As a Catholic schoolgirl at St. Peter the Apostle School in Itasca, Christina Rafidia opened eyes and broadened minds just by eating lunch.
"I loved sharing my food, my music, my culture, my language," remembers Rafidia, now a 22-year-old biology major at the University of Illinois at Chicago who is preparing her applications for dental school.
In the peanut butter and ham sandwich world of suburban school lunchrooms, Rafidia would unpack a feast of hummus on pita bread and explain to her classmates that her entree was a staple in her home, influenced by the Jordanian roots of her mother, Marlin, and the Palestinian upbringing of her father, Munir.
"Everybody found it really interesting that I was from another culture. Everybody was really cool," the brown-eyed Rafidia says of her suburban childhood. She had a similar experience at Driscoll Catholic High School in Addison, where she was a cheerleader for four years, was elected to homecoming and prom courts, and competed as a gymnast on park district teams.
As the newly crowed Miss Arab USA, Rafidia now gets the chance to share her ethnic background with her fellow Americans.
"I'm so proud. I couldn't think of any other ethnicity I'd want to be," says Rafidia, who adds that she still "can't believe" the moment when she was crowned Miss Arab USA during a grand ceremony last weekend at the Talking Stick Resort in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Her first full day as Miss Arab USA was Sept. 11, when the nation was consumed with the 10th anniversary of the attacks on America and the nation's perceptions of Arabs then and today.
"It was great just to show that this is what is happening now," notes Sara Massoud, a spokeswoman for the pageant and the American Arab Association that sponsors it.
"I really sympathize with the people and families who went through that," Rafidia says of the victims of Sept. 11, 2001. "I'm devastated by that still."
The pageant featured women representing the 22 Arab nations, and while some women wore the hijab headscarves of their Muslim religion, the pageant is "nonpolitical and nonreligious," Massoud says.
"You have to always be open-minded," says Rafidia, who notes that she embraces her identity as an American, an Arab, a woman and a Christian. Her job, she says, is to educate people who might get bogged down by prejudice or stereotypes.
"Everybody has the stereotype of Arab women as being closed off, very meek, inferior to the men. That's not true," Rafidia says with a laugh. "I have the biggest mouth. I don't have that problem. My job is to portray Arab women in a different light. My mom and dad have the most amazing relationship in the world. It's totally a 50-50 thing."
Having never been a contestant in a pageant before, Rafidia says she was surprised to make the top 100, let alone survive the cut to 50 before being one of the 22 contestants brought onstage for the finals. She had to keep reminding herself that not hearing her name announced as one of the runners-up was a good thing.
"And now it's just me and the other girl onstage," Rafidia recalls. "Next thing, I have a crown on my head and I'm crying like a little baby."
While the radiant Rafidia says she works at maintaining her fit figure and always tries to look her best, the Miss Arab USA pageant doesn't include a swimsuit competition or focus on physical attractiveness. Rafidia was chosen "based upon her general elegance, education and world knowledge, skill set, talents, community involvement and service," according to the pageant rules.
She answered four questions for the judges in English and one in Arabic, and sang the country hit "I Hope You Dance" (the only contestant who sang in English) during a talent competition that included everything from belly dancing to poetry to a photography display.
"Everybody was amazing," says Rafidia, who adds that sharing the accomplishments of Arab women is one of her main goals during her yearlong reign.
As a child in 1998, she visited her father's Palestinian hometown of Nazareth in Israel and her mother's relatives in Amman, Jordan. As Miss Arab USA, she will visit different parts of this country before she starts dental school. Since 2007, Rafidia has been working as a dental assistant in the Arlington Heights office of 1st Family Dental, which also has offices in Roselle, Aurora, Elgin and Chicago.
Her parents, who live in Barrington, also are sending her brothers, Amir, 21, and Jeremy, 18, to the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Just as she did as a little girl teaching classmates about hummus, Rafidia says she wants to continue bringing people together.
"My favorite thing is watching cultures mix," Rafidia says, noting the world seems to be getting more open-minded every day. "Going to the grocery store and seeing hummus is so cool. I love that."