Posted by on April 04, 2012 in Blog

By Dalal Hillou

2012 Spring Intern

Anti-Muslim rhetoric has lately become rampant within the political sphere. With politicians such as Newt Gingrich stating that “Sharia is a moral threat”, Rick Santorum saying “there is no ‘Palestinian’”, and the recent anti-Sharia bill that passed in the Florida House and almost made it through the Florida Senate, many American Muslims or Arab Americans are beginning to feel that politics may be a useless and painful task. However, that is the opposite of what the community should feel – it should be more involved with politics to combat such bigotry. Laura Hammad, a Palestinian-American lawyer who is working with the Florida Young Democrats, is one such person who is representing the Arab American community and fighting back against the stereotypes and bigotry.

Laura grew up in an “untraditional” household. Her father is Palestinian from the town of Safa, which is just south of Jerusalem, and her mother is an American of German, English, Dutch, and Irish descent. There were many typical American elements in her life as she grew up, and there were Arab elements as well, with classic Palestinian food and a protective father who did not allow dating. After graduating from Birzeit University, her father felt there were very few opportunities for a good life in Israel, and decided to immigrate to America.  In the 1970's he came to the US to obtain his MBA, and met Laura's mother while studying there at Embry Riddle University in Daytona Beach. Because of this, Laura grew up in an environment where she was very grateful to be an American, and where English was the main language of the house.

Laura also grew up with ‘a foot in both houses’, attending the mosque on Fridays and church on Sundays,  since her father was Muslim and her mother was Christian until Laura was twelve, when she converted to Islam.  It was a nourishing environment where the children could find their own way and discover their own path of beliefs. It instilled a mindset of acceptance within Laura and taught her to never discriminate, but to always be considerate and understanding of others.

Her interest in the field of law began in high school, around the time of the second Palestinian intifada. Laura became very interested in everything that was happening and conducted research on the issue, which inspired her to major in Political Science with a focus in International Relations at the University of Florida. The variety of things she learned, including the inner workings of the U.N. and the impact it can have on helping people fascinated her. “You can’t fight what you don’t know. If you want to have an impact and be articulate you have to be educated,” Laura says. According to her, going to law school was the best way to gain legitimacy in order to represent people.

You may be wondering, what brought Laura to become so involved with the Florida Young Democrats? It all began when she moved back to Orlando after completing her education at Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. She was not able to work with the community as much as she wanted, due to the demands of her job at the time, but an acquaintance got her to go to a Young Democrats meeting. There, she met people who were involved with the Orange County Young Democrats, and she became involved with them. It was a tight knit group of supportive and accepting people, and within a few years she became the president of that organization. Recently, she was elected as the Vice President of Issues for the Florida Young Democrats. Through the help of EmergeUSA, she scored an interview with the Florida Democratic Party and was appointed to serve on the Affirmative Action Subcommittee for Delegate Selection.  “The more involved I got in FYD, the more people I met that were incredibly motivated about getting young people involved in the political process, and that supported diversity within the system,” Laura says. “It has been an honor to represent my community, and advocate for their involvement in our democratic elections. “

With all the recent talk about the so-called evils of Sharia in the news, the Florida Senate and House attempted to pass anti-Sharia laws. “Unfortunately, some Democrats voted it for it too,” Laura states. According to her, the whole issue is just “poppycock…The senate bill and the house bill were solutions to problems that don’t exist”.  In response to the issue, and in her capacity on the local executive board for the Orange County Democratic Executive Committee, Laura co-drafted a resolution condemning the Anti-Sharia bills. Her resolution was passed by the Orange County DEC Executive Board and General Body Assembly by unanimous vote.

“The biggest thing as Arabs and Muslims,” Laura says, “is that we can’t take these fear mongering bills lying down; we need to stand up and call out people acting in a racist or hateful manner. As Arabs and Muslims, we shouldn’t have the hesitation either. When we see bigoted laws, we have an obligation to fight back and use our skills and resources to inform people that these things are not true. People’s fears shouldn’t be exploited. [My] resolution was intended to identify all those things and contradict the bill. There are much more relevant things we can be working on; we shouldn’t be wasting our time promoting nonsense and fear mongering.”

The accomplishment that Laura is most proud of is starting her own law firm, Cornerstone Law Group, in Orlando. It was a “huge step” leaving a big firm and the comfort of her paycheck.  However, she knew there was “a need for honest lawyers who focus on civil rights and create those checks and balances within the system.” It has been three months since the founding of the firm, and Laura continues to attain more and more clients. She is looking forward to being able to use her firm to help as many people as possible.

To Arab Americans who are interested in getting involved in the political process, Laura assures them that there is nothing to be intimidated by or afraid of. She advocates for Arab Americans to get involved “as soon, as quickly, and as much as possible”.  Laura also believes that although President Obama has been disappointing on some issues, he has opened a window of opportunity for many Arab Americans to become involved. “If you’re going to the election booth and there’s no one you want to vote for, you didn’t do your job right… [you must] invest energy into getting a candidate you like.” Laura also thinks that Arab Americans must unite as a community because “we don’t deserve to be a maligned community. We’re hardworking and honest and pay our taxes, run businesses, and we do it well and we love America. So why not engage in the process that gives us our freedom? It would make a huge difference for our community if we got more involved.”

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