Cathy Camper has spent her whole life as a librarian and a writer. An Arab-American, she believes in using the power of storytelling to bridge the gap among different cultures. Camper’s mission is personal. Growing up, she didn’t have a teacher or a role model who looked like her.
Camper is the author of the award-winning “Lowriders in Space'' graphic novel series, which celebrates Latinx traditions through Mexican car culture. Camper’s latest book, “Arab Arab All Year Long!,” honors Arab-American kids and their activities through vivid illustrations detailing Arab culture and traditions.
In a recorded video shared before the Board of Commissioners Thursday, April 7, Camper described all the ways that Arab culture and American culture are intertwined in light of Arab American Heritage Month.
“I’m really excited about Arab-American Heritage Month because I think Arabs aren’t always visible in the United States, and there’s also a lot of stereotypes,” Camper said. “There’s millions of Arabs that have lived in the United States for generations.”
During Thursday’s board meeting the Board of County Commissioners proclaimed April Arab-American Heritage Month in Multnomah County. The annual proclamation celebrates and honors the rich contributions of Arab-Americans and celebrates Arab-American heritage and culture.
“This proclamation today gives us a chance to celebrate and to learn more about Arab-Americans here in our county, in our county government and in our county at large, and in our community,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “It’s my personal hope as a Lebanese-American that this recognition shows the public that our Arab-American community members are here.”
“It is, indeed, a wonderful tradition Multnomah County has established where we take time to reflect on the rich history and culture of Arab-Americans,” said Joy Fowler, the County’s Chief Diversity Officer. “On behalf of the Office of Diversity and Equity, we wholeheartedly support and embrace this proclamation.”
Oregon made history in 1978 when residents elected Victor George Atiyeh to serve as the 32nd Governor of Oregon between 1979 and 1987—the first Arab American elected as Governor of a US state.
In July 2021, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed into law House Bill 2914 proclaiming each year as Arab American Heritage Month, making Oregon the second state to permanently recognize the event. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are at least 31,000 Arab-Americans living in Oregon.
Multnomah County is committed to serving immigrants and refugees at work through its Immigrants and Refugees Employee Resource Group. The group creates opportunities for employees to gather and celebrate diversity and support one another.
“As immigrants and refugees, we have kind of a shared experience, almost regardless of where you come from,” said Alis Smbatyan, the co-chair of the Immigrants and Refugees ERG. “We work to help support employees who have any immigrant and refugee related concerns.”
“I really appreciate that, especially during these challenging times, we do have the opportunities to come together for the immigrant and refugee employees and have that place for support and community,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said.
Preserving and promoting Arab heritage
Mohammad Bader, who directs the Department of County Human Services, describes himself as a “proud Arab-American.” Far too many Arab-Americans share the same commonality of leaving their countries of origin to escape prosecution, war, and genocide, he said.
Arab-Americans have migrated to the United States in waves. The first wave was composed of Lebanese and Syrians who migrated to the Northeast and Midwest in the late-19th century. The next wave took place at the start of the 20th century, as Detroit’s automobile industry drew immigrants from across the globe.
Since the 1960s, Arabs have migrated to the United States to escape poverty, war and genocide. During this time, refugees have arrived from numerous countries including Lebanon, Morocco, Yemen, Somalia, Sudan, Iraq, and Iran.
“As an Arab American immigrant who has witnessed the horror of persecution and genocide, I want to acknowledge that this is also Genocide Awareness Month,” Bader said. “I stand in solidarity with friends and colleagues who were impacted by genocide.”
Nadia Dahab, a Libyan-American, is the president of the Arab-American Cultural Center of Oregon. The center is a statewide nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting the heritage of Oregon’s Arab-American community.
Throughout the pandemic, the organization has expanded in order to meet the needs of the Arab-American community. In partnership with the Oregon Food Bank, the center helped host monthly food distributions across the county.
“The past couple of years have really called upon our organization to understand and to respond to the needs of our community members in a different way,” Dahab said.
Throughout Arab-American Heritage Month, the center is hosting multiple events including cooking classes and film screenings. People can find out about upcoming events over the next several weeks on the nonprofit’s website.
“I’m so happy that we’re here today to recognize National Arab American Heritage month,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann said. “It’s a time to honor the ethnic, political, and religious diversity among Arab Americans and to celebrate the rich history and the cultural and linguistic heritage of our communities. and this is especially true as this is taking place during the holy month of Ramadan, observed by muslims worldwide.
Muslim Educational Trust recognizes Chair Kafoury with Lifetime Achievement Award, celebrates Bienestar with Community Service Award
The Muslim Educational Trust was founded in 1993 to raise awareness about Islam and dispell common myths and stereotypes. The organization also serves the community through educational, social, and spiritual programming.
The organization has also collaborated with Multnomah County to vaccinate the public. During the pandemic, the Muslim Educational Trust, in partnership with the Health Department, vaccinated more than 3,000 residents.
Wajdi Said, who serves as the President of the Muslim Educational Trust Board of Directors, described Arab Americans as “peaceful and justice-oriented.” In the wake of 9/11, Said co-founded the Interfaith Council of Greater Portland, which recently celebrated 21 years of engagement. Through his work, Said has promoted interfaith dialogue among the Christian, Muslim, and the Jewish communities.
“All of this work happened because of Arabs that understood history,” Saidi told Commissioners.
During his remarks, Said announced that on Saturday, Nov. 12 the Muslim Educational Trust will present Chair Deborah Kafoury with the Lifetime Achievement Award at its Annual Auction and Award Night. That same night, the organization plans to celebrate Bienestar de la Familia with its Community Service Award.
“I just feel so full of love and gratitude for all of you today,” Chair Kafoury said. “I can’t thank you enough.”
At the end of their remarks, presenters read the proclamation aloud. Afterwards, commissioners expressed their appreciation and underscored the importance of celebrating communities through proclamations and public ceremony.
Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson said the County’s work with organizations like the Muslim Educational Trust Arab-American Cultural Center of Oregon underscore the “important role that we have in community, reaching out and being that connection and center for all of those folks who have bene so impacted today.”
“I think these celebrations and proclamations of our communities are so important,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said. “It’s a chance to be seen, to be heard, to share information about our history, to share difference and also commonality.”