On Dec. 2, 2016, a memorial service began as a bell tolled 14 times. Each peal rang in memory of a person who'd died in the Inland Regional Center terrorist attack in San Bernardino exactly a year before.

The bell tower stands in the new Peace Garden at California State University, San Bernardino, a community emotionally devastated by the massacre.

"Five of the people killed were our alumni," says Dany Doueiri, Ph.D., associate professor of Arabic in the university's World Languages and Literatures department. "And [one of the killers] was in my class. I do not remember him, but he was a graduate of our university."

Dr. Doueiri was among the speakers at a vigil held just days after the shooting by two Muslims at a holiday party.

Doueiri addressed the hundreds of mourners that evening with trepidation. "Being a Muslim myself, I know people erroneously associate the religion with the crimes that some people commit in the name of the religion.

"I talked about the importance of grieving together and seeing it as an opportunity to heal together," he remembers. "It was a time to hold hands and set aside our differences and be genuine about the grief we all had to go through."

In the months following the tragedy, the CSUSB community rallied around declarations of "San Bernardino Strong," and students sold "SB Strong" T-shirts to raise money for the garden.

During this time, Doueiri continued what he'd done for years before the attack: He worked to help others better understand Arabic and Islamic cultures. He also co-chaired the campus-wide campaign to raise funds for the victims' families. 

 

Leaving a War Behind, Beginning a New Life

When he was 18, Doueiri left Lebanon for San Diego, where his older brother lived. Despite the initial difficulty of perfecting his English and assimilating into a new culture, he earned a bachelor's degree from California State Polytechnic University, Pomona; a master's from University of California, Davis; and a Ph.D. from University of California, Los Angeles.

"I'm very fortunate that I came here," says Doueiri of Southern California. "I really wanted to stay in Lebanon and help the community there, but my parents forced me to go."

At the time, Lebanon was in the throes of a 15-year civil war. Fearing for their son's safety, his mother and father felt it best for him to leave the country, and for good reason: Doueiri was kidnapped when he was 16 at a military checkpoint. Despite being stripped naked and held at gunpoint, Doueiri says he was among the lucky ones, as he was released within hours of his abduction.

"I experienced war from when I was about 8 years old to when I was 18, and you lose many members of the family. You lose friends. Homes get bombed, and sometimes you get kidnapped," he says. "This is just what happens in civil war. There is a time in life when you've got to heal and forgive and move on."

In the U.S., Doueiri's life was transformed by the opportunities he had at Cal Poly Pomona. "I feel really loyal to the Cal State system, because I received so much personalized advising and personalized education at Cal Poly," he says. "There's a respected tradition of teaching at the CSU, and they really care about making sure students succeed.

"The CSU is the people's university, which means everyone has access to a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

In 2001, after earning his advanced degrees and working for years in the nonprofit sector, Doueiri came back to the CSU to teach Arabic language and Islamic history courses at the San Bernardino campus just a few weeks after the terrorist attacks of September 11.

 

Classes That Reflect the Day's Headlines

Conceived in the year before the September 11 attacks, the university's Arabic program has grown in scope and stature. Today, the CSUSB program is one of only two such degrees offered in California (the other is at UCLA) and is the largest program  among the state's universities.

In addition to developing the Arabic program, Doueiri also serves on the executive board of the university's Center for Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies and, from 2007 to 2016, was the director of the Summer Language Intensive Program at CSUSB.

In 2016, Doueiri was recognized with two important honors for his impact on student life: The Golden Apple Award for teaching excellence, the university's highest honor for teaching; and the Faculty of the Year Award for Advising, a CSU systemwide distinction presented by the California State Student Association.

"I feel humbled, because it is an award from the students," he says of the latter recognition.  "I don't think I'm any different than the thousands of loving staff and faculty who are just wonderfully caring," he adds. "We have students we need to serve, and sometimes we need to put in the extra hours."

Doueiri's courses are popular, and because his World of Islam course fulfills a general education requirement, hundreds of students a year are gaining access to a better understanding of Islamic culture.

"Arabs and Muslims are mentioned in the news every day, and students have a lot of questions," he says. "It's my duty to honestly and earnestly address their concerns in the most nurturing and objective way."

He still teaches an Arabic language course, as well as a Contemporary Issues in Arab Culture class; every session is altered to address what's happening in the world. "In my language class, it's not grammar nor conjugating verbs," he says.

Rather, he teaches the language in the context of current events. "One week, we'll talk about an environmental crisis. The next week will be health care, then we'll discuss sports," he says. "We also talk about elections happening in the Arab world, and of course, the election here."

 

Transforming Perceptions of the Arab-American Community

Doueiri also incorporates Arab-Americans as often as possible into his work at CSUSB.

He's secured many grants for the university from federal and nonprofit organizations and speaks frequently to groups and reporters off campus about "the Muslim and Arab-American communities that really care and are very well integrated in the United States," he says.

"California is home to the largest Muslim-American and second-largest Arab-American populations in the U.S. It's a community that's very affluent and very educated. It's also a community that's not very well understood. For example, most people think that Arab-Americans are all Muslims, but that's not true. Most Arab-Americans are actually Christians."

Despite his own experiences and a deep understanding of the world's conflicts and politics today, Doueiri is hopeful:  "I always insist that this nation still has goodness, and goodness will overtake bad decisions. We all have common agendas for 90 percent of the things we care about, like clean air, affordable education and good health. Let's focus on these things."