Posted on June 19, 2008 in Arab American Institute

800 guests from across the United States and the globe gathered on Wednesday, April 23 for the Arab American Institute Foundation’s (AAIF) 10th annual Kahlil Gibran “Spirit of Humanity” Awards gala in Washington, D.C. Attendees at the black-tie affair heard Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas address the gala in person and saw organizations and individuals honored for their service and efforts to address problems that too often go overlooked.

AAIF presented Kahlil Gibran Awards to Refugees International (Award for International Commitment) and Reporters Without Borders (Award for Institutional Excellence). The Foundation also honored Congressman Ray LaHood of Illinois with the fifth annual Najeeb Halaby Award for Public Service and recognized the Barenboim-Said Foundation for its work to bring young people from across the Middle East together through music.

Abbas, in Washington to meet with President Bush regarding next steps in peace negotiations with Israel, discussed the status of those negotiations and the broader responsibilities of the international community. He described Israeli settlement activities as the largest obstacle to the peace process, calling on the “Israeli government to stop all settlement activities so we can hold proper meetings to reach a solution on the core issues.”

Abbas also addressed the crisis in Gaza, saying, “As president of the Palestinian people, the 1.5 million Palestinians living in Gaza are my responsibility. 58% of our budget is spent in Gaza, and we pay the salaries of 77,000 employees. I will continue to do so. Gazans have suffered more than enough.” He concluded his address by remarking, “Peace is a responsibility of every person in this room, and every person in the universe.” Watch Abbas’s address in its entirety on the C-SPAN website.

Congressman LaHood, accepting the Najeeb Halaby Award presented by Senator John Sununu of New Hampshire, spoke of his pride in receiving the recognition, noting that “public service is a noble calling.” The grandson of Lebanese immigrants who settled in Peoria, Illinois in 1895, LaHood added, “No matter what your background, you can make a difference.”

Following a video presentation on the work of the Barenboim-Said Foundation (BSF), Mariam Said, widow of the late Edward Said, accepted a Special Recognition on behalf of the foundation. Remarking that AAIF was the first Arab or Arab American organization to recognize the work of BSF, Said expressed how “very proud” she was to receive recognition from the Foundation.

Actor Sam Waterston presented the Award for International Commitment to Refugees International Board Chairman Farooq Kathwari, calling the organization a “gadfly, a pest, an irritant” to governments that fail to take action on refugee crises around the world. The group’s 2006 report on Iraqi refugees, Waterston noted, prompted the United Nations to increase its budget for displaced Iraqis fivefold.

Reporters Without Borders was similarly lauded for its work to make governments accountable, advocating for press freedoms in countries throughout the world. Rami Khouri, editor-at-large of the Beirut-based Daily Star, noted that “rhetoric is the first step to action,” and praised the importance of Reporters Without Borders’s mission in presenting the Award for Institutional Excellence. Founder and Secretary-General Robert Menard traveled from Paris to accept the award on behalf of the organization. He implored gala attendees and the broader public not to forget over 200 journalists who have been killed in Iraq, nor the Al Jazeera cameraman who has been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay since 2002 or another journalist who has been held in a U.S. prison in Afghanistan for the last five months.