Arab American Women Struggle While Aging in a New World

Arab American Women Struggle While Aging in a New World

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Second of two articles. Read part one here.

Editor’s note: The following article, posted April 25, 2013, includes revisions correcting errors in an earlier version.

DEARBORN, Mich.--Parked in front of a typical Michigan colonial house, a social worker, who works with elders, is waiting for me. She has agreed to introduce me to an older woman, as long as the meeting is discrete. As I approached the social worker’s car, she looks around to make sure we won’t be watched as we walk up the driveway.

“The residents of this street are all Arab Americans and I don’t want any neighbors to see us coming in. I don’t want to get the lady in trouble with her family,” she explains.

At the side door of this three-bedroom home, we are welcomed by Hajji Fatimah, who is known by the name “Um Kassem” (mother of Kassem, her first son), a traditional Arabic way of addressing parents.

‘I Feel Like a Captive Here’

When asked how she feels about America, Um Kassem replied, “It is a great country. But nothing is better than your own country.”

“But isn’t America your country now,” I said?

“Well, I wish I came here much younger; maybe then I can say yes. But when I don’t go outside this house unless I go to the doctor, the social service office or to a funeral, I cannot say it. Back in Lebanon I was free to go anywhere I wanted in the town. I know everyone there. Here even I cannot visit the few people I knew from back home. No one has time to take me or to bring them over,” said Um Kassem.

I asked if she regretted the move here.

“It was not up to me. But I would have been better if I didn’t come. I feel like a captive here. I have nowhere to go, nothing to do besides babysitting and house chores. In the beginning I was occupied with the kids but as they got older and went to school I got more and more alone. My daughter-in-law is busy with her friends and, if not, she is driving the kids to their school and events.”

What are your activities in your free time?

“I mostly watch Arabic TV. But when the kids are home I cannot because they watch their own shows or play their games on every set in the house. In the summer I walk down the street to see an old friend of mine. Besides this I go to the doctor and the social service office when I need to update my papers.”

Um Kassem said she has thought about moving out and living on her own, but she wouldn’t want to embarrass or upset her family. When she got into the subject with her son once, he didn’t approve of the idea.

Lack of Programs, Invisible in Research

Before parting with the social worker who arranged the interview, I ask her what is being done for people in this situation. “So far, very little. We don’t have programs or resources. We try our best to help them to get the services that are available, but the cultural barriers make it difficult even for the little that we can do. As long as we don’t have a tailored program that takes into consideration the religious and cultural aspects, our role will be very limited.”

Such a program requires funds. To obtain the needed funding, an organization needs to compile several pieces of data, including the number of potential beneficiaries, the scope of service, an explanation of why there’s a need to establish a specific program outside the general available services, and evidence of sufficient public support.

None of this data is available currently. According to Amne Talab, social services director at the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in Dearborn, Mich, there are no surveys or studies concerning Arab American elders. Fortunately, ACCESS and the University of Michigan are working on a joint venture to fill this gap.

The lack of information in this field is what drew the attention of Sonia Salari, a professor of family and consumer studies at the University of Utah, Salt Lake City.

Salari said that in her study of Arab and Middle Eastern Americans, titled “Invisible in Aging Research,” she was “surprised to find the lack of information not only about aging issues, but about most of the social issues facing Arab Americans in this country.”

She explained, “The notion of the strong relationships among Arab American families hides the fact that elders are deprived of some basic services. Although there are a lot of similarities in issues for all elders, cultural and religious considerations make it harder for Arab American elders to benefit from the available programs.”

Salari considers social isolation to be the most profound problem facing Arab American elders. For instance, it is especially challenging for older women who have been divorced their husbands. They are often stigmatized by having made this choice and become isolated later in life. She called for more studies to be done aimed at better understanding these problems and formulating ways to address them effectively.

Kristine J. Ajrouch, a sociology professor at Eastern Michigan University, encountered the same vacuum of information when she began her research 10 years go: no data sets, no surveys and no studies.

Younger Arab Americans she interviewed echoed the traditional notion that Arab Americans value their parents and would never “put a family elder in a nursing home.” But, she found, the same youth “had never experienced living with an aging family member, such as grandparent, because their parents were immigrants” and did not have first-hand experience with old age.

Overall, Ajrouch said the Arab American community has been very supportive of her research. However, some individuals have dismissed her efforts as “a waste of time, because we don’t have a problem.”

On an organizational level, she has been frustrated with the standard reply, “Even if we define the need, we cannot do anything about it due to the lack of funds.”

Bringing the Elders to the Table

In a recent focus-group study of aging Muslims, Ajrouch said she found that “men were much more inclined to want family to be their sole source of support in times of need in their later years, while women were more open to considering ways to obtain support beyond the family.

Knowing the elders and interacting with them is the most important step needed at this time, according to Ajrouch. Besides advocating for more data collection, she believes community organizations should take small but important steps that can make a difference, starting with bringing the elders to the table and listening to their stories.

There are too many stories to tell. But as long as aging is not considered an important issue in the community, those stories will remain personal and will create more frustration and isolation. It is time to get out of our moral comfort zone to tackle this growing need. We can start by bridging the obvious needs with the available resources.

This series is adapted from the story Mohamad Ozeir wrote for the Arab American News through the MetLife Foundation Journalists in Aging Fellows program, a collaboration of New America Media and the Gerontological Society of America.