Making Space for MENA Students: A Community’s Fight for Representation at Tufts

Scanning the empty check-boxes of racial and ethnic groups on the Tufts application or in surveys sent out by the administration, students will find a diverse mix of identities listed as options. However, Middle Eastern and North African, or MENA, is almost never included among them. Currently, there is neither data collected on MENA students at Tufts nor an identity center or other community space specifically dedicated to their community. Tufts’ identity centers are important sites for people of marginalized identities to find joy, community, and a space to explore their identity and culture. Without such a space, many MENA students at Tufts feel they have been left without essential resources afforded to other campus communities. 

In the United States, the Middle Eastern community has experienced increasing rates of discrimination, especially after 9/11. Despite their specific experiences of ethnoracial oppression, the US federal government classifies people from the MENA regions as white. However, many people with MENA origins do not identify as white, and many non-MENA, non-Latine whites also do not perceive MENA people as white. 

Senior Omayma Dalal, a Moroccan and Syrian student, said, “Whiteness… comes with the white privilege. And obviously, there’s a lot of [Middle Eastern and North African people] with darker pigmented skin. So no one will stop us in the street and be like, you’re white.” Sabrina Rangwani, co-president of the Persian Students Association, echoed this sentiment, and said, “I have yet to meet someone who feels that a white label is adequately representative of us. We are forced to officially label ourselves as white while receiving none of the benefits of whiteness.” With a majority of the MENA community not identifying with or benefitting from whiteness, it begs the question as to why they have not been given resources specifically dedicated to them at Tufts and beyond.  

Dalal feels that the lack of a MENA representative on the Tufts Community Union Senate and the absence  of an identity center for MENA students “makes [MENA students] feel like we’re invisible minorities that no one’s acknowledging.” Additionally, Ragwani commented on the role of a MENA identity center in promoting recognition of the Tufts MENA community. She said, “Having staff at this identity center that are ‘on our side’ might help us get further in our efforts with [the] admin[istration].”

Dean James Glaser, a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Leadership Council, described the current institutional support Tufts provides for MENA students in a written statement to the Tufts Observer. “There is a Muslim chaplain and there are prayer rooms available for MENA students who practice Islam. There is a Muslim House on campus as well,” he wrote. Dalal described how Muslim spaces at Tufts are not replacements for a community space for MENA students, noting “most Arabs [at Tufts], even in [the Arab Student Association], identify as Christian, atheist, or of a minor[ity] religion,” despite the conflation between the two communities.

Other Division of Student Diversity and Inclusion centers have been considered options for some MENA members to find community; however, they are not a total replacement for having a dedicated MENA identity center. Dalal elaborated on how some North African students have acknowledged that while they are part of the African diaspora, the Africana Center is not always the best fit for them. Dalal said, “We’re not part of the Black identity, and we don’t share Black history, so it makes us feel uncomfortable trying to integrate into a space like that because we know that that’s not our space, and we do not want to disrespect it.” Dalal noted some MENA students she knows also question their belonging in the Asian American Center, despite many Middle Eastern countries being geographically located in Asia. 

The primary spaces in which MENA-identifying students can find community are through student-run clubs. Nessren Ourdyl, a Moroccan student, said, “We have a lot of student-made spaces. For example, there’s the Arab Student Association. A lot of students are in Muslim Student Association obviously, and there’s also another student group that’s MENA-based called Taqadum.” The ASA and MSA are groups dedicated to providing communities for the Arab and Muslim student populations, and Taqadum is a student group dedicated to MENA students who would like to discuss issues related to gender and sexuality.

Due to MENA students’ ethnic and religious diversity, some of these clubs do not provide space for all identities within the community. Dalal, who is president of the ASA,  said, “There are a lot of people who are North African who do not identify as Arab, and there are a lot of people within the Middle East, like the Turks and the Kurds, who do not identify as Arab as well.” She continued, “ASA tries to include as many MENA individuals as we can, [but] a lot of people at the end of the day do not identify as Arab. Everyone else who’s not Arab and doesn’t want to be part of the club [doesn’t] have a community to go to.” 

Another roadblock to expanding support for the MENA community is the lack of data on the number of MENA students at Tufts. Historically, census data on a minority group can help funnel resources, such as an identity center, to them. Without these statistics at Tufts, it is difficult for students to receive the resources and funding they need. Glaser cited this as a reason there is not a MENA student center. In a written statement, he said, “Identity centers and physical space are expensive, so we have to have a critical mass of students to justify that expense.” However, he also acknowledged that Tufts does not collect data on the number of MENA students besides the number of international students by country of origin.

 Associate Professor of Anthropology Amahl Bishara wrote in a statement to the Tufts Observer, “Those from the MENA region have been underrecognized by the university, in part, I think, because the US census has not been set up to recognize those from the MENA region, and thus we have tended not to be recognized in standard measures of racial and ethnic diversity on campus, as on the Diversity Dashboard.” The Diversity Dashboard displays data on racial and ethnic diversity in the Tufts student, faculty, and trustee population. According to Dalal, Bishara has collaborated with student groups in the past to collect this data; however, these efforts were not able to replace a university-wide count. Bishara stated, “It is certainly incumbent on the university to do all it can to recognize all the forms of diversity on campus, despite the shortcomings of those federal systems currently.”

The creation of identity centers at Tufts has historically been a struggle. Tufts opened its Indigenous Center as recently as March of this past year after years of effort. Many of the Tufts DSDI centers were created out of student activism and initiative; similarly, many MENA students have acknowledged student and faculty efforts to expand institutional support. Ourdyl noted that there has been “a huge push for an Arab or MENA house.” 

 However, according to Dalal, turnover in the Office of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Justice and in DSDI has been an obstacle to obtaining this space. Jared Smith, the most recent Director of the FIRST Resource Center, left his position at Tufts this semester. Robert Mack, the previous Chief Diversity Officer at Tufts, left the university last semester for a position at the New School. Dalal said, “Chief Mack was our point person. He wanted us to fight for a MENA-identifying center… But unfortunately, he also had to leave. And Jared also left the FIRST Center and Jared was also someone who I was always talking about how to establish this.” 

Reflecting on her past four years at Tufts, Dalal said, “I’ve seen absolutely no change from the Tufts institution when it comes to recognizing and resourcing MENA students. And I wanted to see it happen because I do feel like we had people in positions of power [such as Chief Mack and Jared Smith] who tried to advocate for us.”