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Students and community protest DOE intervention into UNC Middle Eastern studies

Dozens of protesters gathered in front of UNC’s South Building on Wednesday afternoon in response to the U.S. Department of Education ordering the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies to revise its curriculum to retain federal Title VI funding. 

The protest was organized by the group Students for Justice in Palestine, which began coordinating the event last Friday by creating flyers and posting on social media. 

“We were outraged,” junior Aisha Jitan, a co-organizer, said. “We were really angry about what we read, especially given that we lost three Muslim people in our community not too long ago due to Islamophobia. Then after reading this and hearing this, we were just angry and said, 'We want better for our community, we want better for our campus culture,' which is why we were able to mobilize so quickly.”

The organizers named the event “Yalla: Decolonize this Place.” 

Yalla — a word used colloquially in Arabic to mean “let’s go” — reflects the call to action of the protest. The name also symbolizes the group’s goal of intellectually restructuring the way people approach and understand the Middle East, Jitan said.

Meagon Shefka, a sophomore majoring in human development and family studies, attended the protest.

"I think it's rooted in bigotry and xenophobia, and I do not think the University, or America as a whole, should stand for that," Shefka said.

At the protest, several student speakers shared their personal experiences of identifying as Middle Eastern, Muslim and Arab in America. Some also talked about the negative stereotypes that were applied to them by other people due to their culture and appearance. 

Rafel Al Ghrary, a first-year majoring in global studies, recounted the story of her younger brother being called a terrorist at age 7 by an older peer.

Along with several student speakers, there were two cultural performances including a song and a dance.

While the protest was organized mostly by students, English and comparative literature professor Elyse Crystall serves as the adviser of Students for Justice in Palestine. 

At the protest, which was mostly attended by students, Crystall said faculty also stood in solidarity with students protesting against what they described as the micromanaging of curriculum by the federal government.

Many speakers said modifying the curriculum due to pressure from the U.S. Department of Education would violate academic integrity. The change would undermine the value of a liberal arts education, which is supposed to expose students to a variety of perspectives. 

“When an administration is so prejudiced in its views that it has a need to threaten an already marginalized group for having one good thing, we know that we as Americans have failed to understand each other and our differences," Al Ghrary said. 

Jacquelyn Hedrick, a junior and co-organizer, said she has taken classes in the Duke-UNC CMES and does not think it needs changing.

“We have something here in this curriculum that I think we can really be proud of in so far as it is world-renowned in portraying Islam in a way that has escaped a lot of us in this post-9/11 era and even before then," Hedrick said. "I think it does exceptional work to generate a culture of empathy and understanding."

To close the demonstration, attendees held hands and chanted: “It is our duty to fight for our freedom, it is our duty to win, we must love and protect one another, we have nothing to lose but our chains.”

“We would like to use this platform for a call to action,” Fouad Abu-Hijleh, a senior and co-organizer, said. “Movements only begin with demonstrations, but they require continued commitment, especially when the goal is to cause fundamental shifts in the way we think about one another.”

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