After years of organizing, students at UC Riverside are formally launching a Middle Eastern Student Center that aims to bring together Muslim, Christian and Jewish students with roots in the region.
Students of different ethnicities and faiths worked side-by-side to establish a center they hope will engender discussions of centuries-old conflicts, but will focus more on the region's cultures, traditions and histories. It is believed to be the first center of its kind in the country.
Tensions sometimes arose during the formative period, particularly over Israeli and Palestinian issues, but students say they haven't allowed that to get in the way of their goal.
"This is about having a place where you can go to connect with people who share your heritage, your history, your background," said Mariam Saleh, who is the daughter of Lebanese immigrants. "The Israel-Palestine issue is part of it, but that will never be the main focus."
Saleh is a member of the Muslim Students Association, which has many members of Middle Eastern ancestry. There are a number of other clubs for students from the region, including organizations for Lebanese, Coptic Christian, Palestinian and pro-Israel students.
The center, Saleh said, will help unify students from the different clubs.
"There's such a big population here, but we didn't have a program like the Chicano or African or Native American students," Saleh said.
Unlike student clubs, the Middle Eastern Center is an official university entity, with a full-time director and an office. It is funded with student fees.
It joins existing centers for African; Asian and Pacific Islander; Chicano; Native American; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender; and women students.
Students first proposed the center several years ago. Over the past three years, university officials helped them guide its creation, said James Sandoval, UCR's vice chancellor for student affairs, who attended some of the organizing meetings.
"This is a population that has unique needs on our campus and in our society," he said. "There's a lot of misunderstanding about the Middle East and its rich culture."
The center also will serve as a resource for students with roots in nearby regions, such as South Asia and North Africa.
Sandoval said he's unaware of a similar center on any other U.S. college campus. The vice chair of UC Berkeley's Center for Middle Eastern Studies, Professor Emily Gottreich, said in an email she's also never heard of a center like UCR's.
Judd Lieberman, a Jewish student who has been active in student-run Highlanders for Israel, said the center will help emphasize commonalities. People throughout the Middle East share similar culinary and music traditions and many of the same values, such as the importance of family, he said.
"We highlight the differences so much, we sometimes forget how similar we are," he said. "Our cultural similarities can be used to our advantage and to bring people together."
The center also provides a space to have civil discussions over contentious issues "rather than playing the blame game," he said.
"It's about being able to look at each other and realize we have different views and not taking it personally," Lieberman said.
The center is now housed in a cramped office with room for seven or eight people. The plan is to move it to a larger space when one becomes available, Sandoval said.
Even though the Middle Eastern center will hold its launch party Monday night, Oct. 21, it has been quietly operating since early summer.
The students organizing the center held several events over the past few years, in a preview of what the center hopes to accomplish. Last year, a "Laugh for Peace" comedy show featured a Jewish rabbi, a Christian minister and a Muslim comedian. Two film series also were held.
Shadi Matar, a Christian of Palestinian ancestry who helped organize the comedy show and the center, is helping plan another film series and hopes there will be a Middle Eastern literature and film library at the center.
Knowing more about Middle Eastern culture and traditions will help dispel stereotypes about the region and its people, he said.
Matar said the center will function as a resource not only for students of Middle Eastern ancestry, but also for anyone — including non-UCR students — interested in finding out more about the region.
One reason for the center is mundane: To help student associations rent rooms for events and book speakers for campus talks. The center also will connect students with different clubs and resources.
Matar said the center shouldn't shy away from politics. He hopes the center to sponsor discussions on topics such as the Syrian civil war, tension between Armenians and Turks and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The role of Israeli and pro-Israel students at the center — and concerns they either would be too dominant or that their opinions would be marginalized — led to some tension, students said.
But the organizing process also led to friendships between students of different ethnicities and political beliefs, including Matar, who at the time was president of Students for Justice in Palestine, and Danny Leserman, a Jewish student who was co-president of Highlanders for Israel.
The friendship frayed after Matar introduced a resolution in student government this year calling on the UC system to divest from companies "materially supporting or profiting from Israel's occupation" of Palestine. The student government approved the resolution but later rescinded it.
Leserman said he felt betrayed that Matar hadn't first discussed the resolution with the students organizing the center. Matar said he didn't feel a need to clear the resolution with other students because he was acting independently of the center.
Matar and Leserman no longer have hours-long conversations and debates over beers, as they did in the past, but they were sitting at the same table last week in a meeting on the logistics of Monday's event.
They said they were never Pollyanna-ish about the center's goals.
"This is not a place where we can solve the Middle East crises," Leserman said.
Sandoval said he expects some disagreements among students.
"We would have our heads in the sand to say there is no tension in the Middle East," he said. "We have students from that region, and those tensions hit home. That's a critical reason to form the center, to bring those students together and to facilitate dialogue and begin discussions of some of the real issues that exist among those groups."
Leserman said the Jewish, Muslim and Christian students who are most active with the center want it to be inclusive of everyone with Middle Eastern roots or an interest in the region, and they encourage constructive discussions.
The challenge, he said, will be to ensure that ethos is carried on when current students graduate and new ones come in.
"We're the best and most diverse public-university system on Earth, and we should be able to talk about these things," Leserman said. "If we can't do that here, we won't be able to do it anywhere."
Official opening of the Middle Eastern Student Center at UC Riverside will feature a keynote address by Reza Aslan, an associate professor of creative writing at UCR and author of the best-selling "Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth."