Posted by Arab American Institute on June 26, 2015 in Blog

champions_of_change.jpgOn the occasions of Immigrant Heritage Month and World Refugee Day (June 20th), it seems fitting that President Obama should honor those extraordinary people who have fled their home countries, and endured to pursue successful lives in the United States.

Mariela Shaker and Marwan Sweedan, refugees from Syria and Iraq, respectively, were recognized by the White House yesterday as “Champions of Change.” The White House describes these individuals as “ordinary Americans who are doing extraordinary things in their communities to out-innovate, out-educate, and out-build the rest of the world.”

Born in Aleppo, Mariela Shaker has become a distinguished violinist, receiving a multitude of honors in Syria. Her musical gift became her ticket out of the war-torn country.

Receiving a full scholarship in 2013 to tiny Monmouth College in Illinois, Shaker came to the U.S. and graduated with a B.A. in Music Performance. Recognizing her astonishing talent, Monmouth was instrumental in helping Mariela obtain her American student visa. Shaker said that she “would love to be a peace ambassador, traveling worldwide, and help in promoting music … It is an international language, a language of peace.”

While her parents and brother remain in Aleppo, without internet or electricity, Mariela speaks with them almost every day through a shaky telephone connection. Mariela remarked: “[I] left my home in Syria because of the war. It is here in the United States that my life has begun.” A video of Mariela’s senior recital can be viewed here.

Marwan Sweedan’s story is equally inspiring. A graduate of Baghdad Medical School, Marwan Sweedan worked as a doctor in a Ramadi hospital between 2003 and 2007, caring for patients suffering from both physical and mental illnesses. During those years, he also helped the Coalition Force in Iraq, working as a project manager.

Marwan was forced to move to Jordan after being displaced in his home country, but he continued taking care of those in need, working in the Italian Hospital in Amman, Jordan. It wasn’t until 2008 that Sweedan was able to receive refugee status, and he finally immigrated to the United States.

After becoming an active volunteer for Upwardly Global, a non-profit organization that finds employment for skilled immigrants in the United States, Marwan would then make the courageous move to join the U.S. Army, working as a combat medic. Completing service to his new country in 2013, Marwan has been working with businesses, refugees, and resettlement organizations, advising skilled and educated refugees in securing jobs in America.

Currently, Marwan is pursuing his medical license in Idaho as he prepares to apply for a graduate degree.

Marwan and Mariela are just a few examples of the incredible individuals who have immigrated to the United States from the Arab world and made extraordinary contributions to this country.

Read more stories about Arab immigrants and their descendants on the "Together We Came" main page.