Spruce Hill: Al-Bustan’s Hazami Sayed on the Needs of Arab and Arab-American Youth

Hazami Sayed is the founder and executive director of Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture. Al-Bustan, which means “the garden,” is an arts and education nonprofit that provides an affirming space for Arab-Americans and people from diverse backgrounds to come together and learn from each other. The organization, located in Spruce Hill, started as a summer camp in 2002 and has since touched the lives of thousands of young people and adults through its youth programs, concert series and art projects in Philadelphia.  

What inspired you to start Al-Bustan?

Back in 2002, I had two young boys. My husband and I wanted to offer them a cultural context to learn Arabic.  We were born and raised overseas, and we wanted our sons to not only speak Arabic fluently, but be in a context for that to be comfortable and normal. As we started to do programs and bring people together, things just clicked. The reactions, feedback and interest motivated me to keep growing it.

What was that growth process like?

In that summer of 2002 I didn’t know I wanted to start a nonprofit. Trained as an architect, I was passionate about urban communities and community development. Arts and education were not my formal training, but I wanted to start something meaningful for our boys.  So many artists, educators, volunteers, board members, friends, and more have contributed to where we are now. If you asked me 15 years ago, I wouldn’t know what it would take to grow Al-Bustan to this level. The things I worried about 15 years ago were different in scale and responsibility, but it’s still daunting. I try to take it a day or a year at a time to not get overwhelmed.

What are the challenges of running Al-Bustan?

To counter a reductive, simplistic notion, and often misinformed or racist view of the Arab world, culture and people. Since 9/11, it became all the more important to provide alternative narratives about Arabs and Muslims that counter this mainstream media coverage or lack of coverage. We have to tell our own stories. We have to create spaces where youth and adults of all backgrounds are comfortable to express themselves, to engage and make deeper connections with people they wouldn’t otherwise be able to meet. We continuously strive for youth and adults to be part of a creative cultural process, to know that culture is dynamic and not a static set of traditions.  

What populations do you serve?

We started with youth, but since 2010 we’ve expanded to include adults in our programming by offering workshops/classes and presenting concerts open to the public. Our programs are open to Arabs and non-Arabs, and we have diversity across race, religion and socio-economics.  Our programs in public schools are free to youth of all backgrounds. When we offer summer camp or programs that require tuition, we strive to offer as many need-based scholarships as we can.  

What projects or are there any stories you’ve been most proud of that the organization has done?

Right now, I would say absolutely “An Immigrant Alphabet” project. I have been following the work of Wendy Ewald since 2003, thinking about a way to invite her to Philadelphia.  It took a lot of perseverance to get all the pieces together, from the funding to securing such a highly visible location to display the artwork. I feel very happy that this could happen — to see the faces and narratives of these amazing high school students on display as public art is heartwarming.

For readers, can you give a brief description of what the project is?

It’s a collaboration between Wendy Ewald, a renowned photographer, and 18 students from Northeast High School who explored their immigrant experiences.  The group is a mix of recent refugees, undocumented youth, and first generation immigrants.  They worked together to tell their stories through an alphabet. with each letter representing a significant word, printed on large banners that now hang prominently and proudly all around the Municipal Services Building in center city Philadelphia.

Have the needs of Arab and Arab-American youth changed since Al-Bustan first started?

I had just left my job in architecture when 9/11 happened. I wanted to do something positive and turn the tragedy into a teaching moment for others to learn from. Summer camp was a place and time where families from all backgrounds could participate. Initially more than half of our campers were of Arab heritage, however, that has shifted over the past years to include a larger number of non-Arabs — we see now especially how people want alternative ways of learning, engaging and helping.

We have also grown as an organization with an ability to offer programming that fosters cross-cultural understanding in more intentional ways. Our project “Tabadul: Cross-Cultural Exchange through the Arts” at Northeast High School … is a good example of how we have been able to create meaningful forums for creative expression and discussions among a diversity of youth.

What legacy do you hope Al-Bustan leaves in the community?

As our name implies, we strive to plant seeds of inquiry about culture, heritage, people, places and an understanding of each other. I hope whatever we do continues to plant these seeds among people from all walks of life. It is endearing to see people who met through Al-Bustan, became close friends, and got married. I hope our work helps change perceptions of what it means to be an Arab — both from the perspective of Arabs and non-Arabs — especially for youth, if they have a great experience with us and build on it positive ways, in their school, in their home, in their work, then we’ve made a difference.

–Text and Photos by Samara Ahmed

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