by Tony Moore
After having successive Pennsylvania governors Tom Wolf and Josh Shapiro declare April as Arab American Heritage Month due to efforts she spearheaded, Associate Professor of French & Francophone and Women's, Gender & Sexuality Studies Mireille Rebeiz received a couple of notable invitations.
The first was from Gov. Shapiro. Rebeiz and her son, Jameson, met the governor and Senator Art Haywood on the Senate floor, and Shapiro signed the declaration in her presence. (As it was a school day, both Senator Haywood and Governor Shapiro provided Jameson with written excuses for his absence.) Soon after, Rebeiz received an invitation to the White House to celebrate Arab American Heritage Month.
As momentum picks up, with nine other states and the U.S. Department of State already declaring April as Arab American Heritage Month, and the city of Philadelphia working on a similar resolution, Rebeiz takes a moment to reflect.
What inspired you to push for Arab American Heritage Month in Pennsylvania?
There are so many harmful stereotypes and racist images about Arabs in mainstream media and pop culture, and one way to fight against this ignorance is to create a space to celebrate Arab culture. There is so much beauty in it, and so many Arab Americans have contributed meaningfully to the United States. Sadly, they remain unknown to the public.
This motivated me to push Dickinson to add the Arab American & Middle Eastern North African (MENA) categories to its internal documents and to advocate for the National Arab American Heritage Month, both on campus and in Pennsylvania.
What does it mean to you, and others of Arab descent, to have the governors of Pennsylvania come through with these declarations?
Both these proclamations mean a lot. They give visibility to my community, celebrate our history and reaffirm our belonging to this great nation.
You were invited to the White House because of your work on this initiative. What was that visit like?
The trip to the White House was very moving. I was honored, humbled and nervous. I came to this country as an immigrant. I came with my luggage, a small amount of money, big dreams, the will to work hard and faith in God. It felt surreal that I, daughter of a humble man from Beirut, am walking in the White House while Arabic music was playing in the background. There was an exhibition on Arab Americans who served either through uniformed service or in support of veterans, their families and survivors. It was a once in a lifetime experience.
It was even more impactful as I walked around with my son, who got to the see the best of both worlds: American history wrapped in Arabic sounds. I was also very sad because there was one person that I would have wished dearly to be able to call and share my experience with: my dad, who passed away in 2017.
What do you think most Pennsylvanians, and Americans at large, should know about Arab Americans but don’t?
Most Americans and Pennsylvanians think that Arabs are new to this nation, which is not true. There is historical evidence that Arab migration started early in the 18th century, and many Arab Americans fought during the revolution to secure American independence. Furthermore, most Americans confuse Arabs and Muslims. While the first is ethnicity, the second is religion. Arabs come in all religions and are not just Muslims. For instance, I am Antiochian Orthodox Christian, and I am proud of it.
Last, for my fellow Pennsylvanians, according to the Arab American Institute, the Arab American community is the fastest growing community in Pennsylvania. This means that our vote matters. We tend to be ignored by politicians and decision makers who think we are invisible. Big mistake, because the Arab American voice makes a difference!
Published May 24, 2023