Barbara Aswad: Mother, Social Justice Advocate, Professor

Barbara Aswad, professor emeritus of anthropology at Wayne State University and tireless advocate for immigrants and low-income Americans, died on November 30, 2017 after a brief illness. She was 80 years old.

She was born in Kalamazoo, Michigan on January 5, 1937, daughter of Robert and Helen Black. She earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Michigan, where she met her husband of 55 years, Adnan Aswad. She later earned her PhD from U of M, and subsequently conducted research in Arab villages and Turkish cities of the Middle East, as well as in the Arab-American community in Dearborn, Michigan.

Ms. Aswad published three books, one on the villages she studied, another entitled, Arabic Speaking Communities in American Cities, and her most recent, Family and Gender Among American Muslims in America. Among her many honors and awards for teaching and service excellence was Wayne State University’s Graduate Mentor Award, for her work mentoring and supervising the research of some two dozen PhD candidates during her distinguished career at the Detroit, Michigan university. She was also the past president of the Middle East Studies Association of North America.

In addition to her academic activities, Ms. Aswad was a pioneer in organizing ACCESS (Arab Center for Economic and Social Services) in Dearborn, a model organization for assisting the social needs of immigrants and low-income Americans. She served on its board of directors for 45 years. In 2017 she received a lifetime achievement award from The Arab American Studies Association.

She retired from Wayne State in 2000 and, with her husband and their son, Ron, moved to Claremont, where she was active in several volunteer organizations, including the United Nations Association, The American Institute for Progressive Democracy, and most recently, the Refugee Resettlement Team, with which she worked at helping to resettle Syrian refugees.

“Not just a big idea person, Barbara gave cross-cultural presentations, baked the cookies and set-up fundraising events,” said Judy Kohnen, co-chair of the Refugee Resettlement Team. “Her vision was to support incoming families as they transition into independent Americans. Her tremendous energy as a mentor and community cheerleader will be sorely missed.”

Multiple tributes came in this week, including from friend, political activist, author, lecturer and attorney Ralph Nader.

“We remember Barbara Aswad as a determined and humane champion for peace and justice,” Mr. Nader wrote. “She combined knowledge with civic activism both locally in Michigan, especially for Arab-Americans, and in the turbulent Middle East, where years earlier she conducted field research for her doctorate degree. Above all, she exhibited moral courage on many subjects which others treated with censorship, prejudice or indifference. She cared!”

Julie Steinbach’s friendship with Ms. Aswad began in 2008, when they were roommates on Rizek Abusharr’s inaugural Pilgrim Place trip to Israel-Palestine. “It was Barbara’s first return to Palestine in 50 years,” Ms. Steinbach said. “What a gift to have my own initiating sojourn there graced by her vast knowledge and passion for the region, culture and people. Not just a professor, she lived anthropology in her bright-eyed curiosity about societal structures, families and individuals.”

“Barbara Aswad was a mentor and a friend,” said Zayn Kassam, John Knox McLean Professor of Religious Studies at Pomona College. “As she once said in an interview she shared with me regarding some of the good things that can happen in a democracy, ‘There’s a lot of fear of Muslims, and the mosque in Claremont was threatened. What has been wonderfully amazing, is that it has brought the Jewish and Christian communities together with Muslim communities. About a month ago we had rabbis at the Friday one o’clock sermon in the Islamic mosque. We’ve had Muslims going to the synagogue.’ Her genuine warmth, keen intelligence, and interest in the well being of all will be sorely missed.”

Lara Deeb, professor of anthropology and chair of the department at Scripps College, said Ms. Aswad was “a fierce advocate of Palestinian rights and early supporter of research in Palestinian communities; and a valued member of our Claremont intellectual community. I would add that she was an extraordinarily warm and supportive colleague and friend and will be dearly missed by so many of us. RIP, Dr. Barbara Aswad.”

American Institute for Progressive Democracy President Andy Winnick work closely with Ms. Aswad for years.

“Barbara was a dear and loyal friend and a dedicated community activist,” he said. “She was a founding member of The American Institute for Progressive Democracy and worked tirelessly on our public forums. She was a founding and committed member of the local team supporting recent immigrants. In addition, she had a lifelong commitment to the search for peace in the Middle East and was a founding member of the Inland Valley Working Group for Peace in the Middle East, often working on their events as well. Our community and all these efforts will be much diminished by her absence.”

Mel Boynton, past president of Pomona Valley United Nations Association-USA, said, “Barbara lived the ethic ‘When the rights of one are marginalized, we are all diminished,’ She was a tireless worker for human rights and inspired many to join the effort. Until her last breath, she was advocating for and helping the refugee.”

Reprinted from the Claremont Courier, December 15 2017