In this year’s funding poll, you may have noticed a new name joining the ranks of the wonderful student unions of Reed College, that of course being the SWANA Student Union! SWANA stands for Southwest Asia and North Africa, and the club is for anyone who identifies with that background. When sitting down with the clubs signator and co-founder, Omar Youssif, he explained the reasoning behind choosing the identifier of ‘SWANA’ over other names of similar meanings, saying: “The term SWANA is more inclusive, it incorporates countries that may not typically be seen as part of the Middle East, but share a similar culture. The term Middle East also tends to be very politicized in the United States, and we wanted to get away from that stigma.” On the same topic, co-founder, Lori Der Sahakian shared “SWANA is also more geographically accurate rather than “Middle East,” as the word Middle East refers more to a colonial conception of the region rather than the region itself.” The club’s purpose is to create a space for people of SWANA backgrounds to find community with each other, celebrate their culture, and make new friends.
The activities that the SSU have planned for this year include meetings with snacks and tea, where members can get to know each other, and a bigger food event next semester. “We want to start by having everyone get to know one another, since most members have never even heard of each other,” Youssif says. Since there are not many SWANA students at Reed, even actions as little as knowing that others exist can be a comfort in itself. The co-founders and members of the club are still in the process of planning more events, but some ideas that have been floated include dance, music, and cooking events.
On Monday, October 10th, I got to attend the first event held by the SWANA Student Union, which I found to be very welcoming. Held in the Multicultural Resource Center, there was a wide selection of teas from the company Ahmad Tea, accompanied by delicious snacks. The turnout wasn’t huge, as first meetings often go, but the people were lovely. Sitting around a table and sipping tea was a great way to get to know each other, and the conversation was lively and supportive. Topics of conversation ranged from discussing some of the members’ fascinating research projects, to commiserating over misspelled and mispronounced names. When asked what the club’s creation meant to her, Ayah Sibai, one of the student union’s members, said: “It was amazing to meet other people with shared interests.”
Youssif discusses this Student Union with such awe inspiring passion. His drive to make this Student Union a staple of the Reed College community is truly impressive, and the work that Youssif and Der Sahakian are putting in is spectacular. In our interview, Youssif stated: “I want this club to last well past the four years that I am here, because it is so important to have this community available to marginalized students at Reed.” SWANA is an identity that is often overlooked and ignored by Americans. This becomes ever apparent when one looks at the U.S. Census and realizes that SWANA people are made to label themselves under ‘white,’ when, for many of us, we have never been perceived or treated as white. This club is cultivating a supportive community for SWANA students to be validated and seen by one another and the greater Reed community. The SWANA Student Union gives students the joy of having their identities recognized and celebrated.
Be on the lookout for more SWANA Student Union events, and if you want more information, you can email the clubs co-founders, Omar Youssif (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Lori Der Sahakian (email@example.com).