University students demand recognition through census category

By Neshmia Malik, Contributing Writer

Several University students are currently working towards getting a space for the Middle East and North Africa  community and advocating for the identification of Middle Eastern and North African classifications on student censuses. 

On March 2, the University’s Arab Student Association and Students for Justice in Palestine participated in an event hosted by the Arab American Cultural Center at University of Illinois at Chicago addressing the lack of representation amongst the student population who identify with the MENA. 

MENA is an acronym for the regional subcontinent of the Middle East and Africa that many of the Arab Americans in the United States identify with and is seen as neglected by many Arab American students who have been told to check off the “white box” because they are neither Asian, Hispanic or Black. 

This event was hosted to allow MENA-identifying students to voice their experiences with the lack of racial classification in most censuses. A few University students attended the event to speak upon their MENA experiences on this campus. 

Creen Ahmed, senior in ACES and  member of Arab Students Association, is currently working on drafting up a resolution for the University to install a MENA cultural center on campus, an initiative that has been pushed solely by students for the past two years with no support from administrators.

“Having a cultural center for MENA students is important for garnering a community on campus and providing a shared space for students to come together for events, activities and networking,” Ahmed said. 

Not only are MENA students on campus advocating for a physical center, but they are also concerned about the lack of representation in reference to COVID-19 statistics on campus. Sofia Sinnokrot, senior in LAS, highlighted the demographic disparities on campus when accounting for the MENA population in the COVID-19 census. 

“More recently, the University has administered more than a million COVID tests and has been incredibly deliberate in gathering information and data regarding cases,” Sinnokrot said. “No information about MENA students is even available because we are grouped in an ‘other’ or ‘white’ category.”. 

The MENA community is greatly concerned that these students are being accounted for as ‘white’, making this a vast misrepresentation of a population who identify as a completely separate race. Another concept brought up by Sarah Hasan, UIC graduate, was how the MENA community was told to identify as “white”, yet they aren’t able to fully reap the benefits of being white. 

Hasan, who has also been heavily involved in the MENA campaign work, discussed her experience with being utilized as an image to represent diversity at UIC when she feels that she is not represented at all. 

“How does it make sense that us Arabs and MENA students are tokenized to benefit the university’s image, but we’re made to feel invisible when we’re on paper because we are considered white,” Hasan said.

Hasan continued to elaborate on the lack of resources and educational opportunities for the MENA community because if they are classified as white, they do not qualify for many financial aid resources catered to minorities.  

[email protected]