Aber Kawas is a Palestinian-American community organizer from New York City. She holds a degree in Latin American studies from the City University of New York (CUNY). Aber has been been an activist for many years working on issues such as police brutality to immigrant rights and is now the Youth Lead Organizer at the Arab American Association of New York. Apart from being a grassroots organizer, she has focused her academic career to study the parallels between Latin America and the Middle East. “Through my work and studies, I hope to bring together several ethnic and religious communities in the future to advocate in unity against social injustices.”
Tell us a little bit more about your job and what it’s like to work as a community organizer?
I work as the Lead Youth Organizer in the Advocacy and Civic Engagement department at the Arab American Association of New York. Essentially that means I do two things: I work on important city and nation wide campaigns with community coalitions on issues that affect the Arab community and I work with youth by educating them and mobilizing them to work on our campaigns.
Could you talk about what campaigns you are currently working on?
At the Arab American Association we work on four major issue campaigns; Immigration, wage reform, police reform, and Islamophobia. Our job is to represent the voices and needs of our communities on these issues and organize directly with affected members of our community to lead in these movements. We’ve helped pass important city legislation such as language access in schools for immigrant parents, Eid as a Public school holiday, and regulations on the New York City Police Department around surveillance and Stop and Frisk policies.
What are some of the challenges that you have encountered working with different communities?
I think one of the greatest challenges I struggle with when working with different communities is apathy. In organizing we center people who are directly affected. However this also means that these people bear the burdens of the work and it’s really disappointing when people don’t support issues because they haven’t experienced them.
I think that organizing is something that is devalued and misunderstood in our society – and it is something that cannot be confined to an office job – it is much more than that. Organizing is about creating relationships with people – educating them, supporting them, uplifting them and letting them educate, support and uplift you. It also takes a lot of investment, time, and energy into people – and one of the challenges is finding the time and space to give that much dedication while taking care of yourself and others. It’s challenging because there are so many obligations, distractions, and limitations that you constantly have to manage and overcome to organize. However, for me it helps to know that organizing is about reciprocal relationships and community and although you have to spend a lot of energy you are also receiving a lot of love, care, and positivity from the people you work with.
How do you think Islamophobia has affected the Muslim community in New York City?
New York City is interesting because people may assume that because it is such a diverse city that islamophobia wouldn’t be as present. However in New York City though Islamophobia has been systematically entrenched into policy and that has cause severe ramifications on our community. Within the last decade we have been surveilled, infiltrated by undercover police, and targeted for entrapment and deportation. Vulnerable members of our community are at stake every day and the policies against us have created distrust and fear within our safe spaces. Besides the many who have been physically impacted through this process – the greater community has been very psychologically impacted as well.
In your opinion, what can other marginalized communities do to help combat islamophobia?
Realize that Islamophobia is connected to other issues. It’s part of a historical process of racializing and subordinating human beings across the globe to maintain a power structure that benefits a few. I think it is also important for Muslims to align with other marginalized groups in the United States and across the globe and build solidarity networks with each other. Combating Islamophobia means joining a global movement that includes other oppressed communities around the globe to build collective power.
Let’s shift focus to you as a person and not a community organizer for a moment, what activities help you maintain balance in your life?
Organizing is one of those jobs with crazy hours that exhausts you mentally, physically, and emotionally. I use my free time to rebalance – exercise, read, walk in nature, find solitude, and reflect. I am also someone who loves to be part of family and community and often find myself at communal events helping out, catching up with people, and socializing. Most importantly though I have a great support system of friends and family nearby and far away who I intentionally try to stay connected to, whether that is by coffee dates or google hangouts. Although as an organizer I have a very busy schedule it’s integral for me to find the time to spend with those who provide love in my life.
Your hadith* “There lies within the body a piece of flesh. If it is sound, the whole body is sound; and if it is corrupted, the whole body is corrupted. Verily this piece is the heart” – Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) focuses on self reflection, how do you apply this concept to your every day life?
One of the sunnah (legacies) of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was that before he received revelation he used to spend hours and sometimes days in seclusion in a cave in Makkah, Saudi Arabia reflecting on himself but also the world around him. This opened his mind and heart up to accepting the message of God. I try to practice this type of solitude in the chaos that is my life – and although I don’t actually have a physical cave to retreat to, I try to create metaphorical cave spaces for myself; This could be by taking a walk without my phone or just having a cup of tea by myself on a Sunday afternoon – to taking time to think, breathe, and be in touch with myself. I believe that self reflection is an important part of teaching yourself to disconnect from the world and think beyond it – beyond consumerism, jealousy, greed, etc. I believe that this will also help you be more in touch with your heart, your mind, and your spirit and stay guided towards a pure and focus life. For me, the relationship you establish between your true self and God is what defines you.
*Hadith – Recorded sayings of Prophet Muhammad