COVID-19 has wreaked havoc in just about everyone’s life, and it is not lost on me that individuals are deeply feeling the cost of this pandemic. Too many people are grieving the loss of loved ones, recovering from their own illnesses, suffering from food and housing insecurity, and coping with depression, anxiety and isolation. As we begin to settle in with a new presidential administration, we can begin to have a glimmer of hope that our country will take a more aggressive approach to managing the spread and treatment of COVID-19.
For me, the impact of the pandemic has been less severe, and I feel especially fortunate. I was reaching the midpoint of my sabbatical when the virus took hold and shelter-in-place orders were issued. Like many of those reading this article, I was scheduled to attend the April 2020 American Counseling Association Conference in San Diego, and I was thrilled to have been given the opportunity to present and facilitate a workshop. My presentation, adapted from my doctoral research, was to examine the paucity of Arab American cultural competency training available for college counseling professionals. I also planned to unpack the contemporary needs of Arab American students, their expectations when meeting with a counselor, and the factors that increase their likelihood of engaging with a mental health provider. I am passionate about this research, especially given the lack of adequate mental health services for Arab American students and how this affects their success.
In this piece, my aim is to amplify the micro-level personal concerns of Arab American students who participated in focus group sessions that I led, those whom I counsel and teach, and those more broadly who live in the Arab American community of Chicagoland (Chicago proper and its adjoining suburbs). I will also provide recommendations, based on feedback from students, so that we can keep pace with the contemporary challenges of this population and confidently assist them when they call on us for support while experiencing psychological distress.
Since 2015, I have been studying the preparedness of community college counselors to effectively engage with Arab American college students. Pre- and post-tests were used to assess counselors’ levels of cultural competency with Arab students. The post-tests were administered after counselors participated in a 90-minute professional development program called Understanding the Arab American College Student.
My study also included Arab American college students, who through a series of focus group sessions offered a rich critique of how the political landscape shapes their experiences and identities. The information they shared also captured the essence of who they are culturally, socially and religiously, and how they navigate their identities at home and school. They also shared the importance of having mental health practitioners who understand their worldview and can be turned to for support.
Background on Arab Americans
Arab American identities are vast and complex, and the Arab American students with whom counselors interact in their offices are just as diverse as the 22 countries these students emigrated from or have ancestral ties to: Algeria, Bahrain, Comoros Islands, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, United Arab Emirates and Yemen. Members of this community have been immigrating to the United States since the late 1800s and have long been a part of the fabric of American society, making significant economic, educational and political contributions. According to the Arab American Institute, which is one of the longest-standing Arab civic engagement organizations in the U.S., it is estimated that nearly 3.7 million Americans trace their roots to an Arab country. Although Arab Americans live in almost every part of the U.S., more than two-thirds of them reside in just 10 states: California, Michigan, New York, Florida, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia.
There are many assumptions about Arab Americans that can interfere with the therapeutic process and alliance. For instance, Arab and Muslim are not synonymous; in fact, over 60% of Arabs residing in the U.S. are Christian, not Muslim. Arab Americans may be first, second or third generation. Some are fluent in Arabic and English, whereas others may speak only one. Another commonly held misconception revolves around the citizenry status of Arabs. Of Arabs in the U.S., 82% are citizens, the majority of whom are native-born.
Misguided beliefs, stereotypes and popular assumptions may lead us to view members of this community as one-dimensional, but in fact, Arab American students are distinct, so each student should be regarded as an individual with unique experiences.
Although we lack data on students who have an Arab background because they are expected to identify as white/Caucasian on most college and university admission forms, a few campuses such as the University of Illinois at Chicago have some data illustrating that Arab Americans make up a significant portion of the student body. Additionally, the college for which I work sits in a congressional district that has one of the largest concentrations of Palestinians in the U.S. It is clear that we also enroll a sizable number of other Arab American students. Because Arab American students constitute a significant percentage of the college population — while simultaneously facing targeting and various forms of racial/ethnic exclusion — it is imperative that our field incorporates a mental health framework that honors this population’s sociopolitical experiences and cultural and religious background.
In addition to facing many of the same challenges that college students generally encounter, such as navigating academic stress, negotiating relationships with friends, and deciding on a major, Arab students are subject to an ongoing and unrelentingly hostile political climate. These students, their families and their communities at large are dealing with the impact of anti-Arab and Islamophobic foreign and domestic policies such as the global war on terror, the Muslim travel ban, mass surveillance, and racial profiling programs promoted under the “countering violent extremism” framework. These policies and programs trickle down into Arab Americans’ everyday lives in the form of hate crimes, discrimination and a generalized sense of fear.
All of this can contribute to the development of mental health issues or exacerbate already-existing psychological disorders. Focus group participants shared how repressive policies shaped by the Trump administration (especially the Muslim travel ban executive order) translated into their everyday experiences of feeling anxious, alienated, intimidated and untrusting of institutions that are meant to be supportive. Several students at the time disclosed their feelings of uncertainty with comments such as, “Personally, I was scared during the election and when Trump became president,” “There’s still some fear that I have about what he can and cannot do to us as Arabs or Muslims,” and “The Muslim ban was very traumatizing, not just to me, but to people who could not come back to the States when they left for vacation.”
In failing to understand the political stress our Arab students are enduring, and by neglecting to engage in meaningful and elevated conversations about political issues that concern them, we run the risk of these students prematurely terminating sessions. Students in the focus group spent a considerable amount of time discussing the factors that would discourage them from returning to see a counselor. The following quotes highlight some of the factors mentioned:
- “It has to be a judgment-free zone, and if it isn’t, then I wouldn’t return to counseling.”
- “I don’t want to be judged or misunderstood based on what they’re hearing about Arab Americans in the media.”
- “There has to be a connection. The counselor has to understand me as an Arab American.”
Culturally competent practitioners must be able to monitor their biases and examine how their own racial/ethnic backgrounds may play a role in forging an authentic relationship with Arab American students. One of the biases mental health professionals may hold that could influence their attitudes toward this population is associating all Arabs or all Muslims with a potentiality for criminality or terrorism. These associations are not held exclusively by professionals in our field. Rather, they are common misconceptions that are the product of government discourse, domestic policies and campaigns such as the global war on terror.
In my research, nearly 70% of the counselors surveyed agreed that many people may hold negative attitudes, stereotypes, preconceived notions and biases about Arab Americans. Other biases, steeped in corporate media, include the portrayal of Arab and Muslim women as docile and submissive — victims of a backward culture and religion from which they need to be rescued. A student who participated in the focus group sessions indicated that they “worry about how counselors get their information about us. Are they getting [it] from media outlets, and how does this impact the way counselors work with us?”
Despite our every attempt as professional counselors to be supportive of Arab and Muslim college students, applying a one-size-fits-all approach without critically examining our understanding of how anti-Arab racism and Islamophobia operate may not serve their best interests. While many counselors who are committed to diversity may have backgrounds in some social justice/racial issues, they usually lack training in the area of Arab American exclusion and discrimination.
While social injustice is a factor to consider when working with Arab American students, they, like any other students, also need to sort through a wide range of micro-level challenges. Family issues, intergenerational dissonance, acculturative stress and identity confusion are just a few of the personal stressors that may compromise this population’s emotional well-being.
In Arab society, family is central. Family is the conduit through which cultural continuity is promoted and through which the rich traditions and values of the homeland are invoked. Both the immediate and extended family are heavily involved in the enculturation, upbringing and decision-making processes of the Arab American students you counsel. Counselors may find that even through adulthood, Arab American students will not make decisions in isolation. Rather, the expectation is that they will consult with members of their family before deciding on a course of action. Because they come from a collectivist society, in which the needs and wants of the group supersede those of the individual, these students may hesitate to act if a course of action or decision does not mirror the values of the family, does not benefit the collective or is considered shameful.
Whereas the dominant white middle-class U.S. values emphasize autonomy and freedom to make decisions without having to defer to others, cultural norms in Arab families dictate the opposite. As clinicians, we should consider how the practice of encouraging students to differentiate their individual identity from that of their family is antithetical to most Arab Americans. When our Arab American students are feeling obligated by their family to make a decision that does not necessarily satisfy their own desires, we should explore how we can assist them in negotiating an outcome that meets their need without being seen as a betrayal to their family.
Rather than viewing these distinct cultural forms as dysfunctional or expecting our Arab American students to align with Euro-North American-centric ideals in order to be healthy and feel supported, I propose that we use the inherent strengths of their own heritage, culture and values. By doing so, we are demonstrating an appreciation for their background and worldviews. Focus group participants shared the importance of integrating their cultural heritage when implementing therapeutic techniques. One participant stated, “Non-Arab counselors need a better understanding of who their Arab students are and the mechanisms our parents use to raise us.” Another suggested, “Counselors shouldn’t assume things about us; they should ask us about our values, beliefs and customs.”
Although it cannot be emphasized enough that family represents a core aspect of Arab culture, we also come to learn that honor, respect, morality, hospitality and generosity are other dominant features of this group. When working alongside Arab American students, it is useful to keep these cultural norms in mind so that these students will feel heard, understood and appreciated.
Intergenerational dissonance — another common source of stress for Arab American students — can arise when students are feeling pressured to hold steadfastly onto traditions of cultural heritage or religious values with which they no longer identify. Students shared the stress of negotiating relationships with their parents, and the acculturation differences between them, with these types of responses:
- “Our parents worry about us becoming ‘Americanized’ and disregarding our traditions and religious practices.”
- “I think there are a lot of struggles that Arab Americans face, especially if they were born in America but their families were not.”
- “We feel obligated to do what our families expect of us.”
Students also candidly shared how intergenerational dissonance leads to other points of contention, including students wanting more freedom than the parents are willing to give, and the negotiation of romantic relationships, marriage and career choice.
Often in immigrant families, the children adopt dominant white middle-class U.S. values at a much faster pace than their parents do. This can cause disharmony and disruption in family functioning. According to psychologist and scholar John Berry, a number of factors, including age at immigration, language fluency and the reason for leaving the home country, determine the ease and comfort with which individuals adjust upon immigrating to the U.S.
During the course of my research and my years spent counseling Arab American students, I have learned that some of these students have assimilated with ease into mainstream U.S. life but have determined that it is equally important to them to maintain the richness and beauty of who they are as Arabs. They view themselves as members of a collectivist people with a strong extended family network, a rich heritage and culture that informs their way of living, and (for some) a religious framework from which they draw strength and guidance. These students have learned how to effectively and strategically weave in and out of the American and Arab in them; they have found a way to manage the conflicts associated with intergenerational dissonance.
Students who are struggling with identity confusion, and pushing back against familial pressures, want to explore the facets of their identity on their own terms. Focus group participants explained the challenges of trying to live “on the hyphen” (as in Arab-American) and navigating the contradictory worlds in which they live:
- “I feel like Arab students are lost and don’t know how to act. They’re like in between and unsure if they are more Arab or more American.”
- “Our families struggle with understanding what it’s like for their child to be an Arab living in America. We struggle with being American at school, and we struggle with being Arab at home.”
- “I live both the Arab and American life, but I feel like non-Arabs see me as the other.”
Arab American students face ongoing angst caused by trying to live out their hyphen, which involves modifying and massaging the parts of their heritage that they want to maintain and embrace and discarding those that are no longer meaningful to them. Negotiating the complexities of their identity is further complicated by living in a hostile political landscape in which they are generally made to feel unwelcome and marginalized.
During the time of my study, Arab American students were in the thick of grappling with the realities of a newly elected president who was targeting members of their community with a travel ban and threats of deportation. Students spent considerable time processing how the election cycle and rhetoric from Donald Trump left them feeling vulnerable and affected their sense of belonging on campus. One student stated that Trump’s jingoistic sentiments during the election period “[bred] all kinds of hostility and hate, not just toward Arabs, but all other minorities, and the results have been disastrous.” According to a 2017 report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, hate crimes against Muslims grew by 67% in 2015, the year that Trump launched his campaign for president.
Arab American students’ sense of security has been punctured by a hostile climate that criminalizes and scrutinizes them. Students are telling us that it is a complicated time to be Arab or Muslim, and they need counseling professionals to have an understanding of how their identities are being shaped by the political landscape. Considering these conditions, how do we establish safety in the therapeutic encounter? How do we affirm these students’ humanity and obviate their concerns?
To establish culturally responsive care to Arab American students, we need to consider both the macro-level political stress that is causing these students harm and the micro-level challenges that affect their psychological well-being. As counselors, we have a unique opportunity to strengthen understanding of the contemporary challenges Arab American students face and the therapeutic measures we use to address them.
These students are informing us that they will benefit from counselors who are familiar with family dynamics, intergenerational dissonance and identity confusion. As counselors trained in Euro-North American counseling theory and technique, we need to critically examine the applicability of these models to the Arab American student and modify the strategies we use so that they complement the worldview of this population. If we fail to do so, we may mischaracterize cultural norms, beliefs, values and traditions as oppressive or primitive, which could inadvertently shame the students with whom we are working. We may also construe or unfairly judge these students’ family interactions as unhealthy with blurred boundaries, or consider them enmeshed and fused, interfering with individuation and differentiation of self.
These terms, inherent in Western models of family therapy, are incongruent with the Arab American family system. Applying these concepts may unknowingly leave these students feeling judged, misunderstood or misheard and could lead to premature termination of therapy. Instead, we should consider reframing our understanding of Arab American family dynamics by viewing these interactions as loving, caring and uplifting, and meant to provide unconditional support.
In addition to the factors previously mentioned, students shared other elements that would discourage them from returning to see a counselor:
- “I had a counselor who would advise me or come up with solutions that were more appropriate for non-Arabs.”
- “I was given solutions from counselors that do not match what I am looking for or who I am.”
Those who participated in the focus group also explicitly let us know that it is a trying time to be an Arab American student. They are traversing a hostile political climate that is causing them psychological distress. Being well-meaning and using the compassion that called us to this field may not suffice. As counselors, it is our duty to intentionally address any gaps in our knowledge base concerning the roles that culture, racism and oppression play in impeding these students’ abilities to function academically and personally. If we neglect to do so — and if misguided beliefs, popular assumptions or personal biases go unchecked — we may unintentionally revictimize these students. To eliminate the potential for harm, we can monitor our sensitivity to the historical and current oppressions that Arab American students experience. This can be accomplished in part by attending professional development opportunities that increase our understanding of this population’s sociopolitical, cultural and religious needs.
Finally, we can help these students re-create and reimagine the world they live in by acting as agents of change who advocate for and work alongside them to eliminate institutional discrimination. This includes having conversations with administrators to critically examine our campus communities to determine whether we are taking the necessary steps to promote a sense of belonging for this population.
Institutional responsibility includes counting Arab American students on admission forms and monitoring any inequities that could leave these students feeling vulnerable and paralyzed. Our institutions of higher education should also take intentional steps to diversify the recruitment and hiring of faculty and staff to complement the demographics of their respective student body populations. Ultimately, the question that counselors and institutions of higher education should be asking is, “How do we help Arab American students feel safe, understood and integrated?”
Souzan Naser is an associate professor and counselor at Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills, Illinois, where she has won awards for her work on increasing diversity on campus. Her doctoral dissertation addressed the paucity of Arab American cultural competency training available for counseling professionals. She was born in Palestine and raised on the southwest side of Chicago, in the heart of one of the largest concentrated Arab American communities in the U.S. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Knowledge Share articles are developed from sessions presented at American Counseling Association conferences.