Posted on April 26, 1999 in Washington Watch

When the Arab American Institute Foundation (AAIF) presented the first Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards last week they helped shine a light on the extraordinary contributions the community is making in American life.

The awards are to be given annually to individuals and institutions that promote tolerance and coexistence. According to the AAIF the awards “aim to promote diversity and cultural interaction and to showcase programs that foster democratic and humanitarian values across racial, ethnic and religious lines”.

The award is named for Kahlil Gibran, an Arab American author known throughout the United States as a poet and humanist who was proud of his Arab heritage and who promoted tolerance and who valued human endeavors that bettered social relations and individual self worth.

In giving these awards, Arab Americans were not only recognizing those who merit acknowledgement they were making a statement about the maturity of the community that is now in a position to give such awards. Arab Americans also sent a message about the kind of America and world that they want to be a part of shaping for the future.

This year’s recipients were an impressive group. Topping the list was former Senator George Mitchell who was recognized for the leadership he displayed in an effort to resolve the conflict over Northern Ireland. Mitchell, who is part Irish and part Lebanese, has often acknowledged, with pride, both ancestries. He was a Senator for 14 years and served as Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate for six years.

Receiving the award for corporate commitment is the Ford Motor Company. Ford has an outstanding record of support for the arts, education programs and civic activities geared toward youth assistance, and programs that cross cultural barriers. Its support has extended to Arab American institutions in greater Detroit, including annual grants for the Arab Festival, a youth library, and the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in Dearborn.

Accepting the award for Ford was Jac Nasser, its President. Nasser is of Arabic descent.

Other Gibran awardees included, Federico Mayor, the Director General of UNESCO, who received the award for International Accomplishment; the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise, a grassroots movement devoted to solving the social and economic problems of poverty-stricken neighborhoods; and the YWCA, a national organization which has a consistent and courageous record of challenging injustice and racial discrimination.

As impressive as the recipients of the awards might be, those who presented the awards on behalf of the AAIF, also have distinguished records of accomplishment. Representing the Clinton Administration and presenting the award to George Mitchell was the Honorable Donna Shalala, the Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services. Shalala is the highest-ranking Arab American in the President’s Cabinet. Two other presenters were outstanding leaders in industry: Richard Abdoo, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Wisconsin Energy Corporation and Yousif Ghafari, President and Chief Executive Officer of Ghafari and Associates, one of the nation’s leading architectural design firms.

Also among the presenters were two of the nation’s most respected media personalities: Diane Rehm, host of a popular nationally syndicated National Public Radio (NPR) show and Helen Thomas, the Dean of the White House Press Corps.

Also on hand for the evening’s ceremonies were: the Honorable Edward Gabriel, U.S. Ambassador to Morocco, Senator Spencer Abraham (R-MI), and Congressmen Nick Joe Rahall, II (D-WV), Ray LaHood (R-IL) and John Sununu (R-NH)–all Arab Americans.

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I write about this event because it is important that the Arab world understand the progress made by Arab Americans in all areas of U.S. life. I recently returned from a visit to the Middle East, where I was struck by how little some of my Arab friends knew about Arab Americans.

I had brought with me a brochure distributed by the AAIF entitled “Arab Americans: Making a Difference”. The brochure describes over 100 prominent Arab Americans–well-known celebrities, who made a mark in government, the media, sports, entertainment, industry, medicine and even fashion design.

The list is an impressive one–as impressive as could be compiled by any American ethnic community. And yet Arab Americans are not known in the Arab world for their accomplishments.

In part this is our own fault. For too many years, Arab Americans have defined ourselves by our problems. With justification, we have complained about discrimination and negative stereotyping. These are real problems and we have been right to attack them. But, all too often, we have created the impression that all that could be said about Arab Americans–is we are a discriminated against minority. To limit our self-definition to the problems we face is to create a grossly inaccurate portrait. In fact Arab American are an American success story.

In giving the Kahlil Gibran Awards, then, Arab Americans accomplish still another purpose. They help define Arab Americans by their accomplishments, by their values and by their vision of the future. We are, as I said in my closing comments to the evening’s festivities, a community that can be defined by “our strong families, our entrepreneurial success, our educational achievements, our faith and our respect for diversity”. We have problems, to be sure, but we have created institution and organizations and we have the will, to help us solve those problems.

In one of his early writings, Gibran penned what he called “An Open Letter to Syrian American Youth”. Appearing in the first issue of the Syrian World in 1926, the letter urges Syrian Americans to make “contributions to this new civilization”. Defining what it means to be a good citizen, Gibran writes,

    It is to stand before the towers of New York, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco saying in your heart, “I am descendant of a people that builded Damascus, and Biblus, and Tyre and Sidon, and Antioch, and now I am here to build with you, and with a will.” It is to be proud of being an American, but it is also to be proud that your fathers and mothers came form a land upon which God laid his gracious hand and raised His messengers.

To look at the recipients and presenters of this year’s Kahlil Gibran Awards and to look at the accomplishments of the millions of Arab Americans who have made real contributions to every aspect of U.S. life, it is clear that, despite difficulties Arab Americans have taken Gibran’s advice seriously.

For comments or information, contact jzogby@aaiusa.org

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