Food, music, civic engagement planned for Philly’s first Arab Community Day

Artwork by Al-Bustan campers was inspired by the Alhambra palace in Spain. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Artwork by Al-Bustan campers was inspired by the Alhambra palace in Spain. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

The Arab arts organization in Philadelphia, Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture, is hosting its first Arab Community Day in Penn Treaty Park on Saturday, hoping newer immigrants will come for free Arab food and stay for civic guidance.

The family-friendly afternoon event will feature food, music, and crafts, as well as onsite COVID vaccinations by the Philadelphia Health Department. Representatives from the School District, the Department of Labor, and immigrant support agencies will offer information and advice.

Arab Community Day, coming just after the Muslim religious holiday Eid al-Adha, is part of a series of six summer events put on by Al-Bustan “as a means of engaging our community in civic life and informing them on some of civic aspects to life in the United States,” said executive director Mohannad Ghawanmeh.

“Including participating in the census and in the electoral process as voters but also, as we have seen in the case of Rashida Tlaib, as a politician,” he said, referencing the Palestinian American U.S. Representative from Michigan, elected in 2018.

The Penn Treaty Park event is done in partnership with Mohammad Abuhillo, who runs Philadelphia Arabs, a community Facebook page that answers questions and provides references, primarily in Arabic, to its more than 30,000 local followers.

“If somebody has a question, say, ‘Where can I find an Arabic lawyer?’ And we say, ‘Here’s the number to this person.’ Or, ‘Do you have any information where I can get rental assistance?’” said Abuhillo. “Obviously, it takes us a little bit of research on the background so we can have that information for people. But we were able to help a lot of people, and as you can see, it’s growing.”

Abuhillo, who makes his living as an accountant and works in the furniture business, has been running the Philadelphia Arabs Facebook page for about five years, and until this summer had never been involved in organizing any in-person Arabic events. Last month he participated in Al-Bustan’s event in Fishtown’s Palmer Park, which drew about 200 people.

According to responses Abuhillo has been getting through his Facebook page, the Penn Treaty Park event is expected to bring about double that.

“Even though it’s an Arabic community day, we welcome everybody,” he said. “The Arab community is an important part of the communities in Philadelphia. No different than the Italian, the Irish, the Jewish community. We want to be able to connect everybody together and say: We’re here. We’re part of the city. We’re part of the bigger community. And we welcome you all.”

Al-Bustan was founded in 2002 as an arts and educational organization, with strong music performance and language arts programs, including an Arabic summer camp for children. It is headquartered in a building on Lancaster Avenue in Powelton Village, and often presents work in partnership with Philadelphia major cultural institutions.

Many in Philadelphia’s Arab community, especially recent immigrants, reside on the other side of the city, around Kensington and Northeastern Philadelphia. Ghawanmeh wanted to locate Arab Community Day closer to the people he is trying to reach and to tap into Abuhillo’s followers on the Philadelphia Arabs Facebook page.

“We acknowledge that our performance art, for the most part, attracts a university-educated middle-class community,” said Ghawanmeh, adding that the organization reaches out to underserved families through its after school Arab arts programs with the School District.

“We thought that this would be an occasion to introduce Al-Bustan to Arab Americans living in Philadelphia, who may not have enrolled in our percussion ensemble class, or attended one of our film screenings, or attended a reception to one of our exhibitions in West Philadelphia,” he said. “Partly because that’s not within the realm of the culture that they have experienced.”

Ghawanmeh is planning to stage three more public events before November to be able to engage the Arab community in civic life before Election Day.

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