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Orange County

Muslims and Arabs Seek New Profile

Leaders brainstorm in Anaheim on how the communities can show their contributions.

June 06, 2004|Stanley Allison | Times Staff Writer

Saying that they have been ignored or smeared by stereotypical images for years, more than 50 leaders in Anaheim's Arab American and American Muslim communities met Saturday to promote their contributions to the city's diversity.

"The city has done a poor job of reaching out to ethnic groups," said City Councilman Richard Chavez, who sponsored the gathering.

"There wasn't the political will to learn about their culture and the benefit they bring to the city."

Saturday's exchange, he said, could be a step toward changing that.

"This is a start," Chavez said. "These meetings will empower the community itself to take a leadership role."

The gathering was organized by Nahla Kayali, founding director of Access California Services, a resource center that serves Anaheim's Arabs and Muslims. She and others said they were encouraged that Chavez, Orange County Supervisor Chris Norby, and Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Anaheim) stopped by to offer support.

"They've created a partnership with us," said Joanne Abu-Qartoumy, executive committee secretary of the Palestinian American Congress.

"They've given us a guarantee that is not just another meeting," she said.

The activists and business leaders noted that the Anaheim commercial district known as Little Arabia, a stretch of Brookhurst Street with about 140 shops and restaurants, is popular among Arabs and Muslims in Southern California.

"I come from Laguna Hills to Anaheim to shop," said an attendee of the gathering, Rima Nashashibi, vice chairwoman of the Democratic Party of Orange County.

She said she enjoys breakfast at an ethnic bakery, then visits her favorite butcher shop for halal meat, the Islamic equivalent of Jewish kosher, before buying Arabic cheese and labaneh, a concentrated yogurt.

In attracting about 200,000 people a year, Little Arabia "gets the community together, it gives a voice to the community," she said.

The leaders -- brainstorming in small groups, scribbling their ideas in colored inks on display boards and then comparing notes -- proposed several projects Saturday to elevate Arabs' and Muslims' presence in Anaheim.

A community center, they said, would benefit both youth and women, and be a place for recreation and voter registration.

They also suggested creating an official designation for Little Arabia and establishing an office of immigration affairs.

Chavez said developing a community center would take time, but noting Muslim holidays on city calendars is easily achievable.

He encouraged the attendees to participate in civic affairs and they acknowledged their responsibility to assimilate.

Both Arabs and Muslims must "get involved in the American way of life," said Nadia Saad Bettendorf, an educator and a commissioner with the Orange County Human Relations Commission.

"If we don't build coalitions, we are not going to succeed," she said. "If we don't talk about ourselves, we are not going to succeed.

"We have to stop ... saying they are against us."

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