Since its inception, students of the Middle Eastern Student Association (MESA) have been working towards establishing a Middle Eastern and South Asian Cultural Center (MESACC) on campus. Recently, this movement has been revitalized as students have spread a petition to gather support for the implementation of this cultural center.
“We want to get our message out in the best way possible and to as many people as possible,” Noor Taweh, a sixth-semester physiology and neurobiology and human rights major, said. “The beginning stages of any movement boil down to making noise and attracting attention, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”
As of March 3, there are over 280 signatures on the petition, consisting of undergraduate and graduate students, professional staff and faculty, Taweh said.
MESA is planning a series of events to raise awareness about the petition for the movement, Taweh said. In shaping the movement, Taweh hopes to be as inclusive as possible for anyone who wants to be involved, to reach out to other student organizations and to collaborate with other organizations and cultural centers.
However, the students’ movement has been met with its own challenges. One of the biggest issues at the moment is that the fourth floor of the Student Union is full, so students need to find a large-enough space for students that identify with MESACC.
“Based on the experiences of e-board members with [the] UConn administration, the argument made against having [MESACC] is lack of space, budgeting and that we need a private donor,” Nasrin Jabarkhyl, a sixth-semester biological sciences major, said. “Yet, no other cultural center has had these issues. Other cultural centers have continued to support our mission and so far on the students’ end, there have been almost 300 [signatures] in support of MESACC.”
There was a similar movement in 2017 that faced many of the same challenges. The original movement was started by Kassra Farahbakhshian, a class of 2018 graduate. This plan aimed to bring together students from Middle Eastern and North African backgrounds, raise awareness about their culture and engage with the outside community, according to Susan Naseri, an eighth-semester political science and human rights double major.
“In my freshman year, I saw a comment on UConn Buy or Sell by [Farahbakhshian] regarding an organization he was looking to form,” Naseri said. “I messaged him, and we met soon after that. Along with some students who have since graduated, we formed an organization that is now called MESA.”
MESA has since been involved on campus by hosting a fashion show, art bazaar, paint nights and weekly general body meetings. Over the past two years, students from MESA have met with the directors of the cultural centers, the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, Student Union staff members and other student organizations to raise awareness about their organization and to garner support for the implementation of MESACC.
“We have unique and shared experiences and cultures that should be recognized and celebrated, especially when we contribute to the research, arts and students organizations of UConn,” Naseri said.
Both Taweh and Naseri cited every college student’s struggle with identity and how this especially applies to students of Middle Eastern and South Asian descent. Students from these ethnic groups have suffered from microaggressions and stereotyping for a long time. Apart from this, these students have experienced isolation as a result of not fitting into any of the pre-existing cultural centers. Taweh said that now more than ever, she’s heard students from Middle Eastern and South Asian backgrounds talk about how they wish they had their own cultural space on campus.
“Where do you go when you don’t fit into a box? While not all students can empathize with that experience, they can empathize with some iteration of it,” Taweh said. “We’re all just trying to balance our conflicting identities and having people to do it within an adequate space is a natural desire.”
Regardless of their cultural background, any UConn student or staff can support this movement by finding the link to the petition in MESA’s Instagram bio, @uconnmesa.
“We deserve to have our culture shown in a positive light, and we deserve to take control of that narrative, filling and designing this space by the community and for the community,” Naseri said. “Muslims need to be celebrated, Middle Eastern people need to be celebrated and South Asian people need to be celebrated. I want the university to show that they are proud to have students from these communities here and that they stand by those students.”
Brandon Barzola is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.