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MENA New Yorkers Make a Missing Category Visible - Leyla Doss

JACK TRUITT, HOST: When Americans fill out the census, they are asked their race or origin: the list of 15 options includes white, African American, Korean and Filipino. This data guides everything from education and healthcare resources, to what language ballots are printed in. President Biden recently promised to introduce a new category in the next census: Middle Eastern and North African. Meanwhile, many in the MENA community say collecting this information can be critical for providing resources in New York City. Leyla Doss reports.

LEYLA DOSS, BYLINE: Natalie Risk is a twenty-four year-old Egyptian-American theater actor and director living in Bushwick. When the pandemic hit, she pulled out her laptop, and tried to apply to grants for minority artists.

NATALIE RISK: I was like, I don't know what to fill out. Because I was like, I'm obviously not white.

DOSS: She found out that as someone with Middle Eastern and North African heritage - MENA for short - she’s not recognized as a minority.

DOSS: Risk says she lost access to thousands of dollars worth of minority grants, because she is officially considered white. And she says - it’s the same filling out medical forms - or job applications. In college, she missed out on diversity scholarships.

RISK : It's such a simple fix, you know what I mean? Like, I just keep going back to this: it's a checkbox.

DOSS: Advocates say it’s not only about access, it’s also about collecting data. Abed Ayoub is the Director of Legal and Policy Affairs at the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. He says a lack of information about community conditions and needs has a wide range of real world impacts.

ABED AYOUB: it's taking away resources from the community, whether we're going to be in business, education, health care, the economy.

DOSS: The lack of acknowledgement of the MENA community may also have health impacts. Laila Abdel-Salam is a clinical psychologist at Harvard. She researched the mental health effects of not having legal recognition on this community. She said it can increase depression rates by four times.

LAILA ABDEL-SALAM: I think that really highlights how much the sense of invisibility and this sense of invalidation really penetrated all aspects of the participants lives. Folks that were Egyptian stated that they identified as African American. People who are Lebanese shared that they identified as Asian American.

DOSS: Natalie Risk needs to get a routine Covid test for work, so she stops by the Wyckoff Heights Medical Center in Bushwick. She says whenever she’s there, she is reminded of her mother who is immunocompromised.

RISK: She's been on a ton of therapies. And in several cases, my mom developed some of the most rare side effects to some of those therapies. And this happened several times.

DOSS: Her mother has multiple sclerosis. But she reacted poorly to standard treatment. Doctors were puzzled. Natalie wonders if the doctors had better healthcare data - specifically for people of North African descent - finding the best treatment for her mom wouldn’t be so trial and error.

DOSS: I contacted New York City’s Planning Department. They replied in an email that the city already gathers information about the MENA community using a separate survey. But Abed Ayoub says this survey doesn’t reach enough people. And he says while waiting for the 2030 census, the city should classify Middle Eastern North African as a “disadvantaged” minority.

AYOUB: So they can do that on a state or local level. They may not have an accurate count of Arabs in New York, but they're still going to offer the community the services.

DOSS: Meanwhile, Natalie Risk has her own strategy to make herself more visible as a person of color. She stopped straightening her hair. She started wearing necklaces with Ancient Egyptian Queen Nefertiti pendants.

RISK: I wear my hair as big and as curly as I can. You know what I mean? As it will get. This is who I am. This is my heritage. This is my blood. This is my people.

DOSS: Leyla Doss, Columbia Radio News.

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