As the nation prepares to mark the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the director of a national museum devoted to Arab-Americans says the facility's full plate of activities reflects the highs and lows experienced by the community during the past decade.
The Arab American National Museum and its parent organization, the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), this week are presenting a series of panel discussions, including one that deals with the challenges that Arabs, Muslims and other groups have faced since 9/11 and their responses to it. The museum itself will be open to the public free of charge next Sunday on the anniversary date, and the StoryCorps project will be on site from Thursday through Saturday to record oral histories about life in the post-9/11 decade for Arabs and Muslims.
"I believe that the Arab-American community and the Muslim community realized after 9/11 how little people knew about them," said Anan Ameri, who leads the museum in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, one of the largest and best known Arab communities outside the Middle East. "We moved from invisible to guilty by association. It made us reflect ... that we should maybe have done this before. 9/11 was a wake-up call."
Sept. 11 was a catalyst of sorts for the museum, which opened in 2005. The museum was in the works for at least a decade, but its backers have said that the fear and misconceptions caused by the attacks gave new meaning to the project and pushed it forward.
Ameri said the events, which include the main conference Saturday entitled "U.S. Rising: Emerging Voices in Post-9/11 America," are designed to show both the positive and negative effects on and in the community. That includes increased pressure and harassment of Arabs and Muslims by individuals and institutions, even as others came to the community's aid.
She said organizations such as ACCESS received letters of support for Christian, Jewish and civil rights groups, and foundations provided money for boosting educational outreach about Arab-Americans. And 9/11 also inspired much more cooperation within the community, with once-disparate nonprofit groups coming together in 2004 to form the National Network for Arab American Communities.
"That couldn't have happened (before 9/11)," she said. "Obviously, after 9/11, there's a much stronger need to unify."
In particular, Ameri said she's grateful for the bonds forged between U.S. Arabs and Japanese-Americans, who themselves have had to relive difficult memories with each anniversary of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan.
After 9/11, the Japanese American National Museum sent a message to its supporters committing "to reach out to Arab-Americans and Muslim communities who could be unfairly targeted." The museum's board of trustees met the following year in Dearborn to express its support for ACCESS and plans for an Arab museum.
"I don't want just to remember the negative," Ameri said. "I want to remember and honor all those people who stood by us in those 10 very tough years."