Posted on March 03, 2014 in Arab American Institute

 On April 25, 2014 the Arab American Institute Foundation hosted leaders in the Arab American community along with prominent members of the media, civil society organizations and government officials for the sixteenth annual Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards Gala.

The night began with a special performance of “America the Beautiful” in Arabic by 11-year-old Ms. Naya Salah. Naya’s Arabic rendition of the national hymn was featured in a SuperBowl commercial along with six other languages. Ms. Salah’s performance was a special moment to celebrate her achievements and recognize the significance of the Arab American community being featured in such a moving and visible manner.

Following Naya’s performance, AAI’s Chairman George Salem took the stage to recognize the many leaders who were present and to read a letter from President Barak Obama. Unable to attend in person, the President expressed his admiration for the work of AAI and praised the important and vital role Arab Americans play in civil society. The President captured the significance of the evening, saying “occasions like the ‘Spirit of Humanity’ Awards reaffirm our belief that those forces uniting us are far more powerful than those that divide us.” Secretary of State John Kerry also sent a video message to greet the audience. In it, he thanked the Arab American Institute for "bringing the diverse voices of Arab Americans to the center of the American conversation." Kerry congratulated the 2014 awardees especially focusing on his former Senate colleague George Mitchell. Kerry and also shared his vision for and commitment to peace in the Middle East.

The first award of the evening was introduced by former Secretary of Transportation, the Honorable Ray LaHood. Secretary LaHood presented Senator George J. Mitchell with the Najeeb Halaby Award for Public Service in recognition of the many accomplishment of Mitchell’s tenure in the Senate and in international peace negotiations. Senator Mitchell gave a moving speech about his upbringing as the son of a Lebanese immigrant – whose family inculcated in him the richness of American freedoms and the strength of their cultural values. Mitchell reflected on his mother’s impact on his life, saying “My parents knew little of history or political science, but they understood the meaning of America….Their values were simple but universal in reach: faith, family, country, and work.” Senator Mitchell praised the hard work and sacrifice of his parents, saying that because of their efforts he was able to get a quality education, launching him on a path that would lead him to the position of Senate Majority Leader.

Playright, lawyer and Al Jazeera contributor Wajahat Ali took the stage to present the Award for Corporate Citizenship to Participant Media. Jim Berk, Particpant Media’s CEO, was on hand to accept the award. Prior to his acceptance speech, the audience viewed a short film that featured many of the Academy Award-winning films Participant Media has produced; the clip also previewed their forthcoming animated film, “Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet,” which is adapted from Kahlil Gibran’s famous book. In his remarks, Mr. Berk shared his vision of how Participant Media will continue to use media and digital content to inspire social change. Participant Media has pioneered innovative strategies to translate their films into action campaigns that address many of society’s most pressing issues of justice. He remarked, “if we can break down these issues to personal stories, we have the ability for people to drop their guard, for people to really look at somebody else as a human being – not as somebody in opposition.”

The Arab American Institute’s Executive Director Maya Berry took the stage next to recognize and honor the achievements of Arab Americans in public service over the past year. She noted presence of Anthony Shadid’s family at the gala – and reflected on how his legacy and outstanding journalism have impacted American society. She spoke of how the Institute’s work has paved the way for Naya, Anthony’s children, and all young Arab Americans to be leaders in defining a brighter future for our community.

This year’s gala celebrated the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act. In recognition of this milestone, the last award of the evening was presented to Martin Luther King, III by Andy Shallal, a noted Washington area restaurateur and former mayoral candidate. Mr. Shallal  expressed what a great honor it was to present the Special Recognition Award to Martin Luther King III for the impact the entire King family had on advancing civil rights in America. Martin Luther King III accepted the award on behalf of his family and in honor of the work he continues to do in the U.S. and around the world. Mr. King’s message was loud and clear: The work of his father is not done, and we must continue to fight for equality and justice in America. In a touching tribute video, the audience was reminded of what Dr. King, Jr. had faced and triumphed over, and was also reminded of the hope we have for positive change in our time.

Dr. James Zogby, the President of the Arab American Institute, took the stage to thank everyone for being there and to recognize the great work of AAI staff and volunteers. Dr. Zogby reflected on the gala and this year’s recipients, saying “when we choose people to honor, we are making a statement about the people we want to be, about the values we want to embrace, about the lives we want to live, about the contributions that we want to make… [because] it doesn’t matter how much we’ve succeeded, it’s what we do with that success for others. Do we make the world a better place, do we leave a mark?” The night’s honorees have left an incredible mark and serve as inspiration in our forward march towards the common good.