I’m not Black. I’m not Latino. Maybe Asian? Palestine is in Asia technically. Or do I leave it blank?”
He said this is a good start.
“Really, this is a dynamic that exists for so many people in our country,” he said. “I’ve heard from so many people since the bill has been signed of how important this is. You are seen. You are valued.”
Worth Mayor Mary Werner said she was enjoying MENA’s victory.
“We have one of the largest Palestinian communities probably in the United States of America in our Congressional District,” she said. “I tell people all the time that I’m very proud of the fact that right now in our elementary schools, you will see signage that’s not only in English, it’s in Spanish, it’s in Polish and it’s in Arabic.
“When we have a student council that gets elected, it’s amazing when I get to go there and help swear in the student council members because those kids are diverse…I mean they are every size, shape, color and ethnicity. And it makes me feel good to represent a community that is so inclusive, and this is an amazing feat for you guys.”
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