Janice was born into a Christian Palestinian family, but didn’t gain a deep appreciation for her heritage until she was a young adult. Now, as the Curator of Education for the Arab American National Museum in Michigan, Janice has daily opportunities to educate others about her culture. Balancing her Arab identity with her spiritual life as a Mormon, however, has been a challenging and isolating journey, even with the Lord’s continual presence in her life.
You were born in the United States but you come from Arab heritage. Would you describe to me your family’s background?
I was born and raised in Michigan to Palestinian immigrants. My father and mother are both from a town called Ramallah, which is in the West Bank of Palestine. Their families knew of each other but they didn’t meet each other until 1967 in Michigan. My parents came to the United States at different times; my father came in 1961 to go to school. My mom came to Michigan as a refugee after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. My mom has six sisters and no brothers and my dad’s family heard about this other Ramallah family that had seven daughters, and so there was a little strategy in getting the two of them together. They were engaged a few weeks later and married a few months later and they were married for 42 years until my dad passed away.
They had four children in Michigan; I’m the third of four. Growing up was difficult because we had to live this Arab-American identity. We grew up in a predominantly white suburb. The Detroit area is known for having a large Arab population – it has the largest concentration of Arabs in the United States – but we were in a slightly different area that was not so diverse when I was growing up there in the 1980s. We stood out and we got teased. I remember classmates would ask me questions I didn’t even know how to answer. I was Arab, but I didn’t really know what that meant.
My dad would talk a lot about politics; you can’t be a Palestinian and not talk a lot about politics. So he would explain the full Arab-Israeli conflict. I feel like he did a good job in versing us in the political aspect of what it means to be Arab. But we never talked about our culture. We just lived it. We ate the food, they spoke the language (I responded in English), we would go to Arabic weddings and dance to Arabic music, but for the longest time I resented being Arab because it made me different than everybody else. Also, I associated my culture with strictness. I couldn’t do a lot of things that other people could do because I was Arab. We weren’t allowed to date, we couldn’t have sleepovers, I had a very strict curfew, and my parents would say these rules existed because of our culture. “Arab girls don’t do these things,” is what they’d tell me.
Those are things that are usually associated with more conservative religious traditions. How was religion presented in your home? Was it synonymous with your culture or separate?
It was synonymous, but my parents weren’t actually that religious. When I was growing up we did go to church, but it was more for cultural reasons. If you’re a Palestinian Christian from Ramallah, you’re Orthodox. There are some exceptions, but most are Orthodox. There was an Orthodox church built in the suburb where we lived, and so we would go to the church every Sunday, but it was more like a family reunion. It was a place where my parents could catch up with their own friends and family from back in Ramallah because pretty much after 1967 everybody left the town, and most of them went to Michigan. The priest would speak in Arabic. I do remember discussions about how we were from the same place that Christ was from, but in terms of the rules, it wasn’t about being Christian for them, it was about being Arab.
You had a Christian foundation. What role did Islam play in your upbringing as an Arab?
I became acquainted with Islam later as I got older. When I was growing up, my family had their own prejudices and stereotypes about Muslims. My community has a large Muslim population and we would go to the Muslim markets and restaurants, but I distinctly remember my family saying things like, “Don’t spend too much time there. Just go get what you need and then leave, because that’s where the Muslims hang out.” So because of that prejudice, I just assumed that Muslims were so different from me.
And then, when I was 21, I started working for ACCESS, which is the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services and that’s the parent organization of the museum I work at now. That was the first time I was fully exposed to Islam and Muslims. I was hired to be an educational outreach coordinator, which meant that I was in charge of teaching people about Arab culture and Islam. I realized I didn’t know anything! I’d been living in my own Palestinian Christian bubble. I had to go through a crash course in Islam, and at that time I realized how many similarities there are between Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs. For example, some of the rituals associated with funerals and deaths are very similar. It was eye opening for me, and it made me question why there was so much prejudice when there were so many similarities.
Would you tell me about how you learned about Mormonism?
As I mentioned, we went to church mostly for cultural reasons, and then we just stopped going altogether. I had some Presbyterian neighbors I’d go to church with sometimes. I liked that their church was so down to earth; the Orthodox church I had grown up going to was so ritualistic and strict. I liked going to these Presbyterian churches because everyone was so open and friendly. But it wasn’t something I really wanted to do every Sunday; it was just a place I went to now and then. Then, when I was in my final years of high school, I decided I didn’t believe in God anymore. I was a bitter teenager and I thought, How can there be a God when there are so many horrible things that happen in the world and so many bad things have happened in my life? That was the path I was on.
When I was a senior in high school, I befriended two brothers who were LDS but not active, and they told me a little about the Church because I was curious. Fast forwarding a bit, my brother ended up working with one of them at a fast food restaurant. My brother is five years older than I am, and he was kind of on an opposite journey from the one I was on. He was looking for truth, he was looking for a religion, and he was working with those LDS guys and was asking a lot of questions. He eventually had to quit that job and take over my dad’s shoe repair business in a mall because my dad had a massive stroke and couldn’t work anymore. My brother was in the shoe repair and two missionaries came in to get their shoes fixed. My brother told them he had two friends who were LDS and they were telling him about the faith. From there, my brother started taking the discussions and he got baptized.
I remember not being interested at all in the religion, but I do remember that when my brother would tell me about Christ and how he was trying to follow His example, I remember being really touched. I remember thinking, I don’t really know that much about Christianity! I don’t know that much about Jesus. I know the basic Bible stories I learned in Sunday School as a little girl, but I don’t know the details. I decided that I would start reading the Bible and learning and praying and see where that would take me. I was very intimidated by the Bible, so my brother gave me a book like Reading the Bible for Dummies or something and the book suggested reading the First Book of John first for seven days in a row and writing down how you felt as you read. I followed that challenge and I remember feeling peaceful, and that was the first time as a young adult that I felt what I now know is the Spirit, telling me that the Lord loved me and He was there. I really liked that, but I didn’t think I needed to join a church.
One night, my brother and I had a long, deep discussion. I was actually humble enough to ask him questions about the faith, and so my brother was answering those questions and the Spirit made it very, very clear to me that the Church was true. Talk about a lightening bolt experience… This was definitely one of those. It was a clear answer and I could not stop crying. That was a Saturday night; the next morning I called the missionaries and told them I wanted to be baptized! They were shocked, of course. I served a mission myself so now looking back I think, Wow, that was amazing! But I just knew right then and there that I wanted to be a part of it. I went to church that day, had my first discussion that night, and was baptized two weeks later.
Those two boys I told you about who first introduced my brother to the Church? They have four younger siblings and they and their parents took me in, and are now my “adopted Mormon family.”
You were eighteen. How did that change your relationship with your family?
There was conflict. My family had been disappointed with some of the decisions my brother had made previously, and so when he joined the Church, they just brushed it off as another weird thing he was doing. They really didn’t take it seriously. But then when I joined they were pretty upset and worried for me.
While I was having my first discussion with the elders and my brother, my parents called me to talk with them. I just knew it wasn’t going to be good so as I walked down the stairs I just said a silent prayer and said, “Please help me help my parents understand why I am doing this.” When we first started talking, they were upset about the missionaries being there and they didn’t understand what I was doing. But within minutes, miraculously, their hearts completely softened and they said, “We respect your decision.” It was amazing. I’m so glad I had that experience because it taught me early on that God does answer prayers and He really is aware of our situations.
Joining wasn’t that hard, but there were two things that were hard: First, my brother fell away from the Church almost immediately after I joined for a variety of reasons. It’s made it a very lonely journey for me.
The second thing that was hard was that my family was totally against my serving a mission. Getting ready to go on a mission was one of the hardest challenges I’ve gone through. I never thought I wanted to serve a mission, but the Spirit made it clear that I needed to. Again, a lightening bolt experience. I think Heavenly Father must realize I’m pretty stubborn so that’s why I get these lightening bolt things. I was naïve: I thought that because it was so clear to me that I needed to serve, it was going to be an easy journey. I knew the mission itself would be difficult, but in terms of preparation, I thought that would be easy.
I told my parents the night I decided to go, thinking they’d just be supportive. They were extremely angry. Culturally, even though I had lived on my own – which is something that many Arabs don’t do until they get married – there was still this understanding that a woman should not leave her family or even the country. I think a big part of it for my mom was safety, because 9/11 had recently happened. My mom was extremely worried that someone would hurt me or discriminate against me. There was anti-Muslim activity at the time, but most people don’t make the distinction between Muslim Arabs and Christian Arabs, even when I was an LDS missionary. I remember her saying, “What if you get sent to New York City?”
It was ten months between when I decided to go and when I actually left in 2002. So it was a really long time of opposition. It wasn’t just my family; it was friends, even LDS friends. I was 25, so I got a lot of, “Why would you go on a mission? You should focus on getting married or finishing school.” The disapproval came from everywhere.
One time, I was talking to a friend who shared a scripture in Matthew 10:37-39 about honoring your mother and father but not choosing them over the Lord. I remember reading that scripture and the Spirit confirmed to me that everything would be okay if I just continued on the path that I was on. I remember also lying on my floor one day in tears, writing in my journal, thinking, I don’t know if I can do this. Maybe I should just not go because it would be so much easier. But again, the Spirit gave me a hug and comforted me. It was hard up until the day I left.
When I got my mission call, which was to New Zealand, I knew that was inspired because it’s one of the safest countries in the world. As soon as I told my parents that’s where I was going, they were much more supportive. It was such a blessing. And then being in New Zealand was amazing, too. I had never met Polynesian people before and I hadn’t realized how rich the culture is, how many similarities there are between their heritage and my heritage. It made me realize how many connections there are all across the world between different faiths and cultures.
I did have some friends who were extremely supportive, including my adoptive Mormon family. The mom actually flew out with me to the Missionary Training Center and was my escort when I got endowed in the temple. If I hadn’t had that family and a few others friends, it would have been even harder to do what I did.
When I was on my mission, I didn’t get too many letters from my dad because he was still angry with me. And my mom has a sixth-grade education so my mom didn’t know how to email or anything, but my sister would send me packages and letters.
Where did your interest in educating others about your cultural heritage come from, especially since it had been a challenge for you to embrace it as a youth?
I had gone to school and worked on and off before my mission, but when I was on my mission my companion told me about BYU and their Middle Eastern Studies Program and the Jerusalem Center… Another lightening bolt experience told me that it was something I really needed to consider. And so I finished my degree at BYU in Middle Eastern Studies and Arabic, which gave me the chance to study in Jerusalem and live in Egypt–which was the first time I lived in an Arab country.
Right before I joined the Church, I became more interested in my heritage, specifically in the language. I hated the fact that I couldn’t speak Arabic. I didn’t make a huge endeavor at that time to study, but then I got my patriarchal blessing six months after joining the Church. My patriarchal blessing talks in depth about my mortal heritage and how I need to appreciate it and understand how it relates to the gospel. It also tells me I can’t take it lightly and that many challenges will come because of my heritage. I prayed and I read my blessing and I asked for guidance regarding a career path. The Lord made it very, very clear that I needed to go into something related to my heritage. I didn’t understand my feelings at first, but then I realized I needed to understand my heritage academically and learn as much as I could about it.
After I graduated, I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do with my degree. I had worked for ACCESS (the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services) before my mission, but I didn’t wanted to move back to Michigan again after school. But then I got a call from a woman I had worked with previously at ACCESS who told me that there was a new museum that was going to be opening. That piqued my interest, but I still wasn’t convinced I should go back to Michigan.
Finally, I went home for a wedding in 2007 and I happened to sit at a table with the woman who was in charge of the entire organization. She told me about a development position that was opening up, where I’d be raising funds specifically for the new museum. I told her I would really have to think about it because I didn’t want to move back to Michigan. This decision wasn’t as “lightening bolt” as the other decisions, but I eventually felt peace about it and I moved back to Michigan.
I eventually moved into a position in the education department in 2009, and I absolutely loved it. Eventually I was promoted to curator of education, so now I run the department here. The passion for the work I do and the work we do as an institution continues to grow because it’s just so needed. There’s so much ignorance about Arabs and Islam. Every time I give a lecture or presentation, I just feel like I’m really making a difference.
I still don’t know ultimately if this is what the Lord had in mind for me when He wanted me to go into Middle Eastern Studies. I honestly feel that one of the major reasons He wanted me to was so that I could do my genealogy. I couldn’t read Arabic before, and now I can, and I have a huge book of my family tree that now I can translate. So it’s really exciting.
What’s the main thing you try to communicate in your teaching about Arabs?
That we’re not monolithic. That we’re not all the same. That’s one of the main things that I discuss and that’s what I train my educators to discuss as well: we are not all the same. That is such a common stereotype. There are 22 Arab countries, over 300 million Arabs in the world. There are so many Arab Americans; we don’t have exact numbers because we’re not included on the US Census – that’s a whole other issue – but there are a lot of Arab Americans. We’re very diverse in every way.
The other main message is, We’re not all terrorists. As funny as that sounds, a lot of people have to be reminded of that. People might not think that all Arabs are terrorists, but they might think they support terrorism, or support violence or are Anti-American…. I try to convey that the stereotypes you hear on the news or in movies aren’t true. They may be true for a small handful of Arabs and/or Muslims, but they are not true for the majority.
How does that perspective inform your identity as a Mormon? We, of course, have some of those challenges, so you get stereotypes from both your heritage and your religion.
I feel like being Mormon has really helped me to understand what my Muslim brothers and sisters go through. Both Mormons and Arabs are very misunderstood groups of people, and there are a lot of similarities between our faiths. One of those similarities is people think we’re heretics. Instead of reading the Koran or the Book of Mormon, they read anti books about the Church or anti books about Islam. There have been many people in recent years who, when I defend Muslims or get angry about anti-Muslim rhetoric, say, “I don’t get it: You’re Christian, why do you care so much?” And honestly, one reason I care so much is I know exactly how they feel. Because people don’t make the distinction between Christian Arabs and Muslim Arabs, I’ve been the victim of discriminatory comments and actions myself. There are certain aspects of Islam that I might not fully understand, but I have such a deep appreciation for how Muslims live their religion.
I do feel that the culture in which I was raised actually prepared me for being a member of the Church. A lot of the values that were instilled in me as a child were the values the Church preaches: family, chastity, modesty, all those sorts of things.
But there are many challenges that come from belonging to two very misunderstood cultural groups: having to defend who I am as an Arab and having to defend who I am as a Mormon. The biggest challenge has been just feeling so alone. There aren’t very many Arabs who are LDS. Being so passionate about my cultural brothers and sisters, who don’t understand me spiritually, and then being passionate about my spiritual brothers and sisters, who don’t understand me culturally, is very lonely.
I love that Mormons are very interested in my heritage, but I also feel tired of being so different. I wish I didn’t have to explain myself over and over again. I feel isolated. But in saying that, I’m doing something about it: I’m starting an Arab-LDS web-based association to connect Arab LDS people.
I have been in contact with some general authorities who work in the Middle East, and I’ve been told by them that the number of members who are Arab is in the hundreds. So it’s not many! If you think about the fact that there are 14 million members of the Church in the world, a couple hundred is nothing. But I really feel that my becoming a member of the Church when I did was not a coincidence, and I do feel that I’m supposed to be playing some sort of role in uniting Arab people who are LDS. We’re hoping to launch the association by the end of the year.
Despite the challenges I have had as an LDS Arab, I am so grateful to be in this unique position and I wouldn’t have it any other way. My goal is to stay as strong as possible to ensure that I fulfill everything Heavenly Father has in store for me, whatever that may be.
At A Glance
Location: Ann Arbor, MI
Marital status: Single
Occupation: Curator of Education, Arab American National Museum
Convert To Church: 5/28/1995
Schools Attended: Wayne State University, Brigham Young University
Languages Spoken at Home: Arabic, English
Favorite Hymn: “Abide With Me”
On The Web: http://mormonchannel.org/why-i-believe/36 (my
interview on the Mormon Channel’s Why I Believe program)
Interview by Neylan McBaine. Portraits by Liz Hansen.