After a decade fighting for acknowledgement, campaign for official recognition of ‘Little Arabia’ progresses

Kareem Hawari, owner of Kareem's Falafel in Anaheim, pours chipotle tahini into a serving container.
Kareem Hawari, owner of Kareem’s Falafel in Anaheim, pours chipotle tahini into a serving container. The neighborhood where the eatery is located is informally known as Little Arabia.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Community organizers have been fighting for about a decade for Little Arabia to be officially designated by the city of Anaheim.

The dozens of businesses lining Brookhurst Street in West Anaheim have for years served as a cultural hub for Orange County’s Arab American community.

Yet City Council members have resisted the push for designation.

Rashad Al-Dabbagh, executive director of the Arab American Civic Council, said council members have repeatedly said over the years that they don’t know whether the issue has garnered widespread support among residents.


In response, the nonprofit partnered with UC San Diego’s U.S. Immigration Policy Center to conduct a poll of Anaheim residents.

The recently released report shows that 58% of registered voters who responded to the poll support Little Arabia’s designation. That number increased to more than 75% for respondents who have been to Little Arabia or know about it.

The poll gives Al-Dabbagh hope that the City Council may now consider the designation because of public support.

“I think we’re very close, especially that this time we are showing with a poll that we conducted that there is support in the city,” Al-Dabbagh said. “You cannot use that excuse anymore.”

Kareem Hawari, owner of Kareem's Falafel in Anaheim, prepares lunch.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

In addition to the poll, the Arab American Civic Council sponsored a petition that has gathered nearly 1,200 signatures.

Al-Dabbagh said the designation would be helpful to the businesses of Little Arabia because it would bring increased advertising and signage.

The increased revenue to the area from the advertising is much needed, Al-Dabbagh said, due to the crippling impact of the pandemic economy on small businesses.

“It would take it to the next level and hopefully that would get more funding to the area,” Al-Dabbagh said.

Al-Dabbagh said he’s still mobilizing support. Little Arabia business owners will be meeting with the Chamber of Commerce about the proposed designation.

Kareem Hawari, owner of Kareem’s Falafel in Little Arabia, said a designation would reinvigorate Little Arabia businesses.

“There’s a lot of pessimism, especially in this time,” Hawari said. “So I think that designating the area would really bring a lot of confidence back into the businesses. A lot of new hope.”

Nara Bistro is one of several businesses in Anaheim's Little Arabia.
Nara Bistro is one of several businesses in Anaheim’s Little Arabia.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

Hawari said Kareem’s Falafel was the first Mediterranean restaurant on Brookhurst Street. His parents started the restaurant 26 years ago after emigrating from Nazareth, Israel.

“We have customers who have been here for 20 years and will have their kids come with them,” Hawari said. “And eventually now their kids are adults and they have their own families, and we’re catering to those people.”

At a recent Anaheim council meeting, Councilman Jose Moreno proposed adding an item for the designation of Little Arabia to the agenda, but he did not receive a second from another council member. The Anaheim council requires a second and third before a proposed item by a council member can be put on the agenda.

“When he saw that there’s a push from the community, I think he wanted to take the initiative, but there are other council members who said they would support,” Al-Dabbagh said. “But, you know, they didn’t take the initiative.”

It’s unclear whether Moreno’s proposal failed because council members don’t support a designation or because Moreno generally doesn’t receive support from other council members when he proposes items.

Moreno, who says he sits on a political island amid the council, said there have been instances in the past where council members have failed to second him when he proposes certain items for the agenda, but then they repropose the same or similar item at a later time.

Either way, Moreno said he would like to see Little Arabia officially designated.

“From a commerce side, it does promote our city to say that we have this area where one can go and get authentic food, shop at authentic shops and just be a part of the mosaic of our diversity,” Moreno said.

“It would really just say something powerfully symbolic about how we value diversity and inclusion in our city. A designation of that nature recognizes a community that has been dealing with struggles in the social space for decades.”

Serene Hawari prepares cauliflower at Kareem's Falafel in Anaheim.
(Scott Smeltzer / Staff Photographer)

City Council members Jordan Brandman and Stephen Faessel both said in 2016 that they support a designation for Little Arabia.

In an emailed statement, Mayor Harry Sidhu said he loves Little Arabia, but the city has to “take a broader, more inclusive view when it comes to formal designations.”

“We also need to ensure that all feel welcome,” Sidhu said. “The area home to Little Arabia includes a range of people and backgrounds, with Hispanics making up half of the area’s population. There’s also a mix of businesses along Brookhurst Street, and some may not see themselves as part of Little Arabia.

“Our goal is to see diversity within a unified city. We look forward to the continued, natural growth of Little Arabia, and nothing can take away from the important role it plays in our city.”

In the statement, Sidhu said the city promotes the businesses of Little Arabia and that Arab American and Middle Eastern immigrants have played a “welcome role in revitalizing” the area of the city where Little Arabia is located.

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