“We need to continue to work towards being seen as equal and make sure that we have that same seat at the table, that our voices are heard, and that we are creating long term change in policy.”

-Rania Mustafa, she/her, Executive Director

“What PACC does, very uniquely, is to show the beauty and everything else we can offer- not to prove ourselves to anyone but for our own sake and emotional wellbeing”

-Abire Sabbagh, she/her, Community Outreach and Palestine Education Director

Abire and Rania on who they are…

Abire: "The first thing that comes to my mind is that I like to teach, and I like to think of myself as an educator in different capacities, not necessarily in the very typical classroom, but through community work and mentorship. Education is really important to me, but moreso a decolonial education, rethinking ways to disperse knowledge in a way that is tied to people with lived experiences. Politics is very important to me with or without PACC, which makes working herre great because I get to integrate that into my professional work."

Rania: "Can I answer for her? Abire is a very passionate person in terms of education, specifically with the need to bring people into the social movement. She’s great at bringing people from where they are and getting them to the place they should be in order to create positive change in the long run. I think she’s also a great friend, a great person, a newly married person! She’s also a great sister, mentor, is amazing at giving workshops and she has a huge passion for Palestine and all social justice causes. I could keep going. She’s a social justice activist in every sense of the word. She embodies it. Even in her personal relationships she’s there to advocate, mentor, help those around her, and uplift the work of those around her. She’s also huge on education- hopefully she’s going to change this entire world.

For me, I’m very passionate about the community, that’s always been something very important to me. I’ve been involved with our community specifically with different ways of advocating for our community since I was about 16. So this is a real passion of mine. I’m a mom, I have 2 kids! So that’s a huge part of my identity  right now too. I have my masters- Abire has her masters too! And she’s going for a PhD and is starting in September! I have my masters in management, and a certificate nonprofit management. I have a huge passion for coaching organizations to get to their optimal potential, and I have a knack for finding the hidden gem in each person and trying to take it out."

Abire: "And life coach and marriage coach to many people." 

Rania: "Life coach, marriage coach, parenting coach, everything."

Abire on why it’s important to achieve policies in New Jersey that welcome and support immigrants to become rooted economically, politically and socially within the state…

 "I think a lot of places and states including Jersey pride itself on the diversity and what immigrants brought to New Jersey, so for me it’s not just a celebration of immigrants, which can sometimes feel a bit performative. Instead of saying things like “we love our immigrants because they give us this…”, we’re actually going to integrate them into all of the resources that the state has to offer so that they can internally start to grow and flourish, which in turn gives back to the state, so everyone is kind of winning. You can’t just love us when it’s convenient for the state or the nation, and then not give us the right credit and resources to help our communities prosper and do well."

PACC was recently vocal about your support for the Data Disaggregation Bill. Abire tells us why these  policies are vital to New Jersey…

"For our communities specifically, the Palestinian and Arab communities, the biggest thing is that we aren’t recognized as a racial category in a lot of government agencies and paperwork. That’s harmful for two reasons. One is the social implications of that, you never see your identity actually represented and empowered. As a student for example, growing up and always having to check “White” or “Other” when that wasn’t really who I was always made me feel… othered.. I see that as socially harmful, especially to youth who struggle already with hyphenated identities and feeling like they don’t belong. Another reason is that because of the lack of representation in let’s say, medical records, we aren’t able to accurately identify medical, legal, or domestic violence issues for our community because we don’t have our own category. But if we did, we could identify the issues or themes, and then we know what we need to work on more specifically instead of  having to think of such abstract ways to do critical work internally in our community. PACC was involved in a lot of the census work to make sure that we could have Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) as a category in the upcoming census so that we could get statistics to help us with our communities. But also in redistricting efforts, that’s something that PACC was really involved in, so a lot of times when you want to advocate for something on a legislative level, they’re going to ask for numbers. But if we don’t even have a category and can’t physically get those numbers here, we’re not going to be able to strongly advocate for our community needs as strongly as other communities. They don’t see how large our community is and how we could benefit from that support."

Abire and Rania on some of the organization's recent successes, and what PACC is currently leading on…

Rania: "I think our biggest success is the renaming of Main Street into Palestine Way. The actual vote was in March, but we did a huge Palestine street festival, which was the first of our kind and we had the highest attendance out of all of our previous events. People came from all over the area and people have been coming from all over the country to see it. So I think it’s been a huge source of honor for us personally, and it’s symbolic of our struggle for Palestinian liberation. In general, it’s just a huge win for our community. Since I was born and raised here and have frequented that street growing up, seeing it called Palestine Way and having people come from across the country to see the sign is just a huge win for us. 

In terms of a more internal win,  we’ve done a lot of internal organization and restructuring, we’ve standardized our programming and now we’re working to standardize our different positions. So I think that’s been a huge success for us to ensure long term sustainability for the organization. 

 Our biggest thing that we’re working on right now is our summer program, it’s a six week summer program where we cater towards kids between the ages of 5-15, and we basically provide a fun, safe environment where they can be themselves to the fullest, plus introducing a lot of social justice and Palestine education into the mix so that they can come out as critically thinking individuals. But at the same time, making sure that they can have a better sense of their identity and community that they belong to."

Abire: "We’re also continuing with our Get Out the Vote and Civic Engagement campaign, so we have our community mapping and story bank pushes that we’re doing right now, which is feeding off of the redistricting work where we want to continue mapping where the community is. So that’s asking people what city they live in and how many people there are so that we can get more data and numbers. And then the community story banking, similar to the Alliance’s, we realized that we know the stories because we’ve talked one on one, but we don’t have them documented, so we realized the importance of that. So that inspired us to have a form where people can fill out stories."

Rania: "I think that goes back to the idea of us not having a formal MENA category. We realized that we can get our work across with these stories, so we have this database to better  represent our community and bring their issues to the forefront."

Last month was Immigrant Heritage Month, and PACC participated in our Immigrant Heritage Day Rally. Rania on what Immigrant Heritage Month means to her personally, especially as a leader in the social justice movement in NJ…

"I think it goes back to what abire said in the beginning. A lot of our families came as immigrants to this country. They came with the intention of making this their home, and it’s not reciprocated. Immigrants are used to bolster other people’s platforms, but when it comes to hearing the needs of these communities, it’s silent. We’re not given a proper platform or seat at the table to advocate for our issues properly. We all come from immigrant backgrounds and see how hard the generations that came before us worked, and the efforts they’ve put in to make this country what it is. For it not to be reciprocated, to be otherized constantly and questioned is a unique struggle that immigrants and children of immigrants have. We need to continue to work towards being seen as equal and make sure that we have that same seat at the table, that our voices are heard, and that we are creating long term change in policy. 

Growing up, I always heard that America is a melting pot, and I think that whole idea has been completely challenged. We're not just people coming together and becoming a homogeneous person. We’re more of a salad bowl, with everyone coming with their own identity to create this vibrant “salad”, which then makes this country work and reality work. If you’re trying to take people away from their identities, you’re just going to end up messing everything up." 

Rania and Abire hear a multitude of community stories every day. Here’s Rania on a story that stuck with her while at PACC, why it inspires her to continue with this work…

"One of the earlier stories that made me realize the importance of our work was when the Syrian refugee crisis was at its peak, so we had Syrian refugees come to us as part of an integration program. Someone came to us who had to be enrolled in English conversation classes to progress to the next level of this process. And I remember having conversations with him saying “They want me to learn English, but the teacher doesn’t speak English. The teacher speaks Spanish.” So the Spanish students were learning and picking it up, but we weren't. I think that stuck with me because that made me realize that, while we have a long way to go for all minorities,  Arab minorities specifically don’t have that representation where what they say matters. I realized that we have a lot of work to do to recognize that one, Arabs are a growing minority, and two, to work on uplifting these voices. After that, we opened up our first English class at PACC, and one of the requirements was that our teacher had to speak Arabic. That’s something that I’ve always kept in mind. I’m privileged to have been born and raised here, so I don’t understand the struggle, but it’s about creating that space to hear the needs of the community to use the privilege to uplift these voices and get real active change. 

Another quick story that guided me with the work we’re doing is that a family came in that immigrated from Jordan. The kids were failing out of school for no other reason than that they had no access to English. Their school was not offering ESL (English as a Second Language) Classes, and they were failing because they didn’t understand the language. So we worked with our connections and advocated for them to be placed into a school that offers ESL, and it was literally an act of two or three phone calls. They switched into a school out of their district for three years, and got more of a grasp of the language. Going back to the idea of language accessibility, if this family had not had advocates with the privilege of these connections and knowledge of the system, they would not have gotten that switch that had such a long term impact on their lives. It’s been six or seven years now and the kids are in high school. Sometimes, I play that game of “what would’ve happened if we had never gotten involved?” They probably would’ve failed out of school for no other reason than not having anyone understand them and not having anyone to advocate for them."

One thing we notice about PACC is your dedication to reach all ages of the community. How do you bridge the gaps between generations to fight for your common goals and come together in times of celebration, such as PACC Day?

Abire: "I think intergenerational work is a really key component of Palestinian and Arab culture, so it’s kind of reminding ourselves of that. Individualism is a very Western concept, so for us we try to keep the communal focus even within families and generations because that is a part of our culture. Not to say that elders and kids don’t have differing things that might be problematic, but the point is to work together and explain what can be changed and what we can hold onto in a comfortable way. One way we did that was with our conference last year, and the theme of it was “Past, Present, Future”. So we were learning about our past, to take lessons from it to understand the present and apply it to visions for our future. We need to know our past and our history, not to repeat it, but to better understand what’s happening now. It’s through that and visions of liberation in the future that we try to bridge elders and youth. Everyone has a role to play within the community and within the struggle."

Rania:  "I think PACC Day is important because with it our main focus is to showcase the different talents of our community, so it gives them a space where they can feel like they truly belong and are able to have that platform to uplift their different passions. I think it’s also important because it brings together a sense of community. So we always have different people to get involved, so internally it’s a great way to encourage other people to come together. Also, for people who don’t usually have that sense of community, they’ll be able to meet other people there and feel a sense of belonging. They see their identity being highlighted or are surrounded by people who look like them or talk like them, and they can feel like they belong with them. Ultimately, our goal is to uplift and highlight the Palestinian narrative, which is something we definitely do during PACC Day." 

Abire: "About the Palestinian narrative, I think it’s important to do it in a way where the talents and the beauty of the community and culture is highlighted. The time when Palestine is on the news is when the occupation is heavier and it’s termed as “clashes” or “conflicts”, and Palestine is seen only in the context of Israeli occupation. What PACC does, very uniquely, is to show the beauty and everything else we can offer- not to prove ourselves to anyone but for our own sake and emotional wellbeing of the youth. It’s important for them to see themselves in their community in a positive light and a better way than the occupation."

Rania on why building local, community power is important to the movement…

"I think it’s rooted in our theory of change. Our theory of change is that if you empower individuals, you empower a community. If you empower a community, they can create long term, sustainable change, which ultimately leads to the liberation of Palestine and all oppressed people. I think that’s really the guiding rule and mantra that leads a lot of the work that we do and keeps us motivated. When we’re investing in the individual, we’re always thinking about the larger community that they’re placed in, and always thinking about the societal change that that person can create. I think that’s it. We never look at it as one part. It’s like a domino effect. When you push one domino, we’re trying to see what effect that will have in the long term. Before PACC was created, the Palestinian struggle existed long before us, and there was a huge focus on Palestine, while forgetting our community here. The reality is that we won’t be able to achieve liberation there if we’re not investing in our community here. This is where PACC came in and created this sense of pride, ownership, and belonging. If they feel like this is MY struggle, they can impact generations to come. We’re creating a movement where everyone feels ownership and is working towards freedom. That’s the key. Highlighting and recognizing your privilege and struggle for liberation." 

What’s the last book you read, or what book has impacted you the most?

Abire: "I just started The Revolution Will Not Be Funded by INCITE: Women of Color Against Violence, which talks about nonprofit roles and the difficulties of being in nonprofit work when talking about revolutionary ideas." 

Abire on one of her biggest inspirations…

"One of my biggest inspirations is Malcolm X. Reading his autobiography as a teenager helped validate where I was starting at, specifically as a Muslim and for Palestine. Malcolm X and his experiences aren’t taught enough when we’re young, also, in terms of contextualizing US imperialism and a lot of the issues that we’re dealing with." 

Rania on what brings her joy in these turbulent times…

"This might sound cliche, but definitely my kids. When I found out I was pregnant with my son, I had a moment where I  was like “Ah! Masculinity! What are we going to do with it?!” and Abire told me that you’re aware of these things and you’re able to instill these concepts to raise a new generation. That, for me, I see it as my direct contribution to the world which is how I’m instilling confidence and proper morals and values into my kids." 

Check out more of Rania, Abire, and what PACC is doing here!