The Story of Alif Institute

By Dr. Rima Houssami

Early History … 1999-2004

Georgia’s Arab American Community and Organizations

The Arab American community in Atlanta grew at a faster pace in the eighties and nineties. While early immigrants in Georgia numbered 3,000 before 1960, approximately 30,000 Arab Americans resided in Georgia in the early nineties.

Atlanta’s Arab Americans established local Georgia Chapters for National Arab American non-profit organizations, such as the Cedar Club, the National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA), and the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).  Chapters of various other national Arab American organizations were also established in Atlanta in the eighties and nineties.  Most of these organizations would organize one or two programs every year.

The Arab American Women’s Society of Georgia (AAWSG) was the first Arab American non-profit organization established in 1985 to serve the local community in Georgia. It had a tax-exempt status with the mission of providing educational and charitable programs. Three ladies were instrumental in its founding. They are: Ghada Muhanna, Nawal Araim, and Mary Zumot.

In 1986, another non-profit organization was established: the Arab-American Fund of Georgia (AAFG), an educational tax-exempt organization.  Abdallah Najjar, Mubadda Suidan, and Jean Leon were instrumental in its founding.

Then in 1993, a third organization, the Arab American Business and Professional Association (ABPA) was established as a professional organization under the leadership of Hisham Araim.

AAWSG was able to bring the community together by offering a variety of programs focusing on promoting the Arab culture. It quickly grew to become the most recognized organization in Atlanta.  Its Arabic language program was essential in bringing new members to the organization.  It was the only non-academic program that taught Arabic without any additional religious teachings.  In addition, the society was actively reaching out to the community at large, participating in international festivals and providing resources to educating about the Arab culture in schools and colleges.

AAWSG organized two major outreach events in Atlanta under the leaderships of Ghada Muhanna and Rima Houssami. The first one was a traveling exhibit of 150 pieces of contemporary art by Arab women artists (Forces of Change: Contemporary Women Artists of the Arab World).  AAWSG sponsored and coordinated the presentation of the exhibition in Atlanta in March 1995.  The second major event, held in September 1995, was participating in the Atlanta Arts Festival by presenting an exhibit of folk arts (Folk Art of the Arab World).  Both events were complemented by performing arts presentations and activities for children. “Forces of Change” was also complemented by a symposium hosted at the carter center and by two teachers’ workshops and two children’s workshops.  These successful events generated extensive media coverage shedding the light on the growing Arab American community in Atlanta.

AAFG’s work was mainly concentrated on providing educational materials and occasionally qualified speakers to schools and colleges, highlighting Arab and Arab American issues.  AAFG was a strong supporter of AAWSG and provided occasional sponsorship to some of its activities.

The Alif Institute: From Project to Reality

The Arab American community rallied several times around the idea of establishing a community center, especially when AAWSG’s Arabic language program came to an end due to difficulties finding a venue for the classes.   Mercer University was the venue of the classes until 1998 when its continuing education department closed. 

In 1995 and having been inspired by the two exhibitions presented by AAWSG, Haitham Haddad presented the concept of a cultural center to the community.  Furthermore, having visited l’Institut du Monde Arabe (IMA) in Paris, France, his vision was to establish a smaller cultural center that would communicate and partner with IMA.  The objective of the project presented was to establish an educational center with a focus on the Arab culture.

Haitham and his friend Wassim Salman worked together on a presentation that would attract potential sponsors.  They presented the idea to individual philanthropists and to local Arab American non-profit organizations including: the Arab American Women’s Society of Georgia, the Arab American Fund of Georgia (AAFG), the Arab American Business and Professional Association (ABPA), and the local chapter of the National Arab American Medical Association (NAAMA). 

Original Mission

“The Alif Institute: Window to the Arab World”

To showcase the Arab and Arab American heritage to the public

To foster the study and understanding of the Arab world in the U.S.

To enhance cultural exchange between the U.S. and the Arab world

To teach the Arabic language and Arab culture in an inspiring environment

To offer Arab Americans a point of reference and a source of pride

Later that year, with a donation of $5,000 seed money, and with the leadership of Jean Leon, AAFG and ABPA conducted a professional survey in order to assess the community’s interest in the concept of establishing a community center (not a cultural center). Unfortunately, the results indicated that although the community would like to have a center, their financial commitment would not be able to support one. These results demonstrated that a future center should rely on its own programming and the concept of the cultural center (and not a community center) began to gain momentum.

In 1999, the Arab American Fund of Georgia decided to adopt the project and created the Committee for the Alif Institute with the objective of raising initial funds under the tax-exempt status of AAFG.

The committee included members from AAFG board and members from the community who were interested in the project. Mahmoud Al-Batal was nominated Chair the committee. The first meeting of the committee was held on May 14, 1999. Initial Members of the Committee for the Alif Institute:  Mahmoud Al-Batal, Haitham Haddad, Rima Houssami, Ghada Muhanna, Abdallah Najjar, Wassim Salman, Afaf Zaki and Saleh Zaki.

Additional members later joined the committee including Henrietta Aswad, Samir Makhlouf, Douha Ead, Maher Alsoufi, Marlo EL-Chahal, Aous Araim, and other individuals whose participations were limited.

Committee members produced professional promotional materials and business plan to support the project. They also held three successful fund-raising events.

  • Inaugural of Fundraising Event with guest speaker Dr. Jack Shaheen (September 1999)
  • “Alf Layla wa Layla” concert with “Salateen al-Tarab” (April 14, 2000)
  • “Marcel Khalife” Concert (April 21, 2002)

On June 11, 2001, the Alif Institute was incorporated as a separate non-profit organization with four initial board members: Haitham Haddad (President), Mahmoud Al-Batal, Ghada Muhanna and Rima Houssami.

Following the tragic events of September 2001, the project was put on hold by AAFG and the “Committee for the Alif Institute” was dissolved a few months later.

The total funds raised from generous donors and from fundraising events where $72,000 [Donations $50,000; funds raised by events $22,000]. In addition, AAFG had dedicated $25,000 of its funds should the project be realized.

In October 2002, Rima Houssami was elected president of AAFG. Board members of AAFG and Alif Institute decided to reactivate the project hoping that the community would support it.

A month later, a site suitable for the Alif Institute was identified (10,000 square foot building on a 10-acre wooded site).  A purchase agreement was signed between AAFG and the sellers, and intensive fundraising began along with loan applications.

In March 2003, the Alif Institute and AAFG agreed to become one organization. The name rights for “Alif Institute” were assigned to AAFG.  Alif Institute Inc. was dissolved in August 2003.

Thanks to the generosity of the community, additional funds were secured, and on June 30, 2003, AAFG completed the purchase of the property that now houses the Alif Institute.

The building was purchased for $599,500.00 and the adjacent land for $130,000.00. A total of nearly $180,000.00 was needed for the down payment. With no credit history for AAFG, several board members (or their spouses) guaranteed two loans for three years, one for the building and one for the adjacent land. The guarantors were: Mahmoud Al-Batal, Nazih Elchahal, Yazan Houssami, Jean Leon, Shajih & Ghada Muhanna.

Additional funds were also raised in order to remodel the building. Then on a historic day, January 17, 2004, the Alif Institute opened its doors to the public for the first time.

The Alif Institute officially began its operations as a nonprofit American education, culture, arts, and enrichment center with a focus on the Arab culture and Arab Americans.

Alif Institute & AAWSG

The Arab American Women’s Society of Georgia, Inc., was the first local a non-profit, non-political, non-religious, tax-exempt organization.  Established in 1985, the society aims at promoting an understanding and appreciation of the Arab culture.  AAWSG participates in charitable activities on a limited basis. AAWSG membership is open to any woman of Arab origin or whose spouse is of Arab descent.

AAWSG offered programs that educated the public about the Arab culture and Arab Americans.  From Arabic languages classes to participations in International Festivals and hosting art exhibitions, AAWSG presented the Arab culture gracefully, and ensured that the Arab American community becomes recognized in Georgia.

AAWSG was the first organization that introduced to the community Mr. Haitham Haddad’s concept of establishing an Arab cultural center in Atlanta: “the Arab Institute”.  AAWSG members were unanimously in support of the project and began raising money for it.  AAWSG supported the Alif Institute with over $15,000.00 during the first few years of its establishments beginning in 2003 before the opening of the center.

When Alif Institute opened in January 2004, most AAWSG activities transitioned to the newly established center.  AAWSG’s experience was also extremely valuable in the establishment of the Arabic language program and many cultural programs at the Alif Institute.  Additionally, all the educational and cultural items that AAWSG owned over the years were moved to and shared with the Alif Institute.  These included posters, movies, slides, educational fliers, and an abundance of decorative Arab items and traditional Arab costumes.  The great majority of these items were purchased by AAWSG over the years, while others were donated to AAWSG.

The society now partners with Alif Institute in various programs including the “High School Model League of Arab States” held at Marist school, and the “Winter Wonderland” held at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History.  AAWSG continues to hold an annual luncheon meeting for its members and a charitable “Cancer Walk” to raise funds for cancer research.

ABPA Supports Alif Institute

The Arab American Business and Professional Association (ABPA) was established in 1993 and was an active non-profit professional organization until it was dissolved in 2006.  The residual assets of ($16,747.00) were turned over to AAFG in support of Alif Institute.

Alif Institute History … 2004-2009

Alif Institute did not have an executive director or office employees during the early years.  Ghada Muhanna and Rima Houssami along with other board members managed the programs and finances of the Alif institute as volunteers without compensation.  Only part-time Arabic language teachers and occasionally some lecturers for other educational programs were compensated for their services.

Alif Institute offered a variety of programs and activities, shedding light on the rich culture of the Arab peoples and Arab Americans.  These programs focused on building bridges of understanding and cooperation while taking into consideration the needs of the community.

Arabic Language Program … 2004-2009

Alif Institute offered Arabic language courses for children, youth, and adults at several levels of proficiency. These classes focus on various language skills and emphasize the integration of language and culture.

To enhance the learning experience, Alif Institute offered cultural activities for children and youth emphasizing the integration of language and culture. Additionally, at the end of each semester, the young students would participate in a cultural program featuring sketches, songs, dances or poems in Arabic.


Children courses / 3 levels:    beginners, advanced beginners, and intermediate

Youth courses / 3 levels:         beginners, advanced beginners, and intermediate

Adults / 2 levels:                     beginners, intermediate, plus a conversational class


Number of courses

Number of Students


5 courses

75 students


8 courses

68 students


8 courses

66 students


8 courses

65 students


9 courses, private tutoring, summer camp

78 students


10 courses, private tutoring

67 students

Arts, Culture & Enrichment Programs … 2004-2009

Programs in 2004

Lectures & Seminar

·      Arab History in the 20th century


·      Egyptian Cinema in the 20th Century


·      “Immigration Law Knowledge” Seminar

Workshops for

Children & Youth

·      Arts & Arab Culture for Children


·      Film Making for Youth


·      Dabke Arab Folk Dancing

Workshop for Adults

·      Arabic Cooking


·      Conversational Spanish

Film Screenings

·      “West Beirut’ by Ziad Doueiri


·      Destiny’ by Youssef Chahine

Drama Theatre

·      Two Short Arabic Plays directed by Eyad Houssami and performed in English: “Men Have Heads” by Mahmoud Diyab and “That’s Life” by Mamduh Udwan

Oud Concert

·      Iraqi American master Oud player and composer “Rahim AlHaj”


Programs in 2005


·      History Lecture: “The Stories of Abraham” by Dr. Max Miller


·      “The Economic & Social Status in Middle East Countries” by Dr. Sylvia Maier

Workshops & Enrichment Classes

·      “Understanding the Arab and American Cultures”


·      Dabke Arab Folk Dancing workshops for adults


·      Cooking workshops


·      Storytelling for children


·      SAT preparation for youth

Theatre on the Small Screen

·      “With Love from Ramallah” by Kathryn Haddad and Juliana Paques


Programs in 2006

Lectures & Group Discussions

·      “Arab contributions to medical knowledge” by Dr. Khaled Nass


·      “An American perspective of the Arab people” by Michael Griffin


·      “Teaching and learning Arabic in the U.S.: Challenges and future directions” by Dr. Mahmoud Al-Batal


·      “Introduction to the Arab culture and Arab Americans” by Rima Houssami & Alif Volunteers


·      “The Arab Americans in Atlanta: struggles and aspirations”: A round-table discussion


·      “A Literary Evening”: Readings of poetry and short essays in Arabic and English


·      Dabke Arab Folk Dancing and Modern Andalusian Muwashahat Dancing


·      Arabic Cooking

Film Screening

·      “Rana’s Wedding” by Hany Abu-Assad

Arab American Family Day

·      Educational displays about the Arab culture and Arab Americans, live music performance, folk dancing, traditional Arab costumes show, and activities for children.


Programs in 2007

Lectures & Group Discussions

·      “Re-imagining Sovereignty on the Lebanese Stage” by Eyad Houssami


·      “League of Arab States and the Arab Charter on Human Rights 2004” by Dr. Amin Al Midani


·      “Come with me to Syria” by Dr. Rima Houssami


·      “A Literary Evening”: Readings of poetry and short essays in Arabic and English

Youth Workshops

·      Modern Andalusian Muwashahat Dancing

Film Screening

·      “The Syrian Bride” by Eran Riklis

Art Exhibition

·      “Colors of my Heritage” by Arab American artist Nabil Mousa

Arabic Music Concert

·      Featuring award winning singer, composer, and Master Oud player: Marcel Khalife and Al Mayadine Ensemble

Arab American Family Day

·      Educational displays about the Arab culture and Arab Americans, live music performance, folk dancing, traditional Arab costumes show, and activities for children.


Programs in 2008

Lecture & Film Screening

 “Reel Bad Arabs / Guilty: Hollywood’s Verdict on Arabs After 9/11” by renowned media critic Dr. Jack Shaheen

Youth Programs

·      “Arab & General Trivia”


·      “Arabic Music Then and Now” workshop


·      “Recycling Awareness” workshop


·      Community service projects

Teachers Workshop

·      “Creating an Interactive Environment for Learning Arabic: Issues & Techniques” presented by Dr. Mahmoud Al-Batal

Book Reading

·      “Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood” by award winning author Ibtisam Barakat

Film Screenings

·      “Axis of Evil Comedy Tour” by Arab American comedians


·      Documentary: “Reel Bad Arabs” by Dr. Jack Shaheen

Co-sponsoring Films & talks with actors and actresses

“Films from the Arab World” presented by the High Museum of Art Atlanta and co-sponsored by Alif Institute


·      “Zozo” by Josef Fares


·      “Encounter Point” by Ronit Avni and Julia Bacha”


·      “West Bank Story” by Ari Sandel


·      “Bab’Aziz – The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul” by Nacer Khemir


·      “AmericanEast” by Hisham Issawi

Arab American Family Day

·      Educational arts & crafts displays about the Arab culture and Arab Americans, live music performance, folk dancing, traditional Arab costumes show, and activities for children.


Programs in 2009

Book discussion

·      “Beyond 9/11: Christians and Muslims together” by Dr. Ben Johnson

Workshops for Youth

·      Modern Arabic dancing and Adalusian Muwashahat dancing

Film screenings

·      “The Visitor” by Tom McCarthy


·      “Destiny” by Youssef Chahine

Co-sponsoring Films

·      “Amreeka” by Cherien Dabis, screened at Tara Theater

Arab American Family Day

·      Educational arts & crafts displays about the Arab culture and Arab Americans, live music performance, folk dancing, traditional Arab costumes show, and activities for children.


Educational Outreach Programs … 2004-2009

The educational work of Alif Institute goes beyond the programs offered at the Institute itself. We collaborate with various other educational institutions in Atlanta, reaching out to a much larger audience. These are the educational activities that Alif Institute participated in:

  • Assistance with Festivals organized by Arab Student Associations at these universities: Emory University, Georgia State University, and Georgia Tech University
  • Co-sponsorship of the High School Model League of Arab States hosted annually by Marist School with more than 200 students from 22 public and private schools participating in this program presented by the National Council for US Arab Relations
  • Presentations and Assistance at Schools: Briarlake Elementary School / United Nations Day, Mountain View Elementary / International Arts Day, St. Pius X Catholic High School, Inlingua Atlanta School of Languages
  • Presentations and Cultural Programs at Churches: First Presbyterian Church Douglasville / Global Village Festival, Clairmont Presbyterian Church / Life Enrichment Services
  • Presentation for the Atlanta Chamber of Commerce
  • Participation at the Multicultural Fair at Children Healthcare of Atlanta Hospitals

Community Outreach Programs … 2004-2009

Alif Institute engages in activities that benefit the community at large as a service to this community. This is done in collaboration with other non-profit organizations in Atlanta. These are the community activities that Alif Institute participated in:

  • Community Health Awareness Talks

Since 2006, a series of Health Awareness Talks were presented to the general public at Alif Institute in cooperation with the National Arab American Medical Association, Georgia Chapter (NAAMA)

  • “Maintaining your dental health” by Imad Sabbagh, D.D.S.
  • “Screening for Cancer” by Kamil Obideen, M.D.
  • “Let’s Talk about Arthritis” by Suzanne Alsayed, M.D.
  • “Screening for Cancer” by Kamil Obideen, M.D.
  • “Prevention of Cardiac Diseases” by Maan Jokhadar, M.D.


  • Participations in cultural programs that helped raise funds to the following charities: American Ministry with International Students (AMIS) and Villa International
  • A Seminar entitled “How to Approach the Job Market” held on Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service with the objective of helping the refugees.
  • Census Testing: Alif Institute hosted 4 sessions of testing for individuals from the community who were applying for a job at the 2010 Census.
  • Donation Drives and Assistance to help the Iraqi Refugees in Atlanta


The National Network of Arab American Communities (NNAAC)

In 2006, Alif Institute joined the National Network of Arab American Communities (NNAAC), a network of independent Arab American community-based organizations.

NNAAC was launched by the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in Detroit, Michigan, in 2004. The goals of the network are to empower and strengthen the member organizations. This is accomplished with four standing programs: Advocacy, The Arab American Resource Corps (a national AmeriCorps program), the Collaborative for Arab American Philanthropy, and Organizational Development.

As a member of the Network, Alif Institute qualified for benefits from the Arab American Resource Corps (ARC). Through that program, Alif Institute enjoyed the service of two ARC members. They both provided significant assistance to our educational programs. In addition, in 2009, our ARC member worked in association with the International Rescue Committee in providing services to the Iraqi refugees in Atlanta. Such services included interpretation, translation, and communication with physicians and refugee agencies.


The National Arab American Service Day

The National Arab American Service Day is an annual community service project spearheaded by the Arab American Resource Corps. Its mission is to foster and encourage volunteerism and service among diverse communities, build bridges and connect people through the common experience of service, and highlight Arab American commitment to service their local communities.  Alif Institute members and friends participated in Service Days by volunteering in projects that benefited the larger Atlanta community. Some of these projects are organized in cooperation with other non-profit organization.

  • National Arab American Service Day 2007

Alif Institute volunteers helped in maintaining, restoring and enhancing Chastain Memorial Park in Atlanta.

  • National Arab American Service Day 2008

Alif Institute volunteers collected and sorted donations and created inspirational posters for the youth refugee summer camps at the Refugee Family Services in Atlanta. Other Alif Institute volunteers helped with painting a house as part of a Habitat for Humanity project.

  • National Arab American Service Day 2009

Alif Institute volunteers helped in maintaining, weeding and spreading mulch at the Piedmont Park in Atlanta.


Fundraising Events … 2004-2009

* Asterisks indicate events organized by Friends of the Alif Institute

Events in 2004

  • Fig Trees Fundraiser – donated by Shajih Muhanna*
  • Toys, Gifts, and Books Fundraiser – donated by Rima Houssami*
  • “Laylat Tarab” Concert* – organized by Jean Leon
  • Oriental Carpets Auction & Dinner* – organized by Louis Ragy, Nawal Araim, Samia Hafez, Michael Shikany

Events in 2005

  • Fig Trees Fundraiser – donated by Shajih Muhanna*
  • A Taste of Aleppo Dinner
  • Arabic Brunches (2 events)
  • Arabic Dinner
  • Oriental Carpets Auction* -organized by Louis Ragy

Events in 2006

  • Donated Book Sales Fundraiser
  • Arabic Brunches (2 events)
  • Pizza Luncheon
  • Taste of Palestine Dinner
  • Taste of Jordan Dinner
  • Arab American Family Day

Events in 2007

  • Arabic Brunches (4 events)
  • A Taste of Aleppo Dinner
  • Falafel Luncheon
  • Oriental Carpets Sales*

Fundraising 2008

  • Fundraising Dinner* – organized by NAAMA members
  • Arabic Brunches (3 events)
  • Dinner by Kamil*
  • Greeting cards sales
  • Arab American Family Day

Fundraising 2009

  • Lebanese Dinner
  • Books & greeting cards
  • Fundraising Dinners (2 events)
  • 4th of July American Arab Brunch
  • Falafel Luncheon
  • Thanksgiving Brunch

Educational, Cultural, and Fundraising Programs in 2010


  • Seven courses for children & youth with various levels and for different age groups
  • Cultural activities for children & youth
  • Three courses for adults with various levels
  • In addition, Alif Institute offered Arabic classes to staff members at the Carter Center



  • Atlanta Arab Festival

In 2010, Angela Khoury, Diala Chehayeb, Nayef Abuaisheh, and Arafat Imam took the annual “Arab American Family Day” to a new level by expanding the activities and the outreach. The name was changed to the “Atlanta Arab Festival”. This celebration of Arab cultures included educational displays, live music, folk dancing, traditional Arab costumes show, and various activities for children.  The Festival was presented in cooperation with the Arab American Women’s Society of Georgia

  • Lecture: “Ibn Khaldun” by Allen Fromhertz
  • Photography Exhibit: “Amerabia: Arab American Portraits” by Serene Al-Kawas
  • Music Concert: “From East to West”: an evening with Dr. David Marcus
  • Enrichment Programs: Oud, Painting, and Dabke Dancing workshops


Alif Institute presented various programs in cooperation with other educational institutions, or promoted some programs organized by such institutions.

  • Films from the Arab World

Presented by the High Museum of Art Atlanta

Three films were screened at the High and were co-sponsored by Alif Institute: Dunia: Kiss Me Not on the Eyes / Laila’s Birthday / The Dawn of the World

  • Arabian Adventure Weekend

Presented in collaboration with the Fernbank Museum of Natural History in conjunction with “Arabia” IMAX Film

Alif Institute presented a small exhibit and live music, dance and traditional costume shows, storytelling and children arts & crafts activities focusing on Arab themes.

  • Art Exhibit: “Traces of the Calligrapher & Writing the Word of God”

Presented by the Carlos Museum of Emory University

Alif Institute promoted this exhibit among its members and the larger community.

  • Winter Wonderland: Celebration & Traditions Around the World

Presented in collaboration with the Fernbank Museum of Natural History

Alif Institute presented children and youth dances and an exhibit focusing on Christian and Muslim holiday traditions.

  • Book Discussion: “Arab Voices” by Dr. James Zogby

Presented by the Carter Library

Alif Institute promoted this program among its members and the larger community.

  • Arab World Scholar Award

This Award was established in collaboration with the National Council on U.S. Arab Relations (Washington, DC). It was presented to the “Outstanding Young Leader in International Affairs” participating in the Atlanta High School Model League of Arab States (MAL), held at Marist School.

  • Census 2010: Alif Institute raised awareness and promoted Census 2010 participation within the community. In 2009, Alif Institute partnered with the U.S. Department of Commerce 2010 Census by hosting several testing sessions.
  • Assisting with International Festivals held at local schools, colleges, or universities.



  • Nayef’s Birthday Fundraiser*
  • Arabic Music Concert & Dinner
  • First Alif Institute Gala (November 20)
  • Atlanta Arab Festival (April 17 & 18)

Contact Us

Operating Hours
  • Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays
  • 10:00 AM - 5:00 PM
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