During March, UW–Madison continues the celebratory return of Middle Eastern North African (MENA) Heritage Month. Sponsored by the Multicultural Student Center (MSC) and made possible by students whose passion for their heritage goes beyond borders and stereotypes, MENA Heritage Month recognizes a vibrant community, their stories, and their cultural contributions.
“The MENA Heritage Month theme, ‘Through the Eyes of MENA’, is built on the pillars of safe space, reflective conversation, and a nostalgic sense of home.” sshares Dana Tabaza, industrial engineering and data science major and co-chair of the 2023 MENA Heritage Month Collective (MHMPC).
Last fall, Tabaza, together with fellow co-chair Haruka Padillar, successfully organized a MENA Social Night, gathering dozens of MENA student organizations. From this event they formed the MENA Collective, a group of 40 passionate, MENA-identifying student organization leaders. The group dedicated months to planning heritage month celebrations that are spreading awareness, providing representation, and creating spaces for MENA students.
“With different lenses into MENA cultures—dance, food, music, art, comedy, poetry, conversation, and more—this month provides a glimpse into our identities, through our eyes, away from the misconceptions that trail behind us,” Tabaza shares.
“Special thanks to the 2023 MENA Heritage Month Collective and the Multicultural Student Center for leading the month’s celebration, along with co-chairs Tabaza and Padilla for their efforts in making this month possible.” Gabe Javier, vice chancellor for Student Affairs, Identity and Inclusion, acknowledges the great work done by student leaders for MENA HM. “Intentionally planned events serve as recognition of MENA heritage, honoring the complexities and the unique beauties of identities.”
We connected with Tabaza earlier this month to learn more about her story.
Student Affairs: It’s been a few years since campus celebrated MENA (Middle Eastern and Northern African) Heritage Month (MENAHM) – You brought it back? How exciting! What motivated you to start planning the month-long celebration of events and activities to celebrate?
Dana Tabaza (DT): In advocating for MENA cultural programming, I was motivated to address the lack of representation and recognition for Middle Eastern North African students on campus. As an identity group that has been placed on hold for years, MENA students deserve the space to celebrate the richness in their stories and cultures and create a home away from home.
As a recent immigrant to the United States, I take great pride in my Palestinian-Jordanian heritage, and love sharing it with those around me. Community and collectivism are at the heart of MENA cultures, but in my transition to American culture, adjusting to a western, individualistic society was a complete shock. In navigating this completely new way of life, I had to learn how to create opportunities where they didn’t exist to create a semblance of home for myself, and students who have walked similar paths to mine. As the first ever MENA Cultural Programming Intern (within MSC), I sought to create a month that celebrates the stories, history, beauty, and richness of Middle Eastern and North African cultures as an annual tradition celebrated on campus this March, and for years to come.
SA: What programming are highlight for other students?
DT: I was very excited for the kickoff, Night at the Bazaar, held on March 1. The event served as foreshadowing the month-long events that brought students together to celebrate fashion, poetry, music, traditional dance, cuisine, and forms of art such as Henna, Tatreez (embroidery), and calligraphy. Upcoming events include Chai, Chahee, and Kahve Chat on March 23 and the Interfaith Iftar on March 30.
SA: How do you feel your MENA experience has been on campus?
DT: It has been challenging to navigate the complexities of immigration and finding my place on campus, however, in this process, I have been lucky to find a diverse community that I can lean on and learn from. The Multicultural Student Center has enabled me to create a home away from home and I hope MENA Heritage Month gives students the opportunity to do the same as well!
SA: When you’re not planning heritage months, or studying industrial engineering and data science, how do you like to spend your time on campus?
DT: As a regular of the MSC, I love spending my time at the different events hosted by the other cultural centers and student organizations. In attending these events, I’ve had the opportunity to connect with students from other identity groups, whom I’ve learned so much from. I am also involved in the Wisconsin Consulting Club, where I have had the chance to work on multiple student consulting projects with various companies.
Lastly, I am a part of the Industrial Engineering Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access Task Force, where I get to work on diversity initiatives in the department and be a voice for students. Aside from that, I love spending time with friends, meeting new people, and growing my community on campus. In my downtime, I love taking my film camera out on walks and catching some candid shots of Madison.
SA: What do you hope campus will take away from the month-long celebration, bringing fun and educational programming for MENA Heritage Month?
DT: My goal is that our campus takes away the importance of representation and celebrating diversity. I hope that from joining the MENA Heritage Month celebrations that our campus gets to experience the joy of celebrating each other, and to truly see the difference it makes when students get to learn from and share their stories with one another. I also hope that the message of creating programming empowers students to bloom where they are planted, and serves as a reminder to grow and create opportunities where there are none, and to bloom in places where you historically didn’t — and weren’t supposed to bloom. I hope students learn to take up space wherever they are, and to exist boldly, extending that power to others to unlock their authentic selves too.
“A Night at the Bazaar” kicked off MENA Heritage Month.
The event, organized and sponsored by the Multicultural Student Center,
featured a fashion show in which students wore the traditional garb of many cultures.