Posted by Rawan Elbaba on April 20, 2016 in Blog

“Refugees are all around us. As a community that has known the refugee plight for more than a century, we must help the world find its better angels and assist the millions displaced today.”

That’s how Arab American Institute Foundation (AAIF) Executive Director Maya Berry put into perspective the Foundation’s decision to focus on refugees at this year’s annual Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards.

“With more than 60 million people forcibly displaced in every region of the world, we are proud to shine a light on those working to assist and empower refugees. The UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency and Unite Lebanon Youth Project (ULYP) are the best example of Kahlil’s Gibran’s message of human endurance and triumph,” said Berry.

13064452_10154079419086092_8843502984867175024_o.jpgHighlighting the critical contributions refugees and former refugees can make to the world, supermodel, activist and former refugee Alek Wek presented UNHCR with its Gibran Award for International Commitment. Wek, a UNCHR Goodwill Ambassador, spoke of her own harrowing journey fleeing her home in the southern region of Sudan and why she won’t forget other refugees today.

“I use my platform to build awareness for the nearly 60 million forcibly displaced people around the world today. I am honored to serve as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency.  For 65 years, UNHCR has been leading international action for the worldwide protection of those forced to flee due to war and persecution.”

Today the UNHCR operates in 125 countries serving not only millions of refugees and stateless persons,but also millions of internally displaced people. The conditions are difficult and often dangerous as they work to provide for the most basic needs of those fleeing conflict, disaster and violence. Although some of its largest operations are in Afghanistan, Colombia, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Pakistan, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey and Iraq they are also supporting those at risk in the Central African Republic, El Salvador, Honduras, Libya, Myanmar, South Sudan, Ukraine and Yemen among many other places. Whether the help provided comes in the form of a tent, blanket, or clean water, it ultimately means doing what is necessary to protect those most vulnerable. And, with so many children among the world’s refugee and displaced populations, it also means working to provide educational resources. In short, their mission is never ending.

“I am here representing 12,000 staff members…. These colleagues are the heart and soul of the humanitarian response and this award is in recognition of their extraordinary work and their efforts. We are living in remarkable times, parts of the world are a mess as unstable as it has ever been in recent history and people are caught in the middle, said Kelly T. Clements, Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees at UNHCR.

13086717_10154079377711092_9096247721408702139_o.jpgDrawing on the community’s own connections, the Gibran Award for Institutional Excellence went to the Unite Lebanon Youth Project which began as an effort to help Palestinian refugees escape the physical and mental confines of the refugee camps. It has now grown to include poor Lebanese youth and more recently, Syrian refugees. At their campus outside Beirut, ULYP gives these young people a chance to befriend one another, work together and ultimately create a better future for themselves and Lebanon. Through preschool classes, summer camps, scholarship programs and SAT tutoring, ULYP seeks to reach the most vulnerable with high quality, comprehensive education programs.

“Receiving this award means that you, like us, believe that transparency can be achieved….that you join us in opening doors to  all under-served, that you, like us, want to extend respect to the marginalized, and that you, like us, respect their right to education. By honoring us… you have raised the bar, motivating us to work even harder to achieve the paradigm shift that is our ultimate goal….I promise you we will not disappoint,” Melek El Nimer, ULYP founder.

Bringing focus to the challenges Syria’s refugees face, violin virtuoso, Mariela Shaker, performed. Shaker fled her native Aleppo in 2013 to continue her music studies in the U.S. Recognized by the White House as a Champion of Change, she regularly confronts the negative rhetoric around the refugee situation by reminding her audiences of the very real humanitarian crisis facing millions of Syrians. Although she’s been granted asylum, she still has family in Aleppo. Never forgetting her connections and journey, it’s her dream to open a music school for Syrian refugee children.   

Looking to those who advance Gibran’s respect for freedom and his universal love of humanity, AAIF also acknowledged the contributions of two very special Arab Americans, Jamie Farr and Suzanne Sareini.

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Actor, comedian and philanthropist Jamie Farr received a Special Recognition Award. Most remembered for his endearing portrayal of Corporal Maxwell Klinger in the hit series M*A*S*H*, Farr brought to life the humorous, deeply compelling story of a lovable Lebanese serviceman from Toledo for 11 years. His portrayal of Klinger was one of the earliest positive, three-dimensional depictions of an Arab American in the media. But Farr’s contributions go beyond warming hearts; he also has a distinguished history of giving back to his Toledo community where he runs a scholarship fund to support youth. And, for 28 years, he organized the Jamie Farr Toledo Classic golf tournament to benefit dozens of children’s charities across Ohio and Michigan. Advancing Kahlil Gibran’s ideals of diversity, acceptance, and unity, Farr’s sense of humor and dedication to public service brought laughter and warmth into the households of millions of Americans.

Accepting his award, Farr had the audience in stitches telling stories from Hollywood, about how his character Klinger’s Lebanese heritage was a tribute to Danny Thomas and what it was like to work with the legendary Red Skelton. He summed up the award saying, “Thank you, to the Arab American Institute Foundation for this recognition. I just hope I made you laugh, left you a little lighter and maybe taught you something in the process.”

Promoting coexistence and inclusion across racial, ethnic and religious lines, are central themes in Kahlil Gibran’s works. They are also the attributes that marked Suzanne Sareini’s public service career which is why AAIF awarded her with the Najeeb Halaby Award for Public Service. “When others shied from fighting for our community, Suzanne did not. She is one of our earliest political champions and she cleared the way for so many more to follow,’ Berry said.

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A lifetime Dearborn resident and local business owner, Suzanne’s 1989 campaign for City Council came on the heels of Dearborn’s first public confrontation with simmering anti-Arab sentiment that challenged the Arab American community’s place in Michigan. The multi-ethnic support Ms. Sareini won on the campaign trail was a powerful refutation of attempts to sideline and cast suspicion on Arab Americans. Because of Ms. Sareini’s tireless dedication to the community and indefatigable spirit, she went on to be reelected for six straight terms. The first ever Arab American elected to public office in the city of Dearborn, for over 25 years Ms. Sareini represented her constituents with “determination, boldness, bipartisanship, and an ear to the city’s many voices and needs,” added Berry.

Accepting her award, Sareini looked back at her early races. “My political career really began by accident…. You can only imagine what happened when I decided to run for city council. I started receiving hate mail. My family received hate mail, a bomb threat. I was a woman, an Arab American, a Republican as was noted, and a Muslim. I lost that first election in 1985…. In 1989 I ran again…. I won that election and many more after that. I would say running… was worth it because there are now Arab Americans across the country that are running for political offices and they are winning. The only thing I hope is that even in a small way I made a difference.”

Closing out the evening, AAI President Dr. James Zogby reminded attendees that the Gibran Gala was an “aspirational night” highlighting those we can all look up to. “We may not all be there quite yet, but these awardees remind us where we want to be.”