‘Refugee’ in the U.S. is circumstance, not identity, El Cajon center dir. says of Arab storytelling project

Ramah Awad, program director of the Majdal Center, leaning against a wall, smiling at the camera
Ramah Awad at the Majdal Center in El Cajon on Feb. 16.
(Nelvin C. Cepeda/The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Ramah Awad was awarded a Humanities for All Project Grant from California Humanities to fund interpretive exhibit scheduled for 2024 and featuring stories and oral histories of Arab refugees and immigrant youth.


From her advocacy work with political prisoners in the West Bank, to Syrian refugees in Turkey, to related work in South Africa, Greece, and Switzerland, Ramah Awad has long been committed to the work of making life better for people immigrating to, and those seeking refuge in, a new place.

“My own grandparents were made refugees during the 1948 mass expulsion of Palestinians from their villages and my parents immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s. Growing up with this family history instilled in me an awareness of injustice and a sense of responsibility to address it,” she says. “I have been a political activist for Palestinian rights since college and draw inspiration from different legacies of people’s social movements, from the Black freedom struggle to the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa.”

As the programs director of the Majdal Center, an organization providing programming, advocacy, and support to San Diego’s Arab community, part of her recent work includes the Humanities for All project grant the center received from California Humanities for a two-year project. The $25,000 grant will fund their “Homeland and Homemaking: Arab Youth Tell Their Stories through the Arts” project, which consists of an interpretive exhibit at the El Cajon Public Library in 2024, featuring a series of workshops, oral histories, digital storytelling, and public programming.

Awad, 28, lives in San Diego’s Rolando Park neighborhood. She graduated from Stanford University with a degree in global affairs and world history before her work with various advocacy organizations. She took some time to talk about the Majdal Center’s current humanities project and empowering Middle Eastern communities to tell their own stories, creating more whole and accurate narratives about themselves.

Q: In your “Homeland and Homemaking” project, young people from the Majdal Center’s Arab refugee and new immigrant communities will “reflect on their lives and develop their own narratives relating to themes of displacement, migration, resettlement, and diaspora.” First, where did the idea for this kind of project come from? How was it conceived and developed?

A: I developed the proposal for the grant with Farida Erikat, our youth organizer, and Beshara Kehdi, a Ph.D. candidate in cultural studies at the University of California, Davis, and humanities adviser for the grant. Our project proposal was a culmination of several things, including our focus on youth, our desire to host more arts and cultural programming, and our vision for the Majdal Center to be an educational resource for the broader public. For a couple of years now, we’ve had an idea to develop a mural in El Cajon that reflects the heritage of the city’s Arab immigrant and refugee communities. When we came across this grant, we saw it as an opportunity to lay the groundwork for this future mural.

While that is one goal of the project, we realized that we first needed to collectively develop the messaging and framework for a public mural, and also explore other mediums for expression. In the initial conversations about the project, it was important that we diversified the modes for identity and narrative exploration so that the themes for a unified piece of art, such as a mural, reflected the plurality of the community. We also wanted there to be an intergenerational aspect to encourage youth participants to connect their current experiences with their families’ histories.

We designed the project in a way that would equip our youth members with tools in storytelling, filmmaking, photography, oral history interviews, and painting, so that they could decide which mediums best fit them. To host workshops like this would broaden our scope as an organization and help us develop relationships with arts and cultural workers in our community.

Q: What is the purpose and goal of this project?

A: The purpose of this project is two-fold: The first goal is to promote narrative exploration and identity expression among our community, particularly the youth. Through our workshop series, youth will have the space to reflect on their experiences as refugees, immigrants, or first-generation born Arab-Americans and decide how they want to express that. Through this project, we’re hoping youth will build a deeper sense of self and a stronger sense of community. We want youth to recognize themselves as leaders, capable of engaging in public debate and taking action around the issues that directly impact their lives.

Second, the exhibit will serve as an educational tool for El Cajon, and San Diego County, more broadly. The exhibit and related programming will reflect individual, familial, and collective stories, as well as aspects of Arab and Middle Eastern cultures. It is critical that we tell our own stories and actively work to shift the narrative around Arabs and Muslims in the U.S., especially in a post-9/11 world. By raising the stories of mischaracterized communities, this project is one way of countering the Islamophobia and xenophobia that the community faces.

What I love about Rolando Park...

I love that I’m within walking distance of a couple of coffee shops when I feel like changing up my work setting or meeting up with friends. I’m also less than a 10-minute drive from Lake Murray when I feel like sitting in nature.

Q: Part of the description of the Humanities for All program says that it’s intended to “promote understanding and empathy among all our state’s peoples in order to cultivate a thriving democracy.” How do you see “Homeland and Homemaking” contributing to this?

A: The public programming aspect of our project is geared toward developing and sharing our otherwise underrepresented stories. In a society that has projected much of its assumptions onto Arabs and Muslims in the U.S., this project has the potential to challenge any misconceptions and shift the narrative. In sharing our stories and aspects of our cultural heritage, this project aims to educate those more removed from refugee or migrant experiences.

Q: From your perspective, why is it important for new Middle Eastern immigrant and refugee communities in San Diego to share their stories and develop their own narratives? What kind of difference do you think this makes?

A: I believe there is a connection between narrative change, in the discursive sense, and systemic change, in the materials sense, which is a core mission of the center. We not only want to shift the discourse, but we want to achieve material change for our communities that improves their conditions and quality of life.

Developing and sharing our stories is a critical step toward shifting the public narrative about our community. In shifting the broader discourse, we are, in turn, contributing to a cultural shift where our community is no longer othered, criminalized, or viewed as less deserving of resources. These conditions are necessary for policy change geared toward better resourcing migrant communities.

Q: What do you hope those within San Diego’s Middle Eastern community will experience from this project? And, what do you hope those outside of the community will learn/understand as a result of this project?

A: I hope for community members to draw strength from the reflection and exchange of their experiences and for this project to be a unifying force for San Diego’s Middle Eastern communities across class, national, and religious lines.

Our intention for the broader public is that it recognizes the richness, plurality, and contributions of the local Middle Eastern community. Additionally, for them to understand that to be a “refugee” in the U.S. is a circumstance and not an identity. We hope that this project starts a larger conversation about the root causes of refugeehood and displacement, including U.S. foreign policy and the government’s role in destabilizing the Middle East.

Q: What is one thing people would be surprised to find out about you?

A: I recently took up surfing with a group of other Arab women in San Diego.

Q: Please describe your ideal San Diego weekend.

A: Grabbing a cappuccino to go and driving up to La Jolla to spend a Saturday on the beach and then catching up with friends for a hike on Sunday. :)