Hadia Mawlawi, AADM Online ‘13, is a board member at the Arab American Cultural & Community Center in Houston and chair of the cultural committee. She has curated Heritage Month since its inception in 2014, and over the years the festival has grown in scope and impact. Her first festival focused on an exhibition Hadia curated for local Arab artists. She says she had around 12 artists who participated - some were established in their careers, and others were emerging. In 2015, the festival’s focus was on the refugee crisis, so she hosted a panel discussion around that topic and repeated it again in November that year during Houston's annual Citizenship Month. In 2016, Hadia curated another exhibition, but this time for emerging artists and mostly refugees (from Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Morocco, and other countries).
Hadia says this year was a leap forward with the ACC’s partnership with the Smithsonian Affiliate museum AANM in Dearborn, MI. They have since asked her to chair their new Houston Chapter of the Friends of the Museum group, where her role will be to raise awareness of the Museum as well as fundraise so that they can create more collaborative programming with Houston.
In addition to her volunteer role at the ACC, Hadia is a research associate with NALAC (National Association for Latino Arts & Culture) where she is working on a report about Houston's Latino arts ecosystem. Hadia credits Drexel's wonderful arts administration program for her success and endeavors in the arts in Houston. She says the program was really comprehensive and lead her to meet instrumental people in her career.
In April 2017, the Arab American Cultural & Community Center in Houston (ACC) presented its fourth annual Arab American Heritage Month. This event is part of a larger national celebration of Arab culture in America that has its roots back in the 1980’s in Michigan, home to the largest Arab population in the United States.
Since its inception in 1995, the ACC has been committed to fulfilling its mission of serving the Arab American community in Houston regardless of religion, nationality, ethnicity, gender or financial status. Our goal is to serve the community through cultural programs, outreach and social services; promote Arab culture and heritage and foster a greater understanding of Arab Culture amongst the Houston community at large by serving as a liaison and resource center.
The Arab American Heritage Month was founded to showcase the diversity and complexity of our region. We are not a monolithic entity. In fact the Arab world is made up of twenty two countries, including Mauritania, Comoros and Djibouti. The region extends from the Atlantic Ocean, with Morocco to its extreme west, all the way to Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula to the east. These countries are tied together through their shared use of the Arabic language and not Islam, as is often thought. The region is multicultural and pluralistic, as well as having a complex set of cultural, political and historical identities. It boasts a large Christian community (Maronite, Orthodox, Catholic, Antiochian, and several others) in addition to Muslims, a small remaining Jewish population and other minority sects such as the Yazidis, Druze and Baha’i.
The first wave of Arab immigrants came to America in the late 1880’s fleeing their countries due to religious persecution, drought and famine. They were mainly Christian, from the Levant region, which encompasses present-day Syria, Lebanon and Palestine. These newcomers settled primarily in the North East and later California, establishing their businesses (textile and peddling of goods), schools, faith houses and community groups, rapidly assimilating into their environments and becoming an integral part of American society.
This year, the ACC was thrilled to partner with the Arab American National Museum (AANM), a Smithsonian Affiliate and member of the American Alliance of Museums, to bring to Houston the travelling exhibition What We Carried - Fragments & Memories from Iraq & Syria, a photography exhibition by American freelance photographer and author Jim Lommasson. Lommasson invited Iraqi and Syrian refugees to share a personal item significant to their travels to America, such as a family snapshot, heirloom dish or childhood toy. Lommasson photographed each artifact and then returned a 13" x 19" archival print to the participant so the item could be contextualized by the owner. Exhibition visitors received firsthand insight into the consideration of what objects, images and memories might be chosen if one was forced to leave his home forever. The exhibition brings to light the life-changing decisions made by Iraqi and Syrian refugees fleeing their homeland in search of safety and a better life for themselves and their families in the United States.
The objects they carried and the intense personal stories behind them, combined with personal images, illustrate the common threads that bind all of humanity: the love shared for family and friends and the places people call home.
At each tour stop, Lommasson works to collect local stories to incorporate into What We Carried. “The object photos and stories can help to break down stereotypes and share our common humanity and help to build bridges,” says Lommasson. “Through my project I realized that the objects and stories helped create an intimate empathy for those of us who saw them. The more powerful understanding is the realization of what was left behind. What was left behind was everything else; homes, friends, family, school, careers, culture and history.”
One of the poignant moments during the exhibition stop in Houston was when we hosted 40 high school students from Wisdom High School, previously known as Lee High School. Many of the students were refugees and the images brought about visceral responses that led to some tears, a lot of relatability and very moving words:
Other events during our Heritage Month included an all-Beethoven piano concerto by acclaimed Syrian pianist Dr. Chaden Yafi, a talk by internationally renowned multi-media Palestinian artist Mona Hatoum, our monthly International Ladies Night, the screening of the soon-to-be-PBS broadcast documentary “A Thousand And One Journeys - The Arab Americans”, and our closing reception with the Raphael Gadot Trio playing their own jazz compositions as well as re-arranged standards.
Our programming would not have been possible without the generous support of our local sponsors, community partners (Syrian American Club, The Menil Foundation and the Moody Center for the Arts at Rice University), and the Arab American National Museum.
Devon Akmon, Director of AANM says “The Arab American community currently faces myriad challenges, from rising Islamophobia to federally sanctioned rhetoric and actions that target immigrants, refugees and other culturally distinctive populations. Now, more than ever, the Arab American community needs environments that foster dialogue and creative expressions.”
Our intention with the Arab American Heritage Month is precisely to invite our local community into these types of environments that encourage dialogue, understanding and the dispelling of myths about our region brought about by one-sided media coverage and the spread of fear.