BYU Arab Student Association aims to foster unity in times of strife

786
BYU students supported the BYU Arab Student Association at Friday’s Muslim prayer service held on Oct. 13. An additional absentee prayer was held to honor the lives of those lost in Gaza. (Amy Ortiz)

Through events showcasing Arab and North African culture, the BYU Arab Student Association fosters unity and understanding within the BYU community during challenging times.

Inspired by their father, Ahmad Salah, who founded the BYU Arabic Club in 2002, Sama Salah and Noureen Salah started the BYU Arab Student Association in 2022 to “unite the Arabs across campus … host events that encourage inclusivity and represent the Arab student body,” according to the BYU Arab Student Association’s website.

“We wanted to create a space on campus where students can come … be a part of inclusive events and learn more about our culture,” Sama Salah, president of the BYU Arab Student Association, said.

Sama Salah also said that by creating this space the BYU Arab Student Association hopes to help humanize the Arab image.

BYU student preparing his shawarma at the BYU Arab Student Association’s Shawarma Night. The BYU Arab Student Association’s Shawarma Night was held in March 2023. (BYU Arab Student Association)

“The ASA isn’t just a space for Arab students on campus,” Tala Alnasser, co-vice president of the BYU Arab Student Association, said. “It’s also a space for the other 99% on campus to engage in conversations, interact with us, get to know us as people and get to know our stories.”

For Alnasser, engaging in conversation and getting to know others as people is the best way to learn about their culture. The BYU Arab Student Association works to create these types of opportunities for BYU students.

To accomplish this goal, the BYU Arab Student Association has hosted events such as Henna Night, Dabke Night and Shawarma Night, where participants learned and formed part of a traditional Lebanese line dance, received traditional henna tattoos and prepared and enjoyed their own shawarma.

According to Noureen Salah, co-vice president of the BYU Arab Student Association, these events have been fun, offered participants a “tiny glimpse” into their culture and sparked important conversations.

“Sometimes it can be exhausting having to repeat yourself over and over again, explaining why you do, … practice (and) say certain things but … it’s worth it knowing that there’s a possibility for someone to open their perspective,” Alnasser said.

The BYU Arab Student Association presidency standing in front of the Karl Maeser Building. The BYU Arab Student Association started in October 2022. (BYU Arab Student Association)

For members of the Arab and North African communities on campus, helping broaden others’ perspectives and understanding of their culture is important, especially as conflict unfolds in Israel-Palestine.

Sama Salah and Alnasser explained much of the media covering the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict is polarizing, creating harsh divides between their community and others. According to them, greater education and a desire to understand their lived experiences is the key to drawing closer together.

“We’re sharing our culture but the strategy behind it is to create that culture of proximity … because the more you interact with us the more that culture becomes a part of you in some way,” Alnasser said.

Arab and North African students on campus come from all walks of life. Some, such as Sama Salah and Noureen Salah, were born and raised in the U.S. with close ties to the BYU community. Others, such as Mohammad Hameed, a Palestinian refugee, have journeyed far and faced a myriad of tumultuous circumstances to get here.

No matter their background, the BYU Arab Student Association has helped these students share and use their unique experiences to impact the BYU community.

Hameed expressed the BYU Arab Student Association has given him a voice, a space to share his thoughts and feel like someone cares to listen.

“We’re sharing our thoughts, we’re being heard … that’s one of the things that the association is doing and helping us with,” Hameed said.

BYU students kneeled in prayer at Friday’s Muslim prayer service. BYU Imam, Ahmad Salah, conducted the prayer. (Amy Ortiz)

According to Alnasser, the BYU Arab Student Association has empowered Arab and North African students on campus to use their intersectional identities to build bridges of understanding.

When asked what BYU could do to support the Arab and North African communities on campus, Alnasser suggested BYU students learn and listen to those whom this primarily affects.

“I’m a firm believer that if you want to make change on a larger level, you have to start on a micro level, you have to start within your own community,” Alnasser said. “So, talk to the Arab community, don’t be shy to ask questions because they will answer them.”

As for Sama Salah, she suggested BYU students seek to educate themselves about the issue and the experiences of those within the community.

“You can argue with beliefs, but you can’t argue with experiences,” Sama Salah said. “And when you listen to experiences, you begin to humanize (and) build a stronger bond between you and the person whose experiences you’re listening to because that’s all we really are — a mosaic of experiences, and we all have different sides of our stories.”

Moving forward, Noureen Salah stated that the BYU Arab Student Association plans to host more educational events, such as Palestinian Voices, an event where Palestinians will come and share their voices, at the end of November.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email