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Illinois set to become first state to count Arab Americans in state data



CHICAGO (CBS)– Illinois is set to become the first state to count Arab Americans when collecting public data. 

After passing the Illinois legislature, the new bill, HB 3768, is on its way to Governor JB Pritzker. If passed, Arab Americans and minority groups from the Middle East will be separately recognized. 

“It happened, right? I mean, oh my God, the feeling? Unbelievable,” said Itedal Shalabi, co-founder and executive director of Arab American Family Services. “It was just an unbelievable feeling. It was like, ‘oh my God, we did it.'”

Currently, Arab Americans are categorized as white. If it becomes law, the bill introduced in February will ensure that the Middle East and North African (MENA) racial category will be on official state government forms, studies, and reports.

Illinois would become the first state in the country to create a MENA category, ensuring Arab Americans are counted on state forms. 

The data collected is used to inform local programs, funding, and policy.   

“It sends a message to the Arab American community that you are valued, you are seen,” State Representative and bill sponsor Abdelnasser Rashid told CBS 2. 

Illinois set to become first state to count Arab Americans in state data 05:34

But it took decades to get here. Shalabi and Nareman Taha, who co-founded Arab American Family Services with her, have seen the struggle in the MENA community first hand.

Having to check “white” or “other” on forms means the state was never collecting specific data on Arabs. That also means they couldn’t get funding when they needed it most.

“It was this constant struggle that we exist, that you have a large community here in the Chicagoland area,” Taha said. “You have to prove, constantly, in and out, that you need these resources, you need these opportunities to build a healthy community,”

CBS 2 has reported for years on the devastating impact of data not being collected on this group. 

“[This bill] means that we exist as a community,” Taha said. “It means endless opportunities from education to public health.”

That was no more evident than during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although Arabs were among those dying at high rates in Illinois, CBS 2 found city and state agencies did not have a separate category tracking this information like they do for other groups. Therefore, organizations struggled to obtain funding for resources.   

“So many Arab Americans were labeled or boxed into white, or Asians, or other; so there was no accuracy to the number of COVID-impacted individuals,” Taha said.

You might remember we interviewed Shalabi and Taha back in 2021, when we first reported Arabs were dying from COVID at high rates; but no one knew the depth of the devastation, because the government wasn’t counting.

“The COVID testing, not being early on, has caused a lot of deaths in the community that could have been prevented,” Shalabi said at the time.

 Husam Farraj’s uncle, Abdelkarim Haj, died from COVID, but the medical examiner listed his race as Asian.

“It’s disturbing because it’s almost like it becomes a lie, in a way,” Farraj said.

But with the new law, that will change. The state will now be required to collect data that will help Arab communities get the services and funding they need – from health disparities to housing to education.

Once the MENA category is implemented, Shalabi and Taha encourage Arab Americans to start checking off that MENA box. In the meantime, they have message for the community.

“We finally matter. We finally found a box that we can check that represents us, that truly embodies us,” Shalabi said.

The governor is expected to sign the bill, and we’ll be tracking how state officials implement the new category. Arab American Family Services hopes the new law in Illinois will inspire other states to do the same.

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