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Celebrating Human Rights and Mental Health Efforts During Arab American Heritage Month

Published April 9, 2024

As of 2021, April marks Arab American Heritage Month in the U.S. 

Throughout history, groundbreaking strides have been made by several individuals from these communities, making it difficult to create a succinct list.

But, we’re highlighting six people of Arab heritage that made (and continue to make) a positive impact for others in the U.S., Middle East, U.K. and beyond by way of policy, human rights, mental health advocacy or representation. 

Edward Said

Edward Said was a Palestinian-American scholar and activist known for his work in postcolonial theory, criticism of Western Imperialism and advocacy for human rights in Palestine.

The Jerusalem-born refugee wrote several works throughout his lifetime – including both a memoir and political theory – and was respected for his criticism in both political and art fields. 

In addition to acting as a visiting scholar at Yale University, Said taught English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University from 1963 until the year of his death in 2003, giving countless lectures at universities in the U.S., Middle East and Europe. 

From 1977 to 1991, he served as a member of the Palestinian National Council, working to use strategy to mend ongoing conflict. 

Despite the opposition he faced throughout his career from varied groups, Said was a lifetime advocate of human rights, justice and equality. His founding theories, academic writings and teachings continue to serve as valued and foundational, especially for those in support of Palestinian human rights and anti-colonial efforts in the West and Middle East. 

Rashida Tlaib

Rashida Tlaib is a Palestinian-American politician and lawyer, and is currently Michigan’s 12th District U.S. Representative. 

The lawyer-by-trade is the first Palestinian in Congress, and is one of the first two Muslim women elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.

Throughout her career in politics, Tlaib has been vocal about the rights of immigrants. This includes calling for the abolition of ICE and offering criticism to different administrations in relation to their policies surrounding immigrant and worker rights. She has also consistently advocated for the need for environmental protections and against police brutality in the U.S. 

In addition to providing a strong and consistent voice for human rights and social justice within Congress, Tlaib’s election into the House made for positive representation of Arab Americans and Muslims in office. 

Linda Sarsour

Linda Sarsour is a Palestinian-American Muslim author and activist who works diligently for women’s rights, reformed immigration policy and against police brutality.  

The Brooklyn native has consistently been an active voice within her home state. Sarsour was previously the executive director of the Arab American Association of New York, using her position within the state to speak against ill-treatment of Black and Brown individuals.

This includes being involved with Black Lives Matter, challenging the presence of anti-Arab bias within police departments, speaking out against anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policies and practices, backing the Community Safety Act and co-founding Muslims for Ferguson.

As a proud Muslim American, Sarour has been vocal about pushing for the acceptance of cultural and spiritual practices, like Islamic holidays and hijabs as a personal choice rather than oppressive. Sarsour co-founded the first Muslim online organizing platform, MPOWER Change, is a member of Justice League NYC and co-chaired the National Women’s March from 2017-2019. 

Sarsour’s influence and impact has landed her several awards and recognitions, including the Hala Maksoud Leadership Award from the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, the Radical Leadership Award from the Center for Constitutional Rights, the Changemaker Award from Asian Americans Advancing Justice and Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People.” 

Donna Shalala

Donna Shalala is a Lebanese American known for her decades of academic involvement, political experience and continued support of healthcare reform.  

Shalala has had a lifetime of firsts and major political influence. This includes being one of the first volunteers for the Peace Corps where she helped to build an agricultural college in Iran. 

Starting out as a teacher and supporting teacher’s unions, Shalala made strides in U.S. policy. She served in both the Carter and Clinton administrations as the assistant secretary for policy development and research in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and the Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), respectively, making her the first Lebanese-American to serve in a U.S. cabinet position.

Shalala remained in the HHS secretary position for eight years – currently the longest in history. The professor and academic has also served on several committees, including those geared towards supporting teachers, education and LGBTQ equality. 

Shalala’s ongoing advocacy efforts haven’t gone unnoticed. In 2008, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Nelson Mandela Award for Health and Human Rights in 2010, and was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2011. 

Shalala’s dedication remained steadfast even after severe health issues, and she served in the U.S. House of Representatives for Florida’s 27th District from 2018-2021, and continues to advocate for improved relations between the U.S. and Iran. 

HRH Sayyida Basma Al Said

HRH Sayyida Basma Al Said is a clinical counselor with experience in PTSD and refugee mental health support. 

Al Said has traveled throughout the Middle East, U.S. and Europe for her education, including Harvard and Michigan University. This worldwide approach extends into her service provision with a focus on psychology and supporting survivors of child abuse and domestic violence. 

Al Said founded the first mental health clinic in Oman in 2012, called Whispers of Serenity, and continues to advocate for additional ways to improve mental health. She supports holistic and alternative forms of therapy, including hypnosis, mindfulness, dance and art-based interventions. 

Her advocacy includes a U.K. based anti-bullying group for children called Young Minds and managing @notaloneoman, an initiative created to raise awareness of mental health issues across Oman.

Through offering cost-free therapy sessions to communities from India, Palestine and Beirut, setting up hotlines and virtual therapy offerings, Al Said has also acknowledged the logistical barriers that often come with support. 

After over two decades of professional mental health experience, Al Said was the first Arab to serve as a judge for the U.K. based The Diana Award, helping to assess young adults within the social work field. In 2022, she was voted the International Social Responsibility Ambassador by The International Union for Social Responsibility (IUSR). 

Diane Farah

Diane Farah is both a filmmaker and mental health advocate of Lebanese descent. 

Farah launched a nonprofit focused on accessibility for mental health resources, completely run by volunteer efforts, called Ask Me How I’m Really Doing. The organization uplifts mental health resources that have low-cost therapy options, focusing on therapists and clients within the MENA (Middle East and North Africa) region and fosters an online community

Farah has been vocal about her desire to not only see social issues represented in film and art, but the need for increased connectedness among creatives.

A chunk of our community members are industry pros who struggle with industry related issues…These were among some of the many reasons I felt it was so important to establish a framework that facilitates affordable mental health care that supports everyone, regardless of their means.

Diane Farah

As a creative that aims to center social issues and pushes for social change in her work, Farah created the platform with like-minded creators in mind, leading her efforts to be seen and appreciated around the world. 

The notable contributions made by individuals of Arab descent can’t be contained to one month. That said, this list only scratches the surface of the strides and impact made within the U.S., across the MENA region and beyond. 

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