Clinical Practice with Middle Easterners & Arab-Americans

Our colloquium today featured Dr. Naji Abi-Hashem, a clinical psychologist with expertise on the Middle East. His talk was titled “Understanding and Counseling with Middle Easterners and Arab-Americans.” He regularly presents an extended version of this talk at the American Psychological Association. He is featured in the APA video on providing clinical services to Middle Easterners and Arab-Americans.

Interestingly, Dr. Abi-Hashem reported that there are significant discrepancies in estimates around religious identities of Arab Americans. It has been estimated 75% of Arab Americans are of a Christian background (Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant) while 25% are of Muslim background (some sources put that at 50-50). The majority are from Lebanese descent and relatively young (average age of 35). They tend to be highly educated and self-employed, with many involved in a range of professions.

Dr. Abi-Hashem reviewed several common misconceptions, such as All Arabs are Muslims, All Middle-Easterners are Muslims, All Muslims are Radicals, and All Radicals are Terrorists, in an attempt to help the audience move away from an They versus Us mentality.

To provide a context for understanding Middle Easterners and Arab Americans, he discussed concepts found in the following quote:

The Arabs are a proud and sensitive people whose culture is mainly derived from three key factors: family, language, and religion. No adequate understanding of Arab culture is possible without first examining these three major elements and the pervading impact they have had on their culture. Cultural understanding by Americans of the Arabs is especially important at present because it can provide a basis for our own interactive behavior with them as well as a basis frinterpreting their actions.                     – Edward Badolato

Dr. Abi-Hashem unpacked what this means in terms of understanding some of the nuances of family, language, and religion. He then briefly discussed virtuous characteristics including hospitality, truthfulness, respect, esteeming elders, insight, faithfulness, dignity, honor (saving face, avoiding public shame), hard work, generosity, and patience.

On providing clinical services, Dr. Abi-Hashem discussed assessing acculturation and community, flexibility in where you meet and the possible use of a translator. He discussed various gestures to avoid, as well as signs of respect to keep in mind, particularly if a person or family is more traditional. He encouraged us to note intergenerational dynamics (e.g., familial-communal heritage, moral-ethical values) and to be prepared to address grief and trauma when relevant. In this context, he compared and contrasted unhealthy coping styles (e.g., aggression, moving/leaving, blaming, complaining, etc.) and healthy coping styles (e.g., family/friendship bonds, expressing/talking, creating group atmosphere, public prayers/religious services, etc.).

We often discuss multicultural competence with different groups, but it was helpful to take one group and go deeper with it. Dr. Abi-Hashem is in a unique position to reflect upon the Middle East and to train psychologists in working competently with Middle Easterners and Arab Americans.

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