Roweida Jaber: The Face of Arab Immigration

By Lara Tabbara.

“Appreciate what you have because this country, God Bless U.S.A., is really helping people,” said Roweida Jaber, a case manager at the Arab American Association of New York. She left Jordan for the United States in 2009, she did not expect the move to turn her into an empowered, educated and independent woman. Each individual recounts a unique immigration experience. Roweida Jaber’s story does not limit itself to her own persona; she lives to help those coming from abroad every day, seeking a better life. They direct themselves to this positive and appreciative woman, who will assist them through the adaptation process following their journey.

The Arab American Association of New York is a non-for-profit organization located at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 71st Street in Bay ridge, Brooklyn. The association focuses on assisting immigrants in submerging themselves into the American culture, by learning English, receiving government benefits and enrolling their children in school: “Our mission is to support and empower the Arab Immigrant and Arab American community by providing services to help them adjust to their new home and become active members of society.” To do so, AAANY hosts community activities, such as organized soccer games for children, free dinners; Gala events and health fair awareness. This helps tie-in immigrant families together, especially women who are not working and who will invest their time with the association for social events, creative activities, internship forums and to improve or even learn English.

The white sign for AAANY hangs off the brick wall and leads the visitor’s attention to the numerous activity brochures taped to the glass door. Once inside, the receptionist accompanies her greetings with a generous smile and hands out a sign-in sheet. The waiting room faces a long corridor, leading to several rows of offices. There is a constant flow of people coming in an out of this association’s doors. With each client escapes a different Arabic or Spanish dialect. It is a nest that attracts international immigrants.

Unlike most of New York’s neighborhoods, Bay Ridge is a window into conservative Middle East. It resembles a town square that came straight out of a semi-urban Arabian city, clustered with traditional sweet shops, restaurants serving homemade Arabic food, and large families. A current of veiled women mark this area, as they freely stroll around the large streets. A strong concentration of Arab immigrants lives in this area, searching for a territory reminiscent of their homes back East. Two veiled women wander around, pushing their strollers and chatting, in Arabic, about their lives, their families and their immediate dinner plans. They were weighing their options, unsure if dinner was to be homemade or picked up from a restaurant.

Jaber, a 45-year-old of Arab descent moved to Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, in 2009. Originally from Palestine, she was born in Kuwait and moved to Jordan at age of 20 during the Gulf War. As a woman, living in a conservatively traditional Muslim country hindered her ability to access education: “I am the only girl for my parents, among five brothers, so it’s difficult for them to let me just go finish my college education in Jordan.” So, like many others, she married young, at age of 20, had two sons and focused her time and energy on building and maintaining her family. After twenty years spent in Jordan, she decided to leave and begin a new life with her husband and children, where she could possess a more active role in society.

When Jaber packed up her life and flew to New York City, she had an uncle, Dr. Ahmad Jaber, waiting for her, her husband and children. He lives in Bay Ridge and helped her settle in an apartment and find her a job. Dr. Jaber is the Board President of the Arab American Association of New York. Armed with connections, he introduced his niece to the chief director of the association, Linda Sarsour, of the not-for-profit organization and she was hired. With barely any English, Jaber was thoroughly trained on U.S. immigration policies and the rights of immigrants. With her patience and hard work, she became a case manager for the association and started helping those coming to the U.S., need of a fresh start.

A smile reached her gleaming eyes when asked about her welcome to the city: “I came in 2009, and in 2010, I enrolled in college and I’m about to get my associate degree, Inshallah [God willing – in Arabic] in December.” She feels blessed to have come to New York, and is lucky to have experienced a smooth transition from Jordan: “With the minimum income that I get, it’s been smooth and easy for me, Hamdillah [thank the Lord – in Arabic].”

Jaber’s job consists of various tasks focusing on managing immigration cases. She provides services to help immigrants settle in New York, such as providing ESL (English as a second language) classes, to teach non-native English speakers the language. She said this is a crucial base as “it helps people to communicate with others around them.” Additionally, she analyses her clients’ eligibility for government services such as food stamps, public assistance and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) to help provide income for basic needs. She explained that to be eligible for such services, one has to “be a U.S. citizen or possess a five year green card.” She added that some of the exceptions for eligibility are if “the Arab came because of a refugee asylum case,” in which the individual can apply for governmental services. As for a family with kids that are minors, the AAANY helps enroll them in school. Jaber and the association “help them [the immigrants] network and give them all the information they need,” to start anew their lives. This assists the immigrants in finding the right school for their children, get started on government benefits, start looking for full-time jobs and applying for their citizenships.

Working as a case manager at the Arab American Association of New York, Jaber encounters immigrants from “all over the world,” but mainly from all over the Middle East, North Africa and a few from Latin America. Regardless of their roots, she provides them all with the same assistance. When an individual walks in, he/she usually is searching for social services and immigrant government benefits. Her eyebrows burrowed at the center of her round face when she described the intricate process of adaptation and requirements in order to start a life in the U.S. Her account helped color the handling of new comers and her pronounced Arabic accent is a reminder that, like her visitors, she is foreign to this country.

Jaber’s clients are the most important component of her job. “They come from all over the world,” she said. Each and every person that walks through her door changes her life, as she becomes part of theirs: “I can write a whole book about them!” she said leaning forward, sighing, resting her head on her palm, letting her eyes wander the room. Her emotional implication with the people she helps is palpable; she transcends a mothering feeling with her relaxed tone, regularly broken up by short breaks of heartfelt laughter.

In addition to working with the association, Jaber is a full time student at a community college in Brooklyn. She hopes to receive her associated degree by next spring. The school provides her with financial aid, which helps her manage her family and gracefully adapt to her new life.

She began narrating her story just as her last client was leaving her small office. The middle-aged Arab man was searching for an explanation on how to obtain food stamps. He was new to the city, and came to see Jaber for guidance to provide his wife and two children with a suitable standard of living. The case manager spoke to him, professionally but gently. She alternated between the English and Arabic dialects. She used English to inform the man on the terms that he needs to bring up at the food stamp office, such as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and DTA (Department of Transitional Assistance) and employed Arabic to clarify their meanings, which seemed to confuse him.

Her high-pitched voice suddenly turned somber when she told the story of young immigrant Arab women, who are victims of domestic violence. “A wife walks in by herself, she has no life experience, her husband, and he just walked away on her. She has no education, no work experience. These are the situations that most affect me.” They come to Jaber, on the borderline of hopeless in need of help to enroll their children in school and apply for jobs, making sure that their green cards are still acceptable. Her mothering attitude transcended the story as she expressed her emotional ties to these women clients.

The key to her success, she admitted chuckling, is her patience: “The most important part of our job is patience. If you are not patient, you will never be able to continue.” Customers specifically come to her for guidance, knowing that she will invest time and effort. She smiled, her tone was then sparked with appreciation as she said, “After three years, people come and ask for me. This is why I got this popularity, because I am so patient and I try to control my temper with everything.”

Just as patience was the course the discussion was following, the phone rang, interrupting her stream of thought. After a few high-pitched buzzes, she finally picked it up, sounding as cordial, welcoming and as helpful as usual. A client was calling to ask about Citizenship classes, which are a form of basic preparation for citizenship exams. The exchange was brief and she connected the caller to someone else in the bureau, in hopes of hastily resuming the conversation.

According to her, not all of her clients find their happiness in the U.S. Although this country offers services that one could only dream of back home, it sometimes comes at a price. Sometimes Arab immigrants face discrimination, by the police, the media and even in the social scene. “I hear some people talk about discrimination. For me, so far, I have never been in that situation,” said Jaber.

Similarly to the case manager, Ayman Zameli, who was born and raised in Beirut, Lebanon, left his home-country for Washington D.C. His goal was to receive a higher education and live a stable day-to-day life, which is something he could not get back in Lebanon, because of the civil war and the lack of resources. He attended George Washington University, received his M.B.A before moving to New York City and became an active member in the Arab working community in New York by joining ABANA (Arab Bankers Association of North America).

His Middle Eastern roots have not posed a problem for him working on Wall Street. On the contrary, he said: “America is very welcoming.” He also said that “this is the city where you’re judged based on your efforts and your desire to succeed,” and not on your racial or cultural background. “Maybe I was lucky; maybe I was blind to it,” said Zameli. His experience in corporate America has not been affected by discrimination against his Lebanese identity because he was judged upon his qualities and performance.

Jaber looks back at the attacks on September 11th 2001. Some Arab immigrants have come to her, complaining about the increased difficulty of coming into the U.S. after the bombings on the World Trade Center. According to her, they do not always have a clean record: “they were misbehaving in the first place, smuggling, getting involved with drugs; they broke the law, they got caught” she said that this is why they were under more scrutiny, and not because of where they were from.

Zameli had a different perspective on how things changed for him after 9/11. He believes that it was on the social front that discrimination might have been more palpable, especially after the attacks in 2001. “Where it’s come up is after September 11, more in a social setting, or in the media, there just was a lot of talk about Arabs and how Arabs where not friends of the US and that’s when you felt the stigma of being Arab.”

Jaber explained that self-stigmatization is the problem Arabs face when coming to the U.S. “People do it to themselves; they think they are being attacked.” According to her, some Arabs interpret the behavior of others around them as a threat, which explains their reactions in which they consider themselves victims of profiling.

As for police stop and frisks, she believes it is the behavior of the Arabs that generate louder retaliation than needed. Jaber illustrated this argument with a personal experience: “I’ve been in this situation. I took the R train, headed for university. Suddenly, the train changed paths and there was a police investigation. They were searching everyone. I was walking; I had nothing to hide. I put my bag on the table, they checked everything and then that’s it.” She then compared her incident with that of a more volatile attitude bearing Arab women, who would have taken it personally and “created a whole mess out of nothing.” She explained that self-stigmatization leads to feeling insecurity, and feeling like a victim. This creates problems such as falsely denouncing discrimination, like Jaber described when some of her clients complain to her about the increased scrutiny of Muslims in New York.

Jaber believes that police officers “have to do their jobs. If they lose their respect in the people’s eyes, the city will be a mess.” So, to maintain a high level of safety, police need to rigorously investigate citizens, regardless of their identities.

When times grow challenging for those who come to the U.S. and incessantly reminisce of their hometowns, Jaber does not hesitate to remind them what they had left behind. By comparing what services the U.S. provides, as opposed to those in the Middle East, she further makes clear her point that emigrating brings positive outcomes: “Whoever complains, please say Hamdillah, half the things you are getting here you cannot even touch back there in your home.”

She brought up the example of obtaining a citizenship in Kuwait and Jordan. She described the complicated process, especially when it comes to women and compared it to the simplicity of living in the U.S. and the freedom of pursuing a higher education. Because Jaber is the only woman among her siblings, her education opportunities were limited, and her ability to live independently, especially as a Palestinian, could not be advocated until she moved to the U.S. “People get what they want here,. Neither in Kuwait, nor in Jordan nor in Palestine, I never got the opportunity to get a higher education because of discrimination.” The discrimination she mentioned is related to her Palestinian descent. She was regarded as a foreigner, a minority in Jordan

Jaber does not consider going back to the Middle East, Jordan specifically. “Why would I go back to a country that abandoned me and it made it very hard to manage my life?” So, when she was asked, “Where is home for you?” She enthusiastically responded: “The best place, that I felt safe, secure and happy is the U.S.; it gave me everything.”

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May 17, 2013 · 5:48 pm

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