Creating an organization to serve as a home and community to celebrate Middle Eastern and North African culture had been a priority for the School of Dental Medicine for some time. The opportunity became even more apparent in the summer of 2020 with the creation of the Cultural Roundtable.
“There are so many people who identify as Middle Eastern or North African but there was never an organization for everyone,” said third-year DMD student Rebecca Farag. “This summer when we put together the roundtable, that void became even more prominent.”
That’s when Farag, Amannie Abu-Kweik, Gabriella Koussa and Jenna Farraj came together to create the Middle Eastern North African Dental Student Association (MENA).
Given the constraints of a virtual-only environment due to COVID-19, the group focused on developing a member roster, garnering interest and acting as a resource for MENA-identifying students. Since starting the organization, MENA already has over 30 members, and has hosted virtual meet-and-greet events and regular board meetings.
“My hope for MENA is to help assimilate Middle Eastern culture in order to foster professional diversity and cultural awareness,” said Abu-Kweik, president of MENA. “MENA includes more than 20 countries, each with its own twist on culture and tradition. I find this creates a lot of room for interaction within the organization and with the outer community.”
All of the founders reinforced the importance of coming together to celebrate their various backgrounds and finding a sense of belonging within the organization—something that will be invaluable for both current and incoming students moving forward.
“Personally, the part of MENA that means the most to me is the fact that I'm able to interact with students who are culturally similar to me,” said second-year DMD student Farraj. “Being raised in the Middle East has meant that I've had to adapt to a different social environment and lifestyle, so having a piece of home at dental school is always comforting!”
Looking ahead, the group is focused on educational programming, highlighting the different aspects of the cultures represented, as well as community outreach supporting refugees and providing dental care to the neighboring areas. The MENA founders are also planning a virtual panel discussion for the dental school featuring MENA-identifying alumni.
“The Middle Eastern and North African community in Cleveland is much larger than most realize. However, there is a skewed perception of this community,” said Koussa, MENA vice-president. “I think that a major portion of this skewed perception can be attributed to the fact that we are culturally different and unfamiliar. I hope that MENA can help familiarize members of the School of Dental Medicine with the Middle Eastern and North African students and the community in Cleveland. There is so much potential for bilingual speakers in the dental profession to incorporate a patient's native language to aid in optimal dental care.”
Farag also noted how MENA is working hand-in-hand with cultural competency for the dental profession overall. “We’re seeing a turning point in dentistry where people are becoming more aware of their patients and their backgrounds. To be able to have a starting point and education point for ethnicities and backgrounds is always helpful.”
Stay updated with the latest MENA news and events by following @MENACaseSODM on Instagram. All are welcome to join.