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The Cypress

The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

The student news site of Brookline High School

The Cypress

SWANA Club navigates culture and identity

SWANA Club members gather in room 346 after school every week to explore their identity with peers. They host discussions about being part of an underrepresented community and celebrate their roots together.

On Wednesdays after school in room 346 of the Greenough building, an animated group of students nibble on kleicha, a sweet spiced date-filled cookie, while alternating between light-hearted games and intense discussion.

This scene is typical for meetings of the SWANA (Southwest Asia and North Africa) Club. Created this year, the group is dedicated to exploring and sharing the culture of the SWANA region. It has been growing quickly due to the enthusiasm and energy of its members and especially its founder, freshman Arya Kheder.

Before entering the high school this fall, Kheder said they had been searching for a space where students of SWANA descent could express their identity and share it with other interested students.

Kheder said they were seeking a community that would draw attention to the culture and beauty of Southwest Asia and North Africa.

“Mesopotamia is the cradle of civilization. [Many of] the earliest civilizations, and modern inventions that we have today, came from our region,” Kheder said.

At the beginning of the school year, Kheder explored whether such a club existed. They learned that a predecessor group, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Club, had disbanded. When Kheder made the decision to create a new club, they used the label “SWANA” instead. Kheder said the term better captures Southwest Asian and North African identity.

“I always wanted some kind of community for Southwest Asians and North Africans, rather than being called Middle Easterners, because it’s a colonial and geographically incorrect term,” Kheder said.

After researching existing options, Kheder reached out to their advisory teacher, Kathryn Leslie, about the possibility of forming a new club. Leslie said it was clear to her that Kheder was a diligent and capable student who could manage the burden of founding a club as a freshman.

“Arya immediately struck me as a freshman who was incredibly responsible,” Leslie said.

Leslie said that Kheder was very committed to creating a club where they could share the culture that they value so deeply.

“I could tell from when they first got here to BHS that their cultural background is super important to them and that they wanted to be able to have other students who had similar backgrounds to have a space to all meet and share thoughts and talk,” Leslie said.

Kheder worked hard to found the club, doing copious research, planning thoroughly, and even watching TED Talks.

“There would be some days where I’d spend pretty much my entire after-school time researching different countries, researching history, researching how I can get club funding, how I can attract people,” Kheder said.

Because they were a freshman, some students questioned whether Kheder had the experience to create and manage a new club. Kheder said even their friends would sometimes express skepticism.

“Having that doubt in their eyes would definitely make my confidence waver,” Kheder said.

Despite these challenges, Kheder persevered. They have designed and posted flyers to make students aware of the club, and Leslie has helped by sending emails and making announcements on Canvas. Kheder said the club has been meeting regularly since the fall and new members continue to join.

Members of the club appreciate it for many reasons. Junior Rowena Man said they find the community of the club open and kind.

“The environment is very chill. Everyone’s very friendly with each other,” Man said.

Freshmen Nora Mabrouk and Sabin Fransis emphasized the social aspects of SWANA meetings. Both said they are drawn to the club by the friendly students who attend.

“The people in the club are really nice,” Mabrouk said.

Mabrouk added that she enjoys participating in club activities, such as working with Fransis to make food for the bake sales.

Kheder described the typical activities at club meetings, as well as events that members are currently organizing. Weekly, participants sample regional foods, play games and engage in discussion. They are planning outings to museums and restaurants, and they hope to host a game night open to all students. Recently, members have been preparing for a bake sale to raise money for the humanitarian crisis in Armenia.

Kheder said they hope the club will become a safe space to explore SWANA identity.

“It’s okay to delve into your identity even if you’re confused by it as a SWANA person in America or a person of color,” Kheder said. “There’s a lot of beauty in our region, and I hope a lot of people will be able to see it and experience it throughout the years of this club.”

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