Arab Americans Celebrate Together at the 2016 Democratic National Convention

Posted by Jennifer Salan on July 29, 2016 in Blog

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Kicking off a week of outreach and education programming, the Arab American Institute Foundation hosted Arab American delegates to the Democratic National Convention for Arabic food in Philadelphia on Tuesday. With nearly 50 delegates to the DNC in 2016, the room was filled to capacity with old and new friends alike along with the local Arab American Philadelphia Host Committee. Delegates and guests shared their stories of how they became involved in activism and public service while sharing their advocacy on behalf of Palestine, civil liberties, and other areas of concern for Arab Americans. The event followed a night of activism for Palestinian rights as delegates and activists around the convention hall sported Palestine t-shirts and raised Palestinian flags and signs.  

IMG_0890.jpgMichigan Senator Debbie Stabenow (D) welcomed Arab American delegates saying, "I'm here to say, first of all, thank you and your moms and dads and grandpas and grandmas who chose America to come to. To be a part of this tapestry of strength that comes from our diversity."  

Picking up on Senator Stabenow's thoughts, attorney, longtime activist and partner to New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Bill Shaheen reminded attendees of the bigotry our community has faced in the past. Speaking of his father, Shaheen said "there were events he was asked to leave because his skin wasn't the right color and his hair may have been too wavy. We are not going back there. We are not going back there."

Longtime community ally, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-MI) paid tribute to 

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the Michigan delegates saying, "I see many friends here." She also talked about the need to push back against bigotry and xenophobia and the importance of freedom of religion. Dingell also highlighted the need the need for due process when it comes to the no-fly list.

Inspiriation was also on hand as delegates stepped forward to share their personal stories. 

Magid Al Bahadli, a sub chair for the Washington state delegation which includes the largest number of Arab American delegates said, "I became a citizen in 2000 and I am living the American dream. This is my opportunity to see and find what's in my heart....I became involved in the political process as a normal guy. Then I became a delegate in 2008 and 2012, 2016, and now I am the sub chair for beautiful Washingtonians....How incredible is this?"  

Noting the need for Arab American voices in the political conversation, Ayla Kadah, a 21 year-old also from the Washington delegation said, "I was raised in Syria...I only moved to Washington three years ago for college....And I think that's what inspired me, to get into this entire movement was having this identity that I bring. Having this voice that we don't hear a lot, that isn't really brought into the political process...." 

California delegate, Iyad Alfalqa continued the theme saying, "I was very proud that I took the risk during my [delegate] speech to say I am the grandson of a Palestinian refugee and I said that with all the pride. My voice was shaking, but my conviction was steadfast... I did not want to hide my identity just to get on the wagon. I wanted my community to be in the forefront."

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Virginia House of Delegates member Sam Rasoul, who's campaign was targeted with anti-Arab bigotry in 2014 and yet went on to win with more than 70% of the vote, said "I am the son of Palestinian immigrants. I am the first Muslim Arab American elected to anything in Virginia." Only 32 years old when he won his House of Delegates seat, Rasoul added "I hope that you'll challenge yourself...to try and find new ways of communicating so that way younger voters will have something to gravitate towards." 

Later that night, Arab American delegates welcomed their colleagues, convention attendees, and the broader Philly community at "Ahlan wa Sahlan Philly: an Arab American Block Party". Featuring Arabic food, culturally inspired cocktails, hookahs and live music, the event attracted hundreds of attendees. 

Arab American comedian and native Philadelphian Amer Zahr served as emcee, keeping the crowd revved up while also helping newcomers learn the basics of Arabic dancing. Ramy Youssef, who most recently starred on Nickelodeon, performed a comedy bit leaving the crowd in stitches. Joe Tayoun's MidEast Ensemble with Rudy Samaha, Riad Eltunsi, Sam Younes and Billy Tayoun, provided live music which was clearly enjoyed by all including the many who were likely hearing traditional and popular Arabic music for the first time. 

IMG_0949.jpgNative American leader and activist Deborah Parker, who served on the Democratic Platform Drafting Committee alongside James Zogby, celebrated with attendees before speaking to those who came out. "I've learned a lot especially about Palestinian rights and occupation and I thank you...I'm gonna continue to learn and I'm gonna come and participate and I'm gonna ask our tribal leaders to come and learn about the Arab community as well and learn about the rights of the indigenous peoples of the world...."

"Our block party exceeded our own expectations. It was actually epic. We were competing with so many other events but what made ours stand out was that it felt like community, bringing so many different people together. It really allowed us to show off both our Arab and Philadelphia hospitality," said Philadelphia Host Committee Member Marwan Kreidie.  

"When the Arab American Institute Foundation asked the Philadelphia Arab American community to partner with them on events during the convention, we were very excited.  Philadelphia has a longtime Arab American community dating back to the 1800's and hosting the block party a few blocks away from where that community first settled was a great tribute to both the early setters of that community as well as its new immigrants.  The events helped remind us of who and what we came from, the achievements we've made and where more work needs to be done," said Philadelphia Host Committee Member Sally Baraka.  

Host Committee Member Tawfiq Barqawi summed up the day's two events. "Hearing the stories of the delegates at the lunch was really inspirational. For me all the events were great. The block party was one of the best events we've had. Hundreds showed up and they really enjoyed the music, traditional Dabke dancing, and getting to know our community. And that was the point, for them to get to know us and our issues."  

"We do this cultural programming at the conventions every four years to reach out to those who don't know us so we can share a bit of ourselves. This type of outreach has never been more necessary than now, in this election cycle when we've seen so much bigotry and xenophobia. And tomorrow, we'll continue our efforts with two important panels on civil liberties and U.S. policy towards Palestine and Israel. The education aspect of this cannot be overstated and we're proud to be pushing it forward but we couldn't do it without the support of our local community," said Arab American Institute Foundation Director Maya Berry

The Arab American Institute Foundation is extremely grateful to the Arab American Philadelphia Host Committee which includes: Nader Ayoub, Mohamed Bakry, Sally Baraka, Tawfiq Barqawi, Amin Bitar, James Davis, Sammeh ElSherif, David Ferris, Fadia Halma, John Hanna, Marwan Kriedie, Nagi Latefa and Jawad Salah.