Six Percent: MENA at Yale

A little less than a year ago, the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts released its decision in  Students For Fair Admissions v. Harvard. The ruling called into question the parallel between admissions practices and racial representation at universities. It was a messy situation, to say the least, but the conclusion was definitive: affirmative action would maintain its structure under the status quo. According to the ruling, Asian American students were not being discriminated against in the affirmative action process because of variance in past precedent for different ethnic groups and the vitality of student diversity on campuses.

But regardless of the ethics of the case, I remember watching one headline after another roll in. And it may have been bitter of me, but I internally scoffed at the volume of attention the case was getting. I remember thinking to myself that the Asian American students ought to count themselves lucky to have representation in the first place, that they exist as a collective and identifiable group in the eyes of  college admissions officers. I guess that view was selfish. Probably ignorant, too. But it took me less than two months of being at Yale to realize that even at one of the most renowned and liberal institutions in the country, I fundamentally didn’t exist as a demographic. 

***

Last year, the Middle East North African (MENA) Student Association kickoff event was held in the Asian American Cultural Center. Reading over the invite, I found the choice of location strange, but quickly dismissed my unease  in favor of eating too much baklava in a room full of MENA students.

I was passionate. Excited. Eager. Coming from a high school with only a handful of MENA students, I craved the structured support of a robust cultural community. I fantasized about drinking shay (the Arabic word for tea — also a shared custom in the MENA region) while indulging in conversation about the Middle East’s foreign affairs, which wouldn’t be so foreign to any of us. I romanticized the notion that we’d exist as a giant family with far too many food platters for our own good, celebrating Eid and Ramadan side by side, while hosting international speakers who’d celebrate our people.

Yale has cultural centers for the African American, Jewish, Latino, Asian American, and Native American, and LGBTQ+ communities. But we don't have a Middle East-North African one.

In our first board meeting of the year, I suggested we ask the YCC to send out a survey that would allow students to identify themselves with MENA. This way, we could figure out what our demographic looked like and how we could best serve our community. 

But we couldn’t. The Yale administration wouldn’t allow it, because according to the Connecticut census guidelines, we weren’t a registered demographic or ethnic category. In other words, because the Connecticut census doesn’t recognize us, Yale doesn’t, either. 

I can distinctly recall that meeting from our neglected room in the Crown St. hole-in-the-wall, with its broken windows and inadequate ventilation. I didn’t say a word for the rest of the meeting and left with layers of pent-up frustration. As if this 400 square foot room, too musty to be of use to any professor or student group, was supposed to satisfy us indefinitely. As if the Western world hadn’t done a sufficient job whitewashing MENA people and our culture. As if suffering an identity crisis filling out the Common Application wasn’t enough. 

I came to Yale thinking it would be better. That maybe the Common Application was the Common Application, the census a product of the white man’s occupation, but Yale would be Yale: one of the most liberal, best-endowed institutions in the country, immersed in one of the largest residential Middle East- North African communities in the nation. (New Haven reaffirmed and strengthened its position as a sanctuary city for immigrants and refugees this past July.) Yale would be Yale. 

But I was wrong. I was so, so wrong.

Yale has cultural centers for the African American, Jewish, Latino, Asian American, and Native American, and LGBTQ+ communities. But we don’t have a Middle East-North African one.

Some of us are grouped into the Black/African American category. Some of us Asian American. Some of us white. Some of us “other.” Institutional nomenclature renders our identification process convoluted, ambiguous, and unattainable because they have intentionally generated a diaspora of our population.

We don’t belong anywhere, and we aren’t being accounted for.

We are twenty-two countries. We are five hundred and seventy-eight million people. We are fifteen million square kilometers. We are six percent of the world’s population.  We are the dynamic diaspora. We are color glistening through the whitewash. We fill the Crown St. hole-in-the-wall, with its broken windows and inadequate ventilation, with Yemeni activists and Egyptian love poets and Israeli girl-band guitarists and Moroccan investment analysts and Iraqi chemists.

But we have nowhere to go. 

The near-500 names on the MENA mailing list seep into the slight fracture of Yale we take up. The MENA community deserves more, and Yale should do better. Our students learn and dine and walk alongside every other identifiable group. So why not us? We are here. We are plenteous. 

It’s time to make space.

                                                                          ***

The first time I read the verdict on the Students For Fair Admissions v. Harvard case, I was sitting at a desk with a teetering leg, facing a cracked window in the ill-ventilated hole-in-the-wall on Crown St. A “WE ARE MENA” poster dangling from the top of a bookshelf filled with books that didn’t belong to us. Miscellaneous paraphernalia scattered on the fringes of the jaded carpet. It was late and this was the only quiet, secluded place in which I could study after the libraries closed. I got up to leave and dialed my mother’s number on the way out. Her thick Egyptian accent coming through my phone speakers always brought me home.

And when the fatigue in her voice signaled the end to our phone call, I caught myself dreaming that maybe Yale might one day bring us home too. 

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