By Ed Runyan
Nawal Picard, an Iraqi native who has lived in the Youngstown area 24 years and is married to a Christian pastor, understands that it’s not easy for average Americans to understand her culture.
At the Second Annual Arab American Festival of Youngstown on Saturday, Picard said there’s diversity in the Arab world, but also simplicity.
“The purpose [of the festival] is to inform our community of our rich Arab traditions and culture and to let people know that no matter what they hear, we are a people who seek peace. We are family-oriented people.”
At first, it may be confusing to understand how the Arab culture takes in Christian, Muslim and Jewish people and residents of 21 countries in North Africa and the Middle East, Picard said.
But she introduced several Arab friends — two each from Libya and Morocco — to provide a deeper explanation.
“Even though we are different religions, it doesn’t matter,” said Magda Fathi of Boardman, from Tripoli, Libya. “This is how we live in our big Arab nation.”
Libya frequently is in the news for political and economic strife, but Fathi said she asks her family back home, and they say, “Everything is fine,” she said.
Hakima Bouhyane, one of two women from Morocco, said she and her husband have lived in Youngstown two years and lived in Cleveland six years before that.
“We enjoy our holidays and love to be able to eat your own food and listen to your own music,” Bouhyane said of the festival. “It doesn’t make any difference if you are from North Africa or the Middle East, we’re all happy to be here.”
Picard said there are about 100 Arab families in the Youngstown-Liberty area, and she knows people here from Turkey, Morocco, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria, Sudan, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
Amer Adi, owner of the Downtown Circle Mediterranean deli in the festival area and festival founder, said many of the events are designed to teach people about the Arab culture.
“We, as the Arab-American community of Youngstown, are proud to be a part of Youngstown and present the real face of the Arab world — Muslims, Christians and Jews, all under the Arab nation and culture.”
Amer said there were two primary migrations of Arab Americans into Youngstown — people from Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Yemen about 100 years ago who worked in the coal mines and mills, and another generation in the 1960s from the Middle East.
This festival, like the Slovak Festival and Italian Festival, “brings together all of the generations. It’s like any other minority.”
Saeda Atway of Boardman, who lives with her husband and sons, Jad and Jude, in Boardman, said it hasn’t been difficult to expose her friends to Arab culture over the years she has lived in the Youngstown area, including her days as a student at Youngstown State University in the 1990s.
“I always encourage my friends to attend our festivals, and they start to enjoy the foods,” she said.