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Muslim Leaders Urge Census Participation

posted on: Mar 22, 2010

By some counts, there are about 600,000 Muslim and Arab-Americans living in greater Chicago. Other estimates put the number closer to 250,000.

No one knows for sure, which is why Muslim leaders on Sunday encouraged their community to participate in the 2010 census, so they can have an official count.

“If we keep isolated, no one will know about us,” said Yousif Marei, president of the Islamic and Arab Community Service Office in Chicago’s Albany Park neighborhood. “It is time for us to let them know who we are.”

Muslim and Arab leaders have had to quell concerns within the community that personal information relayed on the census may be used to track people as part of anti-terrorism measures.

“It is not a spying instrument from the government,” said Abbul Hijjawi, 76, a retired college educator who lives on the city’s North Side. “We should not fear the process, because we are not a threat to the country.”

Muslim leaders have visited mosques during Friday prayers for the last few months to encourage participation in the census. They also have addressed concerns from Arab-Americans about how to fill out the questionnaire, because there is no box to check for their ethnicity.

“We come from an Asian continent, but we are not Asian. We are Middle Eastern,” said Salman Aftab, an activist in the Muslim community. “There should be some specification on the census.”

Many Arabs plan to check the “some other race” category, and write in Arab-American.

“I’m not going to tell you who you are. You are going to tell me,” Kasia Rivera, a partnership specialist with the census bureau, said at the gathering on Sunday.

There are similar concerns among Asian-Americans — particularly by Indonesians, Sri Lankans and Taiwanese, whose ethnicities are not listed as boxes on the form. Had they not educated the community, some people would have marked the “next best option by default,” according to the Taiwanese American Citizens League.

One of the reasons ethnic organizations are advocating for people to write in responses is because data obtained from the census is used to evaluate racial disparities and assess the characteristics and needs of specific communities.

“Everything you do in daily life is affected by census data,” Rivera said of the roads people drive and the number of schools a community has nearby. In 2000, Albany Park had a 42 percent response rate, Rivera added.

Starting Monday, the census bureau will have a “participant tracker” on its home page, showing how many residents have returned their forms.