If you've been to any progressive event in Orange County during the past decade, you know who Rida Hamida is, even if you've never talked to her. Her radiant hijabs, wrapped in the billowy Andalusian style and usually in some shade of pink because "it's a color that breaks down barriers and emanates happiness and courage," aren't the only reason the 36-year-old stands out. She's usually standing at the front during speeches: sometimes speaking, sometimes at the side of other community leaders. Leading is natural for Hamida, community liaison for Loretta Sanchez and co-founder of the Arab American Civic Council; it's literally her name, which translates as "leader" in Arabic.
"I need to live up to it," Hamida says. "It's important–I mean, it's my name!"
Born in Burbank to Palestinian immigrants, Hamida's family moved to Anaheim when she was 11 so her father could be closer to his shop at what's now the Outlets At Orange. The family worshipped at the county's oldest mosque, the Islamic Center of Orange County off Brookhurst Street in Garden Grove. A couple of blocks north in Anaheim's section of the avenue, fellow Muslims and other Middle Eastern immigrants began opening stores, restaurants and markets, creating an enclave now known as Little Arabia, one of the largest such neighborhoods in the United States.
After graduating from Canyon High, Hamida went off to UCLA for her undergraduate degree and studied social work at the school's graduate program. She returned to Little Arabia in 2006, working in the nonprofit world in everything from gang intervention to helping Iraqi refugees adjust to their new country to counseling survivors of domestic violence. But in December 2013, Hamida decided to help bring more attention to Little Arabia after seeing local businesses struggling.
"This area is part of my childhood," she says. "The symbolism of Little Arabia isn't just Little Arabia. It's about immigrants; it's about people who've lived here for 50 years. It's about an authentic part of Anaheim, of Orange County."
Hamida began inviting politicians and community leaders to visit Little Arabia, culminating in the so-called "Shawarma Summit," held at Papa Hassan's last spring. There, community members, business people and Anaheim Mayor Tom Tait talked about the future of the area, promising to bring more money and tourists there.
In addition to her name, Hamida draws upon her status as a Muslim woman for her strength.
"There's this stereotype that women in hijabs are somehow submissive," she scoffs. "I find it funny. We're some of the most liberated, outspoken leaders in our community. And my faith compels me to serve the community. One of the founding tenets of Islam is to make sure that the person next door has what you have."
And as for where she gets those great hijabs? "Forever 21," she says with a laugh. "What can I say? I'm a California girl."