Arab American Women Making an Impact: Maha Freij
By: Ivey Noojin/Arab America Contributing Writer
Born in a geographic area of Palestine which is now considered Israel, Maha Freij was the first Arab woman in Israel to earn a CPA license, which is the highest achievement for an accountant in Israel. She currently is the chief financial officer and deputy executive director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) based in Dearborn, Michigan. She also serves on the board of Advisors to the United Palestinian Appeal, a non-profit organization that provides relief for Palestinians and contributes to the future development of the culture and economy.
Freij through ACCESS has helped to strengthen the voice of the Arab American community in Michigan and throughout this country. Her mission is especially important during a time in the history of anti-immigration and anti-Arab attitudes.
Although she does not want her story to be defined by the negative images portrayed during this challenging times, she still has dedicated her life to sharing the real Arab American culture with those who hope to understand it.
“Being at a place like ACCESS represents a calling and commitment since I was a little girl for social justice,” Freij said.
Life Before Career
When Freij was a child, she could easily see the lack of democracy in an occupied land where she was born and raised. She didn’t feel like she had a voice and reacted accordingly. In her occupied Palestine, Freij refused to learn how to cook and instead focused on school. This ultimately led to a bachelor’s degree in accounting and economics in1989 from Hebrew University.
That same year, she moved to the U.S. to be with her husband, whom she had met at a work conference. Freij’s strong qualifications landed her a high-level administrative job at ACCESS.
With ACCESS, Freij was able to help spearhead the creation of an Arab American National Museum, which came into fruition in 2005 in Dearborn. A year later, she also created the Center for Arab American Philanthropy (CAAP), an institution within the ACCESS organization. CAAP is the only national Arab American community foundation in the U.S. Its goal is to create a networking site for philanthropists across the country.
Freij noticed the trend that many Arab American organizations flourish only for a small period of time before collapsing. Therefore, she has focused on increasing a networking presence among members of her community. She wanted to empower and unite people, promoting similarities instead of differences between each other.
Through CAAP, she has created a community for people to inspire others and share their own dreams for changing the world.
CAAP awards $1.3 million to Arab Americans who are using their voice to make a difference. $123,000 of that fund is for scholarships to college. To Freij, this is one of the best aspects of her job. She said that “reading the essays of these young people definitely have given me joy and hope.”
Her favorite scholarship program at CAAP is the Dr. Adawi Alousi fund, which provides money for a Muslim woman in STEM from immigrant or refugee families that are passionate about more than just school. She loves reading the applicants’ submissions because of the kind of young women she sees before her; it makes her feel better about the future of the Arab American community and the U.S.
Also under CAAP, Freij is currently working on expanding the program established in 2016 called, Building Blocks for New Americans. The goal is to help with the transition for immigrants and refugees into the U.S. Within six months, CAAP raised $300,000 to support more than 51 families, according to Freij. Now, she is focusing on providing support including workforce development programming, housing, English instruction, and an emergency fund.
Maha Freij: At Home
Outside of work, Freij lives with her husband Roy. They have two sons, one who is currently attending medical school.
“I cannot do this without the blessing of my family,” Freij said when discussing her career. The rigor of her career could take a toll on her life at home; however, Freij dismissed that idea because “they themselves are philanthropists.”
Freij and her husband raised their boys to know the importance of activism. They would all volunteer at organizations and contribute to causes that support Arab Americans.
She is able to stress the importance of unity and helping one another because her family also holds those values.
At ACCESS, “we deal with anybody in the community who is passionate about anything,” Freij said. She believes in promoting the dreams of others because they will be the ones that make a difference in society.
This organization has brought Arab Americans together, which she stresses to be the only way to have a voice in this country. She believes that every action affects the community, no matter the job or idea. Freij views each person as a representation of her/his nationality and community. Therefore, she advises you, the reader, to “carry your heritage with you and be proud of where you came from.”
Freij wants to hear anyone’s ideas about projects for the Arab American community. Email her at email@example.com if you want to make your dream a reality.