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After AMAS: Interviews with AMAS alums Devin Bathish and Jenna Chami

Since its founding, Arab and Muslim American Studies has been committed to stimulating student minds and action. As we all adjust to a new normal, I think it is important for AMAS to continue to look forward, and the best way to do that is by looking back. So I invited the outgoing AMAS program assistant, Hiba Dagher (‘22) to reconnect us to two AMAS alumni, Devin Bathish (‘17) and Jenna Chami (‘20) who are activating their AMAS studies for a better future for all. In this interview, Bathish and Chami speak on their lives post-graduation, their experiences as students and their advice for the next AMAS generation.

Devin Bathish

Hiba: First off -- congratulations on being named for Arab America's 30 under 30 last year, Mabrook! I wanted to begin by asking what you’ve been up to since graduating from UofM, and what attracted you to the path you're currently embarking on right now?
Devin: Thank you -- Allah Yebarek Fikeh! So, out of undergrad, in 2017, I accepted a position as the executive director of a community nonprofit in Flint,  the Arab American Heritage Council, and I worked there for five years. I'm originally from Flint, and for us, the AHCS is kind of like a very small version of ACCESS in Dearborn. Growing up, it was kind of the only form of representation we had. 
So when the position became open, I really took that as the opportunity to provide a new generation with the space just for them. There was so much talent in my community, in the youth especially, but none of it was showcased. So my main goal was to not only support the Arab community but also build up Arab youth in the area. And so that work was really awesome and that was a really fulfilling five years that I spent there.
Hiba: You were really active as an undergraduate, especially with student activism and with the AMAS program. Do you feel that the program helped to inform your approach when you were in that position?
Devin: Absolutely. This served as a kind of dual purpose for me. There was the educational aspect, and the social justice aspect too. I had the AMAS minor, which I was very thankful for, I loved my classes, and I loved my professors -- a lot of them I still keep in touch with. So I was really lucky to have this rich understanding of Arab Americans, where we come from, and who we are; not just from my personal experiences, but from a rigorous academic background as well. This was vital -- since, ACHS does a lot of educational training, from kids as young as five years old to public health professionals with the Michigan Department of health and human services of Genesee county. There was no way I could have been giving those presentations without that training. There's no way I could have done that without that. 
The second part of it is like, how do we approach the work that we do? How do you put out programs that are equitable? Are we highlighting all Arab voices, or are we just overly represented by Lebanese and Palestinian people? How can we get other people in the community? In Flint, we have a large Yemeni community and a large Sudan community. So it was our mission not to only have equity in terms of Arab representation, but also in terms of the diversity of Arab representation. On the basis of race, gender, religion, and nationality -- we want to make sure that the work we do is faithful to the community that we’re trying to represent.
Hiba: It seems like you were always very aware of your identity, so my question is -- when you got to UofM, was there anything that really pushed you towards the minor? Or was it more of a natural fit?
Devin: Honestly, it was kind of like a match made in heaven. These were classes I was already taking because my friends were taking them, and I loved the professors, and they were teaching subjects I deeply cared about. So when I found out there was a minor, it was a no-brainer. I was getting it, it didn’t matter what I had to do. And it really opened a world of thinking for me.
I was involved with Arabesque, which was the dance troupe, and I was also deeply involved with SAFE, which was the Students of  of Michigan. All of those communities became places of learning for me, particularly from the women leaders of SAFE that I came up under. They showed me what intersectionality meant, and how to understand your identity not just in its own context but in the many varying layers of who you are. 
So they all really propelled me to want to push further into my own identity and to question what is dominant in our community. Not just dominant in the US, but what is dominant when we’re talking about Arabs in the US and what we say about ourselves. I think all of that really pushed me to think about advancing the voices that we haven’t historically heard from, even within our own marginalized communities.
Hiba: Yeah, I definitely agree with you. I feel like we take things for granted in our communities because it's like, oh, we're already marginalized. We don't really have to have more conversations beyond that. But that’s not true, there’s always more work to be done. 
And, and on that note, do you feel like your classes helped you shape the way that you think about your identity? Or did you already come to university with an understanding about who you are and then just the classes sort of helped supplement that?
Devin: It was a bit of both. I knew I was Palestinian. I knew I was very much Palestinian and I knew that I would bleed Palestinian. So I knew very much the core of who I was, but my courses helped me to start fully fleshing out my identity. I started thinking about the ways to “be Palestinian” -- whether that be in your right to protest or do direct action, or in your ability to speak Arabic, or your ability to paint or do poetry or dance or bake and cook. 
And my courses helped me realize many different forms of Palestinian resistance there are. But on top of all that, they also made me realize how narrow my worldview was because we’re all so innately tied to our identity. We can forget about others. Someone whose Egyptian will have different experiences than someone who's Kuwaiti or someone who's Iraqi. And your identity will also impact the ways you face different systems of oppression here in the US. Like, for example, I’m a light-skinned Palestinian, and something I do not deal with is colorism and anti-blackness. But that’s not the case for, for example, my Sudani friends. 
So, I had an idea of who I was, but fleshing that out and understanding it in a whole multitude of different ways was a big part of AMAS and also the people I was around.
Hiba: I mean -- I know I’m talking to an icon of the Arab community at U of M and everything, but do you have any particularly memorable experiences that you had as a student?
Devin: Yeah (laughs) I mean, it depends on which area. I’ll never forget my senior year Arab Xpressions show when we sold out the Power Center, and it was, by far, one of the most fun nights of my life. There were a couple of others. One of them was definitely when the University of Michigan voted to divest. That was the semester after I had graduated. And that was, God, that was all the work that had ever been put in over 17 years, not just me and my 5 years, but so many others. There was no sweeter movement than that. Probably one of the coolest things I will ever experience. 
Hiba: I mean, genuinely, I remember hearing about the work you guys did my freshman year and just being so completely inspired. Just because, you know, you get to this campus and it's so massive. Massive both in the sense of scale and massive in the sense that you feel so invisible because of it. So hearing about all the work that you all did was really, really inspiring. And I’m very happy we have you all as an example.
Devin: Well, I will say for me, at least, by far the best compliment I am ever paid is when the people that carry something on from your work, they carry it on do it even better than you ever could. And it shows you that it's like a step ladder. And so to see that keep getting carried on and to, to have you all do it better than we ever thought it was possible. It's really, it's a big blessing, right?

Jenna Chami
Hiba: First off -- I just wanted to congratulate you on graduating from U-M with your MPH! I  wanted to begin by asking what you’ve been up to since graduating from UofM, and what attracted you to the path you're currently embarking on right now?
Jenna: Thank you! So, right after graduating, I accepted a position at the newly formed Dearborn Department of Public Health as an executive fellow. So right now, since we’re so new, a lot of what we’re doing is building the department from the ground up with our director Ali Abazeed, who's really fantastic. I have a lot of different responsibilities across the board. A lot of what I do is helping run the internship program, so I do a lot of day-to-day oversight for the department and our fellows -- we have over twenty-five fellows! 
We also do a lot of projects that deal with emergent Public Health needs -- for example, Dearborn was hit really hard by the baby formula shortage, and a lot of our residents weren’t able to pay exorbitant prices to scalpers or ship formula from elsewhere. So our department was able to put on a baby formula drive, and help families get the formula they needed for their babies.
I’m from Livonia, but I was born in Dearborn, and a lot of my family still lives there, and so many of my fondest memories growing up take place in Dearborn. And a lot of my focus, both in my undergraduate program and then in my master's, was on the public health needs of Arab Americans. So it feels really special to do work that supports a place and a people so close to my heart.
Hiba: You were really active as an undergraduate, especially with student organizations and with the AMAS program, do you feel that the program helped to inform your approach when you were in that position?
Jenna: What’s really difficult about Public Health research is that the research that does exist about Arab Americans, or just ME/NA people at large, is that there just isn’t a lot of it. Part of it has to do with how we’re classified here in the United States -- in the census, people from ME/NA backgrounds are labeled as white, even though there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary. And classification has a lot to do with how we approach researching people… so, nonetheless, it’s not a super large part of Public Health research. So, I'm really very grateful to AMAS for helping fill in those gaps.
Plus, it really helped broaden my perspective on how to approach my work in the public health sector. It really forced me to be intersectional in my work, to see how the intersections of all aspects of a person’s or people's identity interact. Because all aspects of someone’s life, someone’s identity -- their gender, race, nationality, religion, ability, class, etc -- all of that impacts who you are, and how you approach the world. And therefore, it impacts all parts of public health. And public health itself is so all-encompassing.
Hiba: So, it goes beyond just one thing. Like, there’s no one real example of what an “Arab American” public health intervention might be?
Jenna: Exactly! Two people might be Arab American, but their identities might totally differ in all other aspects, and in that difference, you can see where you can help create a public health intervention that really supports them and their needs.
Hiba: With all that in mind, What made you decide to choose AMAS as a minor? Was it more oriented towards your work in public health, or something else?
Jenna: It was very personal for me. It’s one thing to grow up Arab American, but it’s another entirely to study the culture where you come from. Because the gaps I had -- knowledge-wise -- weren’t just from my studies, but it was also just from the way I was raised. This isn’t any fault of anyone, but I was this little Lebanese Muslim girl in a very, very white community. The only sense of my culture was from my family and from my visits to Dearborn. 
And those were really important to me, but they were supplementing a time in my life when I never really felt represented anywhere or by anyone. The characters who looked like me on TV and in movies were always terrorists, the women were either oppressed or hyper-sexualized. But that wasn’t my reality. 
So, when I learned that there was a program at UofM that was dedicated solely to studying Arabs and Muslims, I was really excited. And I'm very grateful that  I decided to stick with it because it taught me so much about who I am. The program provided me with the ability to adequately represent myself and my culture, and for that, I’ll always be very grateful. 
Hiba: As someone who was also a part of the program, I definitely agree with you there. There’s just something really empowering with learning there’s an alternate way to represent yourself and your culture, beyond the dominant -- and often, really racist -- narrative in a lot of our culture.
Jenna: Definitely. It’s powerful to be able to fight against that.
Hiba: What was the most memorable or meaningful experience you had as a student?
Jenna: Oh, Doctor Stiffler’s class. One hundred percent. That class is really where so much of this stuff, everything we were talking about just now, this is where it all started to become clear to me. He really provided a space for his students to come in as their authentic selves and fostered a sense of belonging and community for us. Even though we all came from different identities under the umbrella identity of Arab or  ME/NA, we all came together to learn and grow together. Plus, Doctor Stifler has such a dry sense of humor, it made the class really fun.


One Piece of Advice:
Devin & Jenna pass along some knowledge
“ One of the biggest pieces, I would say, is there is no better place to explore your identity than Michigan because of all the different resources available to you. But there's another piece, which is that no matter how much you think you know about your identity, there's always more to know from people that you haven't learned from yet. We can always keep learning. So, don't be afraid to find your place, but also to always be eager to keep learning from either the community, from the minor, from the wonderful professors, from the classes.” -- Devin Batish 
“I was a transfer student, and I graduated undergrad and started grad school during COVID,  so my experience with college wasn’t super conventional. I would say, even when the situation changes, or you miss out on an opportunity you were hoping on, or things don’t turn out exactly how you expect them to be, as long as you’re staying true to yourself and you’re following your life’s passion, you’ll be exactly where you need to be. Ultimately, you’re your best advocate, and everything will turn out the way it needs to be, even if it might not seem like it at the time.” -- Jenna Chami