MENA club posing for a group photo after speaking at the D219 Board of Education meeting

The Middle Eastern North African Club Advocates for Changes at D219 Board Meeting

Apr 26, 2023

Members of the Middle Eastern North African Club (MENA) spoke at the board meeting on April 18 to implement changes at our school including an annual student summit, an Arabic language course at D219 and more specified race options on school documents. The students also expressed profound gratitude for the immense support they received in order to host the first annual MENA summit last month. The club specifically thanks administrators and teachers for playing important roles in facilitating the meaningful event that uplifted different MENA backgrounds for a day of solidarity, community building and celebration.

A common theme expressed was that students felt a sense of recognition and empowerment, as they were given a space to come together and celebrate their diverse cultural identities for the first time.

“Like my fellow MENA club members, I would like to express my gratitude and appreciation for the district’s support of the MENA Student Summit. Looking back at my time here at Niles West, I could honestly say that was one of the best days I’ve ever had at school,” senior Michael Massih said.

Many graduating students hope that the school establishes the summit as an annual tradition so that current and future MENA students can continue being seen and heard.

“The MENA student summit was long overdue, it needed to happen. So many MENA students at D219 felt like they didn’t have a voice, and that they didn’t matter, and many of us still feel that way. One summit isn’t enough to make lasting progress, we need at least one summit for the MENA community every single year. It’s time to start making real change, and that starts with unity,” senior Kimiya Nafisi said.

As a part of the meeting, members of the MENA club proposed new course material and changes they would like to see in the district. Massih specifically advocated for an Arabic language course offering, as they were inspired by the Assyrian community who just got their Assyrian language course passed.

“For those of MENA heritage, it would give people the opportunity to study their language, for others it’s a great way to explore a new language that’s in high demand in the professional world. There’s a lot of interest in this course including a large Muslim population that relies on reading Arabic for holy text,” Massih said.

In addition, a separate MENA race category was also presented to be added at District 219 schools.

“We are completely erased in the data, our identities are erased and our specific groups are ignored. Palestinians, Arabs [and] Iranians are all lumped into the white category even though our experiences aren’t wide. I’m hoping D219 will be a leader to ensure that we are properly accounted for, an addition of a MENA category would allow them to more accurately report their identities and have a positive impact on representation. It will help the district identify and support our needs and support the student body better,” Massih said.

Members of MENA also talked about the challenges that come with being a part of the MENA community.

“Our needs are often ignored or disregarded, our identities are erased especially when the district looks at the MENA students in this room and still categorizes us as white. Any time we enter a room there are misconceptions and stereotypes that follow up. News of the tragedy of the Middle East isn’t even considered new anymore. Many of our teachers don’t really understand who we are or where our families come from,” senior Dania Khan said.

Many other MENA students shared their similar experiences of feeling isolated and disregarded.

“Growing up on whitewashed loneliness and canned insecurities [of] myself had no shape or description, I conformed to whatever I was told to be. I think I speak for everyone when I say that there’s a burden to shoulder when you were born MENA, we are exotified, we are citizens to cut lands of capitalistic oil, we are forgotten, we are pushed to the side, we get blamed, we are ridiculed, we are asked a hundred times where our country is, we are the epicenter of wars and we make headlines on news channels for all the wrong reasons,” junior Farah Al-Bayati said.

The meeting concluded with a statement from Superintendent Thomas Moore, reflecting on the summits District 219 has held this year.

“About six months ago, members of the Black Student Union came in and I said in three years if things don’t get better, you won’t have to fire me I’ll step down. I don’t think I’m going to have to step down. There’s positive momentum, things are getting better and I am really optimistic about our future. Kids keep coming forward, talking about what they see, what they need and our staff is on board. I am really excited about doing some active planning, making some shifts and really pushing.”

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