Recap: National Arab American Heritage Month-- Celebrating the Power of Educators
By: Sara Tawfik/Arab America Contributing Writer
On Sunday, April 11, 2021, the significant role of education in enhancing knowledge about the Arab American heritage and identity was discussed. Panelists, Dr. Suzie Abajian, Mohamed Abdel-Kader, Lori Ajlouny, Adel Mozip, Karim Nagi, and Abrar Omeish recommended ways in which the community and educators can work together to impact students’ understanding of the Arab American community and the Arab World.
We also got the opportunity to hear performances from Karim Nagi and Suzie Abajian and engaged in positive conversation from our guests with our panelists. This event was moderated by educator and activist, Dr. Debbie Almontaser.
The primary purpose of the event and the Arab America Foundation is to connect, educate, and empower Arab American Heritage by hosting inspiring and successful Arab Americans in the field of education who represent some of the best in Arab America.
We started the evening with Arab America Foundation co-founders Warren David and Dr. Amal David introducing the Celebration of Educators moderator Dr. Debbie Almontaser. Dr. Debbie Almontaser is an internationally recognized, award-winning educator, entrepreneur, speaker, authority on cross-cultural understanding and author of, Leading While Muslim: The Experiences of American Muslim Principals After 9/11.
She is an influential community leader and the Founder and CEO of Bridging Cultures Group Inc. Dr. Almontaser was the founding and former principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, NY. She is Senior Advisor to Engage NY Metro, and is also an advisor at the NYC Department of Education School Diversity Advisory Group. Currently, she is the Board President of the Muslim Community Network and sits on the boards of the Yemeni American Merchants Association, Therapy and Learning Center Preschool, and 21in21.
Dr. Almontaser started her moderation by expressing the honor she felt for the opportunity to share the stage with such inspiring Arab Americans in the field of education and how significant it is that they are speaking so openly about their Arab American Heritage.
Dr. Almontaser continued to introduce the panelists starting with Dr. Suzie Abajian. Dr. Suzie Abajian is an elected member of the South Pasadena Unified School District Board of Education. Dr. Abajian was born in Aleppo, Syria, and immigrated to the United States in 1988 with her family. After graduating from Occidental College with a B.A. in Mathematics and an M.A. in Mathematics Education, she pursued her Ph.D. in education at UCLA. Dr. Abajian has been an educator for over 23 years working as a district administrator, K-12 teacher, educational researcher, and adjunct professor at UCLA, LMU, and Occidental College.
She has also served on the boards of local nonprofits, the California School Board Association Delegate Assembly, and on the Los Angeles County Democratic Party Central Committee. In 2018 she was named Congressional Woman of the Year for the City of South Pasadena by Congresswoman Judy Chu.
Dr. Abajian states that she considers the Arab Heritage to be her heritage because she is a speaker of the Arab language, the Arabic culture is part of who she is and part of her family although she is of Armenian descent. She advocates for the curriculum of Ethnic studies within the California school districts, and really reflects on open conversations regarding Post- 9/11 with her students. She then continues to play a song in Arabic on the Oud called “El Hilwa Di” which means “This Beautiful One” in English. She encourages student to learn about the history of Arab Americans within the US and to continue to educate themselves on their rich history and culture as a means of incorporating Arab American History within education.
Karim Nagi performs and teaches Arab music and dance in schools, universities, and festivals around the United States, and tours internationally. A native Egyptian immigrant to the USA, Nagi uses his expertise as a percussionist and folklore dancer to expose audiences to the arts and culture of the Arab world. He has presented on 5 continents, performed in over 400 schools, recorded 16 albums, conducted 17 Arab Dance Seminars, and written a play. He is currently the first Arab board member of Chamber Music America. His TEDx Talk “The Tambourine, My Partner in Diplomacy & Disruption” can be watched on the official TED website.
When asked how The Arab American Heritage contributes to both Nagi’s career and personal life, he expresses that he is consistently trying to educate the Western educational world on Arab art, music, and dance within schools, specifically after the backlash on the Muslim community after 9/11. He continues to teach us a little bit about how the different rhythms of Arab music show the diversity in Arab Heritage and Arab American Heritage. Later on in the event, Nagi performs a moving Arab rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner with the Oud that leaves the audience mesmerized.
Mohamed Abdel-Kader is Executive Director of the Stevens Initiative at the Aspen Institute. He previously served in the administration of President Barack Obama as Deputy Assistant Secretary for International and Foreign Language Education. Before joining the US Department of Education, Mohamed served in various roles at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University and at George Mason University where he led various international strategy efforts.
He has advised clients on organizational strategy, doing business in emerging markets. He is a Truman National Security Fellow, an Eisenhower Fellow, and is the author of a children’s book about stereotypes. Mohamed is a trustee of the Longview Foundation for International Education & World Affairs.
Abdel-Kader explained that within his childhood going to Egypt and he explaining stereotypes from the American world to Egyptians and vice versa: explaining Arab culture to Americans. He explained how he grew into the role of being an ambassador within the Arab American Heritage. He found having to explain the complex relationship between the United States and the Arab World as a challenge that he’d faced within his childhood. This is part of the reason that he advocated for the Arab American younger community. Abdel-Kader recommended that getting involved in and supporting your local institutions as a means of incorporating the Arab American Heritage within education.
Lori-Kamleh Ajlouny is a proud graduate of Wayne State University from where she holds a BA, MAT plus 30 additional hours of professional ed. She has spent her teaching career in Birmingham Public Schools where she taught for 31 years. She has served a department head and interim administrator.
She was part of a team that created a District Diversity Committee that implemented awareness of diversity within our community and without. She is also a member of the Oakland County Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee. Lori currently sits on the Birmingham Board of Education as the Vice President for her second term having been re-elected this past November. Lori has built strong relationships with BPS staff, administration, and community members. She has dedicated herself to service and excellence in whatever position she serves.
Ajlouny explains that she credits her identity and her pride in her identity to her parents, because they gave her a strong sense of who she is. She explained that growing up with this strength in her identity turned into pride. Every opportunity she’s gotten, she mentions that she is apart of this dynamic communities of Arabs and specifically, Palestinians. She explained within the Birmingham school district, which is a predominantly a White community, she would incorporate the Arab American Heritage and that would give the kids a connection to us.
Adel Mozip is a senior software developer for Beaumont Health and a managing director of SpanHead LLC. Mozip has served as a school board trustee for the Dearborn Public Schools and Henry Ford College since April 2019. He previously served as a software developer for Urban Science and as a creative designer for the Yemeni American News. Mozip earned a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering from the University of Michigan- Dearborn and an MBA from Wayne State University.
Mozip explains that it was a dream of his to perform an Arab Dream song within his school district, which he then continued to recite in Arabic. Throughout his career, he was intrigued and interested in incorporating the Arab American Heritage within his school. Within his career, he’d found that Arab culture kept on coming back. Mozip expressed that one of the most crucial parts about getting involved in the Arab American Heritage is through mentorship and that it does bring about change within any community.
Abrar Omeish currently serves as a School Board Member At-Large in Fairfax County right outside of Washington, DC. She is the first Libyan ever elected in US history and the first Muslim and youngest ever elected in her role, earning over 161,000 votes. Abrar co-founded an organization providing thousands of underprivileged youth with free tutoring and mentorship in 20 locations over the past ten years.
After serving in several appointed capacities locally and working as a senior organizer at the DNC, Abrar served as a legal fellow at a human rights and immigration law firm in Northern Virginia and has been a spokeswoman for the #NoMuslimBanEver campaign. Abrar was most recently a Virginia. Co-Chair for the Bernie Sanders campaign and a Virginia PLEO and Rules Committee member to the Democratic National Convention. She holds a double bachelor’s with honors from Yale University and is a current dual MPP/JD student and Blume fellow at Georgetown.
Abrar spoke about the significance of teaching within the Arab culture and Arab American Heritage and how hospitality is also a big part of her upbringing. She said a lot of the things that made her feel different was a lot the reason that she felt unique and grateful for her culture. She continues to give examples of individuals who have shaped education and how this inspired her to move forward in her Arab American Heritage. She speaks further about how qualities like family values shaped her view of the Arabs rich history.
After all of the panelists ended their conversation about how to further implement Arab American Heritage into the field of education, we opened the chat for a networking opportunity. This was the perfect opportunity for the Arab community to be heard and have open conversation about meaningful change within the education field and Arab community. Make sure you are registered for our Arab American Heritage Month events happening through this month.
About the Arab America Foundation
The Arab America Foundation (AAF) is a non-profit (501c3) educational and cultural organization. The mission of AAF is to promote the Arab heritage, empower and educate others about the Arab identity, connect Arab Americans, and build coalitions with diverse organizations across the U.S.
Special Thanks to Supporters
Andoni Family Foundation
Click here to learn more about Arab America.