The McGill Daily sat down with Karim Atassi and Ella Samaha from the Arab Student Network (ASN) to discuss their presence on campus and recent controversies. Recently upgraded to a SSMU service, the ASN proposed a $0.50 fee levy for the upcoming semester. The Daily endorsed a “no” vote for ASN’s fee. You can read our full endorsement in our editorial “SSMU Fall 2018 Referendum Endorsements.” Read some of our editorial board members’ response to this interview in the article “ASN: Apathetic, Stale, Neoliberal” here.
The McGill Daily (MD): How would you define your network on campus?
Karim Atassi (KA): The ASN is a SSMU service that is all- inclusive and picks and chooses non-religious and non-political resources from the region, that all students can benefit from. We provide discounts on local businesses for students who would want to buy groceries from Adonis, to buy food from local Arab caterers, or from shawarma restaurants. We also provide a lot of networking opportunities, such as subsidies for students to go to the Harvard Arab Conference and other conferences in Montreal. We also provide internships in the Arab region, in partnership with AIESEC. We partner with a project called Opportutoring, which allows students to teach refugees English from their desktops, if they, for example, don’t have the time to go to a club or commit to a club, they can tutor straight from their home. Other than that, we provide a lot of opportunities for students to get involved, whether through committees or through coming and enjoying our events. That’s basically the entire structure of the Arab Student Network.
MD: You claim your service benefits all students on campus, but at the same time you are called the Arab Student Network, so do you feel like you can specifically help and empower Arab students?
KA: Our name may be misleading, we’re a network of Arab resources for all students, which is something very important to stress because this gives the indication that the ASN is not solely run by or for Arab students. What we do is we broadcast the aspects of Arab culture that everyone would be interested in taking a part of. Inherently, as a service, you need to accommodate all students, non-exclusively. And, I got this vision when I went to Harvard to attend a conference, they had a body that caters to all students. They invited CEOs from the region and prime ministers, so I felt like since McGill is the leading university in Canada, I don’t see why we can’t do the same? I decided that there is more to the Arab world than resources that are tied to political and religious topics. For example, at the start of this year, we had a deep house party, which was an example where students could still explore the face of Arab culture but do so in an environment that isn’t limited to political or religious beliefs. The reason is to ensure that all students regardless of nationality, culture, or background can benefit from our resources. As a club, we were more interspaced and felt like our target audience was just one demographic and we could give more that all students can benefit from.
MD: You’re a group that promotes Arab culture in a non-political way and you offer discounts and subsidies for things not directly related to Arab culture, how would you say you’re different from other student groups on campus?
KA: The discounts and internships we provide are powered and inspired by Arab culture. When OAP wanted an Arab-inspired drink, we provided them with an Arab-inspired tea called Nai tea that they sold on campus. The resources we provide are locally inspired or inspired by Arab culture, however other clubs are more nationality-exclusive and interest-based and cater to specific nationalities. As a service, we need to service all students, for example if you want to apply for an internship in Dubai, or Beirut, or Kuwait, you can do that through us. Locally, students can also get discounts on local business from the Arab world or attend conferences like the one about the Arab world at Harvard. Even for students who don’t want to physically visit the Arab world can still enjoy the face of Arab culture here in Montreal.
When OAP wanted an Arab-inspired drink, we provided them with an Arab-inspired tea called Nai tea that they sold on campus.
MD: As a student network, are you connected with Arab organizations outside of McGill, and if you’re not, do you feel like that is something you’d be interested in?
KA: We’re not connected to Arab organizations in the sense that we’re limited to them or that we follow their mandates. In order to provide discounts on local Arab business, we have to partner with companies that provide these services in order to provide these subsidies. We also partner with non-Arab clubs like AIESEC and Opportutoring to give opportunities for students to benefit from their initiatives. We may ask cultural clubs who are bigger than us in Montreal for contacts, like if we wanted to invite the president of the Liberal party of Quebec for a networking event, his name is Antoine Atallah, I’ve met him before, we would contact a bigger organization in Montreal. In the general sense, we partner with any organization regardless of who they are if they benefit the integration and inclusivity of all students. AIESEC doesn’t only provide internships in the Arab world, so we pick and choose their internships in the Arab world and put them on our platform so our target audience can have a better chance of seeing it. We will partner with whatever assists the integration of students and make sure to put it in a platform that promotes secular Arab culture.
MD: Isn’t it indicative of a larger problem of people wanting the “easy” and “nice” parts of Arab culture and not the other aspects that come with it?
KA: I’ve experienced firsthand the that limitations of resources due to political or religious issues pose a problem in accommodating those resources to all students regardless of their background. If my incentive is to integrate a service that is accessible to all students, that all students can support, I stress on affiliating with resources that don’t have political or religious affiliations to ensure that we get that student support and to ensure that they feel relieved that we have no political bias and that they can come to our events no matter their political views. There are other clubs on campus, like SPHR [McGill Students in Solidarity for Palestine], who are for people to want political views, I wouldn’t want to repeat the same service.
I stress on affiliating with resources that don’t have political or religious affiliations to ensure that we get that student support and to ensure that they feel relieved that we have no political bias and that they can come to our events no matter their political views.
MD: How would you respond to the claim that Arab students aren’t really represented on campus, and the fact that you exist as more of an open platform makes it that there can’t really be a club that represents Arab students?
KA: The reason we made this deviation is because there are already clubs on campus that cater to the exclusive support of students based on nationality. For example, there are the Moroccan and Lebanese student associations. I felt like doing what they’re doing would cause a lot of stresses and competition between the clubs, and then there wouldn’t be a body like ASN who caters to all students. There isn’t a service from the region that everybody can benefit from. We also don’t want to take away from the other services that other clubs are offering. One of the pillars of a service is support, we provide support for all students, and Arab students fall under that category. If they wanted to benefit from any of our services, they could still do so.
MD: Since ASN is a SSMU service, some might say it is the biggest organization on campus representing Arab students, do you feel any responsibility to be political or to make political statements?
KA: I understand that since the culture in the Arab world is so intertwined with political ideas, we stay away from that to ensure that students that don’t know about those conflicts or can’t relate to them don’t feel repelled from coming to our events. By focusing on resources that all students can enjoy, we make sure everyone feels included. In addition, when I came on campus I felt like all the clubs were just repeating the problems we have in the Arab world and talking about how to solve them, and I felt like there’s a time and place to these discussions but by only focusing on them we’re giving the problems a bigger platform, so why focus on the negatives when we can focus on the positives, like inviting the DJs and subsidizing the conference – things that all students can enjoy? We don’t feel an obligation because we’ve seen the positive feedback we’ve received. The fact that we saw minority Arab students like Arab Christians and Arab Jews gave us great pleasure to know we’re supporting all students and having an all-inclusive atmosphere.
Even for students who don’t want to physically visit the Arab world can still enjoy the face of Arab culture here in Montreal [through the ASN].
MD: There have been allegations that your team isn’t very diverse in terms of its gender parity, how would you answer to that?
KA: In terms of ratio, we’re 100 per cent because the only woman that did apply was Ella Samaha and she got the position. Most of our executives right now were executives from when ASN was still a club. Next year, people will be able to campaign for positions, which will be decided by voting. Our committee is something like 54 per cent female, so there’s no bias, but only one person applied for an executive position. Our bylaws state that if two people apply and they have the same qualifications, we have to pick the person from the more discriminated-against group.
MD: Do you feel like there’s any more outreach you can do to ensure the team next year is more diverse?
KA: I’ve never even received a comment about this gender imparity issue, however, we’re not a club that discriminates based on gender, and we don’t have a bias or anything. Anyone can apply no matter their background or culture or religion, and the committee member list that we have has more women than men. Since it’s our first year, we haven’t had that many students come yet and express their desire to be executives, but people will be able to vote for whoever they want. It would be an honour for me to see more women applying, as that would further promote our mandate of inclusivity and the fact that we’re a service for all.
MD: Can you speak to the [Nas Daily] event and what happened with SPHR?
KA: The challenges that we faced with SPHR are an example of the challenges we have faced and will face in order to ensure that the resources from the Arab world benefit all students. SPHR, by their nature, is a political activist group, they did what their mandate is and made their voice heard. Given that we are a SSMU service and by our constitution, we are politically inactive, we cannot discriminate the invitation of an individual based on their nationality over the fact that students want to invite them and will enjoy the event.
In terms of [gender equality] ratio, we’re 100 per cent because the only woman that did apply […] got the position.
MD: There are allegations that the ASN threatened to call the police on students on campus, would you like to say anything about that?
KA: I was informed about this from my team. There was a miscommunication. Usually when a famous person is invited to a campus, security is on high alert to make sure people will be safe. We got a message from SPVM [Service de Police de la Ville de Montréal] telling us the police was on high alert in that area because they knew there would be a lot of people in that area. As many people who went to the event know, there wasn’t any police at the event. We didn’t hinder the ability of students to ask political questions, they asked both political and non-political questions. We opened a link for students to ask questions if they wanted and a lot of questions were from BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanction, a pro-Palestine group on campus] students. So no, we didn’t threaten to call the police, maybe since people thought that there might be police, they thought we would have called them to hinder their voices. We didn’t contact clubs saying we’re going to call the police, I contacted SPHR telling them I’ve been informed that police are coming to the event. They took it to mean [that I was telling them to be careful because the police was there]. People made their voices heard and even shouted slurs like “free Palestine.” [SPHR] said that if people came and protested we would somehow stop giving resources to Palestinian students, which would be physically impossible to do, so I don’t understand why they said it. The ASN focuses on integrating all students regardless of background, we didn’t suppress any voices, and there wasn’t any police at the event.
People made their voices heard [during the Nas Daily event] and even shouted slurs like “free Palestine.”
MD: You’re an apolitical club, there have been allegations that investing Nas Daily was a political move, how would you respond to that?
KA: We believe there’s more to the Arab world than resources tied to religion and politics. Many students messaged us on our Facebook page asking us to invite them when he was in Montreal, and given that he’s not an individual with a political job or broadcast their political views as their entire output, he isn’t in a politically active position, we felt that it would be discriminatory if we didn’t invite him just because of his nationality. So we went by our constitution and decided to prove to all students that regardless of any stress of politics we face, we’ll always stick to our secular and non-political perspective. He doesn’t use his platform to promote Israel, he has done one or two videos as an Israeli national to talk about it, but that’s not his field of work. That’s an example of how a political conflict in the Arab world would restrict the resources that we can provide students. If we don’t make sure we don’t affiliate with religious or political views, we will always run into the issue of not being able to provide resources from the region for all students.
MD: Anti-Arab racism is present on campus, is that something that the ASN wants to address since it’s not necessarily tied to political issues?
KA: The presence of an ASN that showcases the secular, non-political parts of Arab culture directly breaks misconceptions that people may have about the Arab world in general. In the long term, student are invited to come to the Arab world through our events, resources, and internships we provide. This concerns for example events that include alcohol that was made in the Arab world, or things like that that people may have misconceptions about concerning Arab culture. I don’t want to stress that our events have alcohol, but we do provide these elements of the culture, so for people to come to our events and see the real face of Arab culture would break misconceptions directly. To add onto that, we have an initiative called ASN TV. It’s still a prototype, but we’re trying to post daily posts about Arabs in McGill, showing resources from the Arab world present in Montreal, presenting events with Arab people that might not be hosted at McGill, just to showcase the student body and the aspects of the Arab world that they’d be interested in knowing and would be surprised to find out about.
“We stay away from [politics] to ensure that students that don’t know about conflicts [in Arab countries] or can’t relate to them don’t feel repelled from coming to our events.”
MD: Would you engage in specifically anti-racism workshops or initiatives, or are you committed to a more implicit approach?
KA: The executive team has been very open to following through with workshops associated with, for example, sustainability and inclusivity. We’re here to provide resources for students so that, when they engage with these resources, they can understand or break misconceptions about the Arab world. However, obviously, if it’s something like Arab students on campus being assaulted or something like that, we would make sure to further promote the secular aspects of the Arab world that everyone would enjoy. The way we neutralize the conflicts that people have with Arab students is by making sure that we promote the resources that are from that region that everyone can benefit from. Of course, the more that racism is stressed, the more we would further stress the resources that they can benefit from from that region so that we can neutralize it. They’re both correlated.
MD: If you could say one thing to voters about the ASN fee, what would you say?
KA: I would say that change is hard, it always was and always will be. We have an opportunity in this referendum to be the change. I would vote “yes” for a service that provides resources for all students non-exclusively. We need your support.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.