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“We are not an apathetic generation” explains Aber Kawas, a 24-year-old youth organizer for the Arab-American Association of New York (AAANY). “I think that we care a lot. But I also think that we might be a little bit disgruntled from the methods and the systems that we are asked to engage in to make change.”
When Kawas was born in the early 1990s, Muslim families were just beginning to move into Bay Ridge, a quiet residential neighborhood located in the southwestern tip of Brooklyn. Back then, most of the families in the community were of Norwegian, Irish, or Italian ancestry. These longtime residents have become an aging demographic as younger residents moved away and newer immigrants settled in their place. Today, the neighborhood is an ethnically diverse community with one of the largest Muslim populations in New York City.
Traditionally, voters in the neighborhood have been socially conservative. In this year’s New York Republican Primary Donald Trump received strong support in Bay Ridge. But many Muslim newcomers to the neighborhood oppose Trump. Kawas is aware of the potential for conflict as a result of the shift in demographics, but she also sees her community organizing work as an opportunity to, “bring communities together and make it a more progressively open-minded” neighborhood.
AAANY occupies a two-story building along a row of small businesses. Looking around the office, there are colourful posters advocating for women’s rights, immigration reform, and inspirational quotes from famous activists.
As a youth organizer Kawas works with Arab-American youth in the community, providing support and educating them on issues from police reform to immigration, racial justice, and more. She is also active in the youth programming at local mosques.
Lately though, the focus for Kawas and her organization has been a voter registration campaign. It is part of a push in recent years to encourage Muslims to become more politically engaged. “Unfortunately, it matters to politicians to see numbers in the community in order for them to support things that they should be supporting,” Kawas says.
With Donald Trump’s Islamophobic remarks and proposed immigration ban on Muslims, Kawas has seen increased interest in voting this year. “A lot of people have said to us when they come in to register that they are registering to vote because they don’t want Trump to win.”
But that doesn’t mean local residents are satisfied with Hillary Clinton either. “I don’t think Muslim voters are extremely happy with either candidate,” says Kawas.
“Hillary Clinton has supported foreign policy decisions that have been very detrimental to the Middle East and countries where they have Muslim majorities,” Kawas adds. “During the Obama administration there were still wars continuing, there were still drone killings.”
Kawas believes voting is a way to help what she describes as an “overly marginalized” Arab community in South Brooklyn. “We want to represent the issues that are affecting our communities, [and at the same time] hold politicians accountable to what they are saying and to what they are not doing for communities.”
“When one candidate is more open about it and less politically correct, it just shows how disrespected we can be as a community. And how little dignity anyone holds for us. And so it kind of pushes us to have to strive for our own sources of dignity,” she adds.
Part of that striving involves looking past the presidential election to local races. Kawas is encouraging members of her community to vote down the ballot and understand the roles and responsibilities of local officials.
“These local fights are important,” Kawas says. “I care a lot about the policing that’s going on in this city, specifically as a Muslim dealing with a high population of kids who are stopped and frisked, or dealing with surveillance. Immigration is also a huge issue for our community in New York City because a lot of people are coming in as refugees, and there’s also wage reform.”
“I think that my generation is extremely inspired by the movements that are going on around the country right now. Like Black Lives Matter, people are having conversations about police brutality, about police violence in the U.S. Standing Rock is also huge now. Everybody is talking about indigenous rights. .. there seems to be a movement where a lot of these different groups are cross-pollinating ideas and becoming more radical in what they are saying.”
Kawas’ political activism is motivated in part by her own personal experience growing up in New York City. “A lot of my friends talk about experiencing trauma. And that’s something that people don’t realize, but people really feel like they’re experiencing trauma growing up in the U.S. post 9/11.”
She was in the 4th grade when the 9/11 attacks happened and recalls, “I was very young, but coming of age, witnessing a lot of violent things happening to the community – especially during those few couple of years after that. You saw a lot of hate crimes, you saw a lot of people being arrested, a lot of people being deported. My father was actually deported. So I experienced the immigration system. I experienced the incarceration system. And so that was something that profoundly affected me growing up.”
Kawas has channeled these early experiences into a broad interest in social movements and community activism.
Kawas says that in addition to voting, pushing for change via social movements is another option. “I think people are seeing a lot of systematic problems that are not just being solved with who’s in office.”
“I think that my generation is extremely inspired by the movements that are going on around the country right now. Like Black Lives Matter, people are having conversations about police brutality, about police violence in the U.S. Standing Rock is also huge now. Everybody is talking about indigenous rights. There have always been indigenous killings and indigenous people living in really horrific conditions, but there seems to be a movement where a lot of these different groups are cross-pollinating ideas and becoming more radical in what they are saying.”
Kawas sees these movements as the avenue for achieving change beyond elections. “It’s very unapologetic, calling out all of the oppression and all of the kinds of systematic violence that’s happened to our community which politicians aren’t talking about. If a lot of marginalized communities connect with each other, we’re going to realize that we’re all facing the same issues, and that’s an important conversation to have.”
Fi2W is supported by the David and Katherine Moore Family Foundation, the Ralph E. Odgen Foundation an anonymous donor and readers like you.