In the face of exclusion and displacement, how do communities mobilize urban space for mental health and collective wellbeing?
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When a fresh crisis emerges in one’s home country, or a long-simmering conflict erupts once more, what is it like to experience that upheaval from thousands of miles away and several hours behind? New York City’s Arab diaspora communities have acutely felt the uncanniness of such separation amid the revolutions, uprisings, and disasters of recent years. Below, Nawal Muradwij weaves together personal experience, interviews, and psychological research to examine one way that New Yorkers from the Levant and surrounding region process such seismic events from afar. From Beirut to Washington Square Park; from Jerusalem to Bay Ridge: public protest can help bridge the physical and emotional chasms created by displacement and alienation. It is an imperfect therapy, marked by police surveillance and harassment. Nonetheless, protest is an act of claiming physical and mental space for grief, struggle, and hope in the streets of New York — and of forging a collective voice that may reverberate across the world and back, even as the echo itself is a painful reminder of distance and difference.
October 17, 2019
I wake up to my phone screen blowing up with both group and individual chat WhatsApp messages. This is customary given the time difference between Beirut and New York City, and I do not pay it any mind, scrolling half-mindedly to understand the source of the commotion. I download a video that shows groups of people taking to the streets of my home city, with messages beckoning others to do the same. The government is attempting to implement a “WhatsApp tax”? Instagram is also blowing up; friends are posting stories with similar cries for collective organizing. An uprising.
A magnetic force grips my body. I feel fused to my cellphone. For hours on end, I try to make sense of messages from people back home. These messages are not necessarily directed towards me, sitting in my Upper West Side apartment thousands of miles away. I force myself to head to work, but spend the day hunched at my desk. I could not be less aware of my actual physical surroundings; my mind, body, and soul are preoccupied with a bubbling, rising energy.
A friend of mine posts an event on a Facebook group organizing a protest the next evening in front of the Lebanese Consulate on the Upper East Side. The Facebook group notes that we have no permits for sound amplification or banners with sticks. The following day, a growing group of us huddle on the sidewalk in front of the consulate, for the most part in a bewildered silence. Someone writes up a protest sign on the sidewalk
Before October 2019, I did not tend to consider myself a “displaced person.” Raised in Lebanon, I moved to the United States after college to pursue a graduate degree in clinical psychology. I had always considered my migration voluntary. Displacement was a term I would reserve for those forced to flee their homes under the threat of immediate violence. I knew others around me, forced to leave neighboring Syria and Palestine, had arrived in the US knowing that they likely would never be able to return. There, in my mind, lay the true meaning of displacement.
Yet, during those early weeks of October, when the uprising I was watching through my phone screen propelled me and many others onto the streets of New York City in protest, I began to reckon with the realization that, while I still possessed a modicum of mobility and freedom to return to my homeland, my decision to come to the US could not really be considered voluntary. Not when I could feel, with others in the Lebanese diaspora, this sense of fragmentation rip through my insides as my community rose up to confront the collective violence and oppression it had endured for generations — and I was unable to be there alongside them.
The Lebanese community is not alone in experiencing recurrent waves of mass migration and displacement. These can be traced back to the fall of the Ottoman Empire and the advent of French and British colonization, when Arab communities began to leave the region in large numbers, seeking security and stability in the West. Continued mass violence, particularly in Bilad Al-Sham — a term referring to the Levant, a geographical area consisting of the Eastern Mediterranean in Western Asia which typically includes what is now Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan — and specific historical events, such as the Palestinian Nakba in 1948 or the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 to 1990, resulted in the forced displacement of hundreds of thousands of Arabs from the region. More recently, uprisings across several Arab countries, met with increasing levels of state violence, have also spurred waves of displacement across the Arab world. In short, it is difficult to point to an Arab generation that has been spared the realities of displacement. Some of these Arabs have found their way to New York City. In certain corners of the city, like the energetic streets of Bay Ridge or the three-block radius of markets and restaurants on Steinway Street in Astoria — where you can find everything from labneh, kafta, and shawarma, to Arab candies and imported mixed nuts — the evidence of Arab migration cannot be missed. In others, like the sidewalks of Little Syria along Washington Street in Lower Manhattan, only remnants of what was once a vibrant resettled Arab community remain.
What does it mean, then, to belong to an Arab ‘diaspora’? The word comes from the Greek origin dia (across) and speirein (scatter), or diaspeirein (to disperse), and is used to refer to communities or groups of people that have dispersed from their original homeland and exist scattered around the globe. Inherent in the term is a subtle acknowledgement of the root cause of displacement, and of its collective, forceful nature. Colloquially, it departs from related terms, such as “immigrant” or “refugee,” as it often implies a continued relationship or reference point to one’s homeland. “Being part of the Arab diaspora means being the living embodiment of the homeland abroad” notes Yusra Bitar, who came to New York City as a graduate student from Beirut and Amman in 2019.
Often, those who end up identifying as part of the Arab diaspora leave their home countries with the idea that they are leaving temporarily. When Abdel Rahman Mansour first came to the city from Cairo eight years ago, it was with the intention of someday returning home. “Initially, I deeply rejected being defined as somebody in exile,” he reflected. Cairo, his home city, was his focal point. Similarly, when Haya Ghandour moved to New York from Lebanon to pursue her undergraduate degree at Columbia University five years ago, she did not think to consider herself a member of the diaspora. To her, being part of the diaspora was “a choice of leaving contingent upon an unknown return.” For both, and many others like them, it was the increasing lack of stability, security, and safety in their home countries, and their eventual recognition that they would need to re-imagine their future in New York City, that led them to consider themselves as belonging to an Arab diaspora.
As a researcher, I knew early on that I was interested in better understanding how communities (and perhaps my community in particular) were impacted by the chronic, constant violence that that was perpetrated against them. What did it mean to survive war? How does the mind cope with constant threats to safety? When I moved to New York, my preoccupation expanded to experiences of displacement as well. How do the body and mind carry the adversity they have experienced with them, even after they have resettled somewhere “safe”?
One thing that is clear from existing psychological research is that displacement is linked to a multitude of dire mental health outcomes. The experiences that usually result in displacement — such as exposure to war, torture, armed conflict, and state violence — can manifest in symptoms of post-traumatic stress for individuals. Despite having escaped the threat of physical harm, one continues to feel on edge or restless; experience fitful or disturbed sleep; avoid news of ongoing crisis and violence in their home country; and be easily startled by the all-too-present bombardment of sound and noise of the city streets. This can set Arab diaspora members up for a harrowing adjustment to New York City. Haya described struggling with these very symptoms after returning to the city following a visit to Beirut in the summer of 2020, when the port exploded. “It was the things that make New York, New York— the loud sounds, the lights — that triggered me most,” she shared.
Displacement has also been linked to dissociative experiences, such as feeling disconnected from your own body or as though your body is not your own (depersonalization), or feeling disconnected from your surroundings and those around you (referred to as derealization). This dissociative experience can leave many to experience the city in a dream-like, foggy state: physically, but not psychologically, present. Dissociation is perhaps one of the trickiest psychological symptoms to treat in traditional psychotherapy, in part because of the very psychological absence that defines it. Like Haya, I recall strolling down Riverside Drive towards the Hudson River Greenway following my return to the city after the August 4 port explosion; I felt unable to take in the vibrant late-summer landscape in front of me, the sharp greenery, and the bustling energy of passersby. My mind could not integrate the contrast between the devastation I had witnessed just days prior, and the picturesque scene in front of me. I felt as though the trees, the river, and the blue sky were all some sort of hologram; if I were to reach out and touch it, my fingers would simply slip through.
Beyond its impact on individual wellbeing, displacement is a collective loss, tearing the very fabric that ties communities together. Often, we in the diaspora leave behind parents, grandparents, siblings, and friends. The violent precursors of displacement mean grave losses of loved ones under unfathomable conditions. Think, for example, of those who have lost family members, friends, or neighbors to the hands of their own military, avoidable explosions, assassinations, or ethnic cleansing. “You see it on the news constantly, the occupation. We all know friends who were jailed, injured, or affected,” shared Maher Awartani, a Palestinian living in New York City, “You’re in a state of homesickness coupled with constant grief.”
A loss of community compounds the toll of existing losses and can deepen the sense of detachment from the current environment. “I felt completely isolated by the immediate physical surroundings,” said Yusra when talking about her early adjustment to the city. These feelings of disconnection and isolation can be further exacerbated by anti-Arab sentiments and tensions. Maher, who lived in New York after 9/11, felt that his Arab and Muslim identity was under attack. “The hardest thing about being in New York was that, while I watched, in agony, my country crushed under a brutal occupation, I lived in a city that, instead of providing support and comfort, put me on the defensive,” he explained. Others described how their alienation in the US deepened after the election of Donald Trump as president, and the increasing anti-immigration rhetoric that followed.
The dissociation and alienation faced by Arab diaspora members becomes particularly evident during periods of uprising in our home countries. “It was one of the most difficult mental experiences I’ve had,” said one of the contributors to this piece. “At some point, I felt like I was imagining the whole thing.” As a diasporic community, we exist in a state of translocality, explained Garine Boghossian, a Lebanese Armenian urbanist. We exist in various corners of New York City, but we are also continuously connected to our home countries, especially when we become overstimulated by social media footage of social movements, yearning to be home. These moments force us to look beyond both our digital screens and immediate surroundings for spaces of belonging and solace. When the October uprisings erupted in Lebanon in 2019, I found it impossible to be anywhere but with my Lebanese comrades; to be around familiar faces, to share grievances and complicated feelings. “It was a chilling experience”, shared Haya, describing her experience of the first protest in front of the Lebanese consulate, “Nobody knew what was going on — we were all there because we felt unable to do anything else.”
October 20, 2019
I walk alongside a few Lebanese friends towards Washington Square Park. It’s raining heavily. We carry our handmade posters down McDougal Street. As we approach the park entrance, we begin to hear the building rumble. A familiar chant in Arabic echoes towards us; a revolutionary cry. The blood rushes to my veins at the sound. I find myself unwittingly sprinting to a growing crowd that is looping around the fountain. There is barely anyone else around. We begin to dance dabkeh around the fountain in the rain. There are youth and children and parents here. Something in this space — this public space where I would often linger to watch street performers and college students — has transformed, become something bigger for a moment: something undoubtably ours.
Arab diaspora protests erupt in New York as all social movements do, organically. Still, they play a prominent and complicated role in transforming not only the relationship of Arab diasporas with the city and its residents, but also to their sense of (dis)placement within it. Perhaps one of the most notable roles of these diaspora protests is that they bring very differently positioned Arabs together, joined by a shared sense of uprootedness and a yearning to strengthen a cry for liberation they are witnessing from comrades back home. Friendships and new relationships can be born, old relationships renewed, and diaspora may find, in an otherwise unforgiving city, a moment where the nostalgia embedded in displacement has some freedom to roam. As he reflected on what it meant, in May 2021, to protest against the occupation of Sheikh Jarrah in the streets of Brooklyn, Maher noted: “It’s a very interesting situation and quite exceptional, in the sense that it is bringing together in the same city, people who are all, for these few hours, calling for a free Palestine. They come from such different walks of life, fighting for different reasons (and probably for a different Palestine). But in that moment, they are meeting in one space, and they probably would have never met otherwise.”
May 15, 2021
Around 10,000 people march through the streets of Bay Ridge. Arab supermarkets and restaurants surround us. A man holds a giant Palestinian flag off a tall building. Families bang pots from the balconies of the buildings we walk by. I run into friends, familiar faces. At the same time, this feels so different than marching back home. This is not the city I was bred in, the city I built myself around. Around me are people for whom this neighborhood is home — they are in the city they belong to.
Protests can strengthen community ties between Arabs in New York City, or help reclaim a sense of agency amidst the struggles of displacement. But for some, they can also emphasize the distance from home and highlight feelings of uprootedness. “It felt like forcing a puzzle piece on to the wrong puzzle — it looks like it fits, but it doesn’t,” said Selma Zaki, a Lebanese-Palestinian-Iraqi who has lived in the city for eight years. Similarly, Haya described moments, directly following a protest, where she would feel a jarring sense of disconnectedness from the city around her. “When we were together and hearing people speak, it was powerful,” she shared. “But when I left there was such a drastic shift back to my daily life in New York. That carried with me every time.”
June 11, 2021
A small crowd gathers on the sidewalk across from the Museum of Modern Art. I arrive and learn that a protestor has just been detained by the NYPD for obstructing traffic. The protest organizers announce they will be marching to the precinct where they believe he is being held, will wait there until he is released. I join them, as we march up Sixth Avenue, blocking traffic. I am undoubtedly anxious. This seems risky, and I am a visa holder. I am terrified of being detained.
Threats to safety and immigration status can also complicate the experience of protesting in New York City for Arab diaspora, many of whom may be noncitizens in the United States and are not afforded the same constitutional protections. Where we protest can bring forth very different levels of surveillance and policing. Protesting in front of the Israeli Consulate, for example, meant cameras and NYPD barricades separating protesters for Palestine from counter-protesters holding up Israeli flags, a police helicopter looming formidably over our heads. Protest is meant to disrupt; but when visas can be revoked, and otherwise model residents deported, the stakes are much higher. One contributor shared that he was once stopped at border control on his way back into New York City and presented with pictures of himself at several protests for Palestine.
October 27, 2019
We stand in front of the United Nations, about 1,500 protesters. It is a few months after the first protest in front of the Lebanese Consulate. Diaspora protesters approach the NYPD with boxes of sweets. Other, non-Arab protesters are distraught and push back against these efforts. The police are not to be interacted with or befriended, but willfully ignored.
Still another layer to Arab diaspora protests is that they not only allow diaspora to engage with the city differently, but also alter the landscape of the city itself, which has its own complicated and rich history of resistance and protest. “Protesting in New York has a voice of its own,” shared Aya, an architecture graduate, pointing to the significance of protesting in Washington Square Park. “The whole existence of the park is based on protest. The fact we even have the park right now is because a group of women protested a competing urban plan. It’s a rite of passage.”
Relatedly, Garine emphasized the significance of representation when occupying urban public spaces, which have historically been designed to represent state power and control public life. “When we (as diasporans) come and claim a space with our bodies”, explained Garine, “we are implying that this space represents us too, and so do our bodies and everything that we carry with it.”
It took Abdel Rahman years of living and protesting in the city to understand New York’s history of resistance and protest more deeply. He believes that to protest in the city is also to do his part in restoring and contributing to its spirit. “New York tricks you into thinking that it has never been defeated by its people,” he said, “You do not see any remnants of the movements it has witnessed on in its streets or on its walls.” A part of restoring this spirit is to engage in protest as an act of disruption, to tear down the depoliticized façade of the city. While this is can be a powerful internal transformation, it also means confronting the reality of police violence, which can shatter previously held idealized notions. “It humanized New York City for me,” Rahman stated.
Reflecting on one large protest in Bay Ridge, Yusra pointed out that walking through the neighborhood helped her see her existence in the city as a continuation of a much larger and longer struggle. “I felt deeply connected to the past generations of diaspora who made a home here,” she stated. Arab diaspora protests are a chance for New York City to bear witness to realities that exist beyond its localities and borders, a moment of collision between two worlds that both have a right to be seen and acknowledged. “It was one of the few times in my life that I felt hope,” shared Maher. “We were moving the needle in New York. Words like ‘apartheid’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ were becoming part of the rhetoric. It was quite meaningful.”
As members of the Arab diaspora, we are often straddling an ocean: one foot in New York City, and the other rooted in our homelands. Protests may be a way for us to reclaim our place in the city in the form of representation, a novel connection, or a newfound appreciation for the history it holds. At the same time, these protests may leave us feeling doubly displaced: ostracized both from the home we once belonged to, and in the city where we have resettled. Protesting as members of the Arab diaspora can at once remedy, quiet, and heighten the psychological consequences of displacement. Still, we seem to find ourselves returning, time and time again, to a street that is not ours to occupy, but perhaps ours to utilize, for a moment, in an attempt to raise a larger consciousness around the realities that exist outside of — but are irrevocably embedded within — this city.
The views expressed here are those of the authors only and do not reflect the position of The Architectural League of New York.
In the face of exclusion and displacement, how do communities mobilize urban space for mental health and collective wellbeing?