Posted on April 19, 2010 in Washington Watch

This week the Arab American Institute (AAI) hosts its annual Kahlil Gibran “Spirit of Humanity” Awards Dinner in Washington, DC. This year’s event also marks the 25th Anniversary of the AAI, but, as in past years, the spotlight will not be on the Institute, but on those who have been selected to receive the Gibran awards.

Named for the world renowned Lebanese poet and philosopher, Kahlil Gibran, the awards recognize individuals and institutions, who by the work they do, the values they project, or the challenges they issue forth, exemplify the “Spirit of Humanity”.
Past recipients have included: Senator George Mitchell (for his work in Northern Ireland), Lech Walesa (the leader of the Polish Solidarity movement), the YWCA (for its efforts to combat racism), Refugees International, and Mohamed Ali.

This year’s honorees are no less significant.

UAE businessman and philanthropist, Juma al Majid is being honored for his extraordinary efforts to preserve Arab and Islamic culture. The restoration projects undertaken by his Center for Culture and Heritage have ensured that the magnificent work of the past will be of benefit to future generations. Through his efforts, thousands of books and manuscripts have been saved. It is his gift to us all.

Al Majid is revered in his own country for his philanthropy. When Arabs in nine countries were asked to name their favorite personality in the region, in most countries the winners were athletes or entertainers. Emiratis chose Juma al Majid.

Chicago Mayor Richard Daley is being recognized for his efforts to promote cultural understanding between Chicagoans and the world community. Under his leadership, Chicago has: established Sister City relationships with Amman, Casablanca and most recently Abu Dhabi; hosted events to promote education, and business and cultural ties with the Arab World; and supported Arabic language training in the city’s public schools.

Daley’s efforts remind us all not only of the need to celebrate our own county’s rich cultural diversity, but of the need for America to make itself more open to the world.

Since there is no higher calling than to serve the needs of others, this year the AAI also honors the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS). Launched during the Clinton Administration to promote volunteerism and public service, and expanded during the Bush and Obama Administrations, the CNCS has enabled tens of thousands of young Americans to serve their communities through grants and training programs that have supported local projects providing education and social services in underserved areas.

As a result of one such CNCS project, Americorps, scores of young Arab Americans have been able to move from college into work serving the needs of their communities nationwide.

The last two honorees are Arab Americans whose personal stories, though different, are both remarkable American stories of service and commitment.

Judge Rosemary Barkett is this year’s recipient of the Najeeb Halaby award. Named for Halaby, who’s career in public service began in the Kennedy Administration and concluded with his Chairmanship of Save the Children, this award is given annually to an accomplished Arab American elected or appointed official. Born in Mexico of Syrian immigrant parents who later became citizens of the US, Judge Barkett was appointed to the federal bench by President Clinton. For her work promoting justice and equal rights, she has been honored by numerous organizations including those representing women, Hispanics and members of the legal profession. This year Arab Americans are proud to recognize her service and the way she has embodied the values of our heritage in her life’s work.

The story of Abdul Rahman Zeitoun has been told in the best selling book “Zeitoun”, written by David Eggers, and soon to be the subject of a Hollywood film. A hero of the Katrina disaster, Zeitoun risked his life for days on end saving others. In a canoe he went from flooded house to flooded house delivering supplies and rescuing the helpless. Then a week later, this courageous and selfless hero became a victim himself, of cruel discrimination. He was inexplicably arrested by federal officials and held incommunicado as a suspected terrorist.

He was exonerated and despite an ordeal that would have made a lesser man bitter, Zeitoun has established a foundation donating the proceeds from the book to the rebuilding of his beloved city, New Orleans, and ensuring the rights of all Americans.

When the Institute was founded 25 years ago, its goal was to secure for Arab Americans their rightful place in the mainstream of American political and social life. The community had to face down bigotry and political exclusion, and, after 9/11, suspicion.

To a degree this has borne fruit, though challenges remain. But in honoring those who define the values we share and those whose work we seek to emulate, Arab Americans make a statement about who we are, what we bring to this country and the way forward. This is the community’s tribute to the Spirit of Humanity.

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