Senate bill would recognize Arab-American communities as 'underserved' for disaster relief

Hani Barghouthi
The Detroit News

Members of an Arab American nonprofit joined Thursday with U.S. Sen. Gary Peters to tout legislation championed by the Bloomfield Township Democrat to improve access to disaster relief for minority, rural and disabled communities. 

The "Achieving Equity in Disaster Response, Recovery, and Resilience Act," which Peters co-authored with California Democratic Sen. Alex Padilla, seeks to establish an Office of Civil Rights, Equity, and Inclusion at the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It also identifies people of Middle Eastern and North African descent as an underserved community that faces difficulty in accessing natural disaster relief.

Peters on Thursday noted extensive flooding and severe rainstorms that led to widespread power outages are among the natural disasters that hit Metro Detroit and impacted Middle Eastern and North African communities in recent years.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Michigan, bottom, speaks at a press conference hosted by the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services to discuss his legislation that would recognize people from the Middle East and North Africa as underserved communities for disaster relief in the United States.

There is "no question" that Middle Eastern and North African communities across the United States are underserved when it comes to federal disaster relief, he said.  

"The MENA community needs to be recognized as such by the federal government, and particularly when we're dealing with natural disasters," Peters said during a virtual news conference organized by the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services.

The bill directly addresses advocates' concerns about systemic underinvestment in disaster mitigation, said ACCESS CEO Maha Freij.

"Given climate change, we're going to see more storms, more severe storms," noted Peters, who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee which oversees FEMA and voted last week to advance the bill.

"What we saw in the past will likely unfortunately, be there again in the future. And we need to prepare in ways to help underserved communities deal with these natural disasters," he said. "FEMA leadership currently responds to disasters by distributing money equally among affected areas without taking into consideration that some may have been hit harder..."

If approved by the full Senate, the Office of Civil Rights, Equity, and Inclusion would ensure more communities disproportionately affected would get the resources they needed.

As the bill makes its way through the Senate, Peters said he also will continue to work on the "critically important" issue of getting the Middle Eastern and North African community an official census designation.

People of Middle Eastern and North African descent he said, are defined as "White" in the U.S. Census. 

This lack of recognition of a community that "has made valuable contributions to every aspect of American society" for over a century leads to "persistent exclusion from federal support," said Rima Meroueh, director for the National Network for Arab American Communities. 

The exclusion prevents organizations serving these communities from identifying their needs, Meroueh said. 

"(It) has significant consequences for our community members in terms of health outcomes, socioeconomic conditions, and life opportunities," said Meroueh.