- Published on Monday, 13 August 2012 14:20
- Category: Culture
Nestled on the third floor of a small walk-up in Brooklyn Heights, a neighborhood known for its bars, restaurants and trendy stores, sits the Arab American Family Support Center – a safehaven for the growing Arab American population of New York City.
Established in 1994, AAFSC aims to assist the burgeoning Arab and Muslim community in New York City by providing services that new immigrants and families often lack. “Our mission is to empower new immigrants with the tools they need to successfully acclimate to life in the United States and become active participants in their communities,” Sara Elghobashy told me via email. She is the former Development Manager at AAFSC.
Groups like AAFSC are integral in aiding immigrant families settle in the United States. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Arab/Middle Eastern population grew by 38.3% in 2000, with the Arab population heavily concentrated in California, Florida, Michigan, New Jersey and New York. In New York alone, the Arab population grew from 94,319 in 1990 to 120, 370 in 2000.
The 2000 U.S. Census Bureau report on people who identify with an Arab ancestry was the first of its kind. However, it was not repeated in 2010. People of Middle Eastern descent were and are still grouped in with Caucasians and Whites. This often becomes problematic for Middle Eastern immigrants who, grouped in with white Americans, get lost in the shuffle and do not receive the help they may need as new immigrants.
This is where AAFSC steps in. With a “cradle to the grave” initiative and working with such a booming and expansive population, AAFSC is a one stop shop for immigrant needs that may not be readily available. “The experience of settling in a new country can be a challenge. Often times, our families can’t speak English, so they are unable to communicate with their children’s schools or look for a job or find another apartment to move into. It’s even worse for more vulnerable clients, like survivors of domestic violence for instance. Our Center is here to help people learn English, apply to be a citizen, get health insurance for their family, meet with counselors to discuss familial or cross cultural issues, get assistance on where to apply for food stamps, or find out how their kids can go to college,” says Elghobashy.
With so many goals to accomplish and people to aid, the center’s periwinkle blue walls and small space can be misleading to the unknowing eye. But, Ambreen Qureshi, former Program Director at the Women’s Islamic Initiative in Spirituality and Equality (WISE) and current Director of Development and Communications at AAFSC, provides a quick tour of the center, pointing out the many roles that AAFSC plays.
Small white cubicles house case planners working in the Preventive Services Program. They work with 12 to 15 families at a time to ensure that homes are safe for children and devoid of any neglect or mistreatment. Additionally, the Preventive Services offer family and individual counseling, crisis intervention, and problem resolution for cross-cultural conflict along with referrals to other service providers.
Splattered across the walls are photos of the children who participate in the youth activities offered by AAFSC. Ice skating in the winter, Puppetworks in Park Slope and visits to the NY Aquarium keep children busy and interested. AAFSC offers homework help for students after-school and a six week summer camp, as well as SAT tutoring and college entrance advising.
Elghobashy believes that all ages and people can gain help from the center but children “are the most vulnerable population we work with.” She adds, “I love to hear the stories about children who came here for our afterschool program not knowing a word of English and now they’re in college and come to visit during their breaks. It’s really heartwarming how our clients evolve and grow, and how they come back to the Center to help others do the same.”
The Center also works to educate children and teens about abuse and break down stereotypes. In celebrating Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the girls club cut pieces of denim and made little jeans with slogans to educate others about sexual assault. The clothesline of jeans is topped with a heading that reads, “It doesn’t take a JEANIUS to know that…” followed by slogans that read “No, means NO” and “Respect me for who I am and not my body.”
“I think it’s great that an organization like ours exists to help marginalized members of our community and address issues that may be deemed “taboo” by some in the community. We’re here to speak about the subjects that no one else wants to discuss and help people with difficult issues,” adds Elghobashy.
Qureshi continues with the tour pointing out the different rooms and services that AAFSC engages in. With bright eyes, she points out a tutoring session in one of the sunny yellow rooms, and happily explains how two women recently learned English as a second language and gained their citizenship papers through AAFSC.“We don’t only provide assistance, but we are here to advocate on behalf of our clients as well,” adds Elghobashy. “Whether it is at the city, state, or federal level or simply at their children’s school, we want to make sure that our clients are offered the same opportunities as everyone else.”By Hasiba Haq, Aslan Media Contributor