Middle Eastern Student Center breaks new ground

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HIGHLANDER/Cameron Yong

Marcela Ramirez, director of the Middle Eastern Student Center (MESC), held up a common ground collective card, which offered a listing of UCR campus departments and services. “This is the first year that the MESC got featured,” said Ramirez. The center is a student-initiated department that outreaches to clubs and organizations with ties to the Middle East, North Africa and South and Southwest Asia.

HUB 361 temporarily houses the MESC — the first of its kind in the UC system and in the state of California — which took over three years to complete. Ramirez hopes to one day relocate the center inside Costo Hall, alongside all of the other ethnic, cultural and gender-oriented departments.

“(The university) understands clearly that there is a space problem and right now, we don’t have space in Costo Hall for the (MESC),” Vice Chancellor of Student Affairs Jim Sandoval said about the student-initiated center. “I mean, there was an understanding that we don’t have enough space, but that wasn’t a consideration by the students who took the proposal forward.”

Occupying the former Diversity Initiatives office, the MESC plans to utilize the space as a stepping stone to “provide a home for Middle Eastern students, a place to make them feel welcomed and connected to other students,” according to Danny Leserman, one of 12 founders of the center and former president of Hillel.

The MESC was started by the Middle Eastern Student Collaborative, a collection of representatives from the clubs and organizations that developed the proposal for the center. The Middle Eastern Student Center will cost an estimated $50,000, which is allocated and approved through the Student Fee Advisory Committee (SFAC).

The last student department added to Costo Hall was the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Resource Center, which opened in 1993. “There are still centers that are missing that should still be there, but this means that we’re not done yet and it shows that we are progressing toward more diversity (within the university),” said Leserman.

Prior to receiving approved funding from the SFAC, the MESC’s founders needed to identify the level of demand for the center through surveys and event planning. In 2012, the center held the “Laugh in Peace” comedy show, which featured a rabbi, a reverend and a Muslim comedian. The student collaborative raised nearly $10,000 through the Diversity Initiatives office, ASPB and the university to hold the event — with the attendance of over 500 students.

Back in 2011, the student collaborative also released a campuswide survey, which asked, “Are you in favor of the creation of a center to support UCR students of Middle Eastern Background?” Exactly 72 percent of all students provided a yes response, while 28 percent said no.

At the same time, students were also asked, “Would you be in favor of using existing student fees to create the center?” with a little more than half — 51 percent — supporting the funding initiative.

The most notable speed bumps in the planning stages revolved around the “Divestment of Companies that Profit from Apartheid” resolution. The document called for UCR to halt funding from companies that offer financial support to Israel’s occupation of Palestine.

The resolution unearthed continuing conflicts between specific student organizations, such as the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and HIFI, who held opposing viewpoints that exemplified ongoing Middle Eastern conflicts at the time.

Former SJP president, ASUCR senator and MESC co-founder Shadi Matar presented the resolution back in early March, explaining that he proposed the resolution to the senate as a student.

“A lot of people had this misunderstanding that everyone has different roles and different hats to put on. But when they come to the MESC, (students are) working and advocating for it … they’re not putting their own agenda on the table,” Matar explained. “I’d say that (the resolution) created the small bump in the road, but it didn’t stop our progress at all.”

Lesserman also revealed that many from the center felt “a sense of betrayal” from the ongoing conflicts. “I mean, this is what we’ve been working for, what are you doing? Not because (the resolution) happened but because of how it was done. It was almost like our civility was used to keep us in the dark and nobody liked that,” said Lesserman.

But according to Ramirez, the overall planning and logistics of the center ran separately from the actions taken at the senate meetings. Ramirez added, “Whatever (the senate) decided wasn’t going to affect the SFAC’s decision to fund us. So we didn’t find out until late spring that we got the money. By the time this was going on, we already submitted our proposal.”

Matar also argues that there is only minor opposition to the development of the center, as a result of miscommunication and misinformation. He explains that one purpose of the center is to bring together Middle Eastern clubs and organizations who are in need of additional resources to hold events and programs.

“But by no means, are we just grouping in all of these people and saying that they have to be a part of this. If conflicts do arise, it’s up to the groups involved if they want to handle it through the center, but the center is not going to force dialogue (or action) between these groups,” Matar reiterated about the autonomy of each student organization who may turn to the center as a resource.

Students such as Stephanie Tehseldar, a fourth-year bioengineering major of Lebanese descent, explained that the center would also allow students of Middle Eastern descent to find common ground together, apart from ongoing international conflicts.

“I think it’s a good way for people to get in touch with their culture, and it’s also a good way to educate other people who aren’t Middle Eastern on the Middle Eastern culture,” she expressed.

The center held a “Launch Party” on Monday, Oct. 21 from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in HUB 302 South, which included a student-organizer panel and guest speaker UCR Associate Professor of Creative Writing Reza Aslan.

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