Local Students Celebrate Diversity Through Al-Bustan at City Hall


Joe McGee, for GPA -- On a select afternoon in February, the sounds of music rang through the corridors of Philadelphia’s City Hall. Onlookers gathered together in a wing on the second floor while a group of Moffet Elementary School students drummed and sang along to Arab music.

The students were part of an extended after-school program launched by Al-Bustan, an organization dedicated to teaching Arab culture through the arts. In addition to learning Arab songs and history, the program gave the students an opportunity to get engaged in a variety of visual arts projects that encourage them to take pride in their diversity.

The students’ performance at City Hall served as the opening reception for an extended interactive multimedia exhibit titled “We Went Looking for Home, But We Found.” The exhibit features work from the Al-Bustan 2014 Summer Arts Camp compiled into a bilingual counting book format, exploring themes of home and identity through the eyes of the young campers.

Excerpts from the exhibit were on display in City Hall on the day of the reception, with an informational display on the fourth floor and the formal exhibit on the fifth.

Helen Haynes of the city’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy was the first to speak to those in attendance. She praised the rising success of Al-Bustan and stressed the importance of its mission to celebrate Arab culture. She then introduced Hazami Sayed, the director and founder of Al-Bustan.

Sayed took the opportunity to tell the story of the founding of Al-Bustan. Founded in the wake of the September 11 attacks, Al-Bustan was created as a safe place for Arab Americans to gather and share ideas.

“We felt that we and our kids, especially, were faced with so much misunderstanding, misinformation, and discrimination,” she said. “We wanted to have a way for our children to engage with their cultural heritage, but also to educate those not within our fold.”

After Sayed spoke, Maria Quinones-Sanchez, Councilwoman of Philadelphia’s 7th District, spoke to the crowd about the importance of public education.

“We all know that art and music are a vital part of academic success and I think Moffet’s academic success is a tribute to the fact that they understand how to use this medium to get students engaged,” Quinones-Sanchez said. “They know each other, know each other’s cultures and know each other’s language. They begin to hear it and are sensitive to the fact that we have such wonderful diversity in this part of the city.”

Al-Bustan, which means garden, was created as a place for children of all cultures to grow together through programs that promote the multi-cultural identities of students. The group began as a summer camp for interested students and has grown through a number of grants to offer year-round programs and weekend workshops. Students have held performances like the one at City Hall at venues across the city, from the Kimmel Center to the University of Pennsylvania.

Image courtesy of Joe McGee.