Posted by on April 29, 2015 in Blog

Today, AAI hosted a select group of Arab American community leaders from across the country on Capitol Hill as part of its annual Leadership Day. While many elected leaders are turning their attention to personal and party goals in the coming 2016 elections, this briefing equipped our leaders to direct their elected representatives to focus on the issues at hand; issues which include Syria, Iraq, Palestine, surveillance and immigration reform, the 2020 Census, and profiling. Our community finds itself uniquely at the intersection of these foreign and domestic concerns, a position that both heightens the importance of our voice and puts us on the front lines of the government’s policies governing national security, civil rights, and civil liberties.

The group was addressed by Representatives Hank Johnson of Georgia, Debbie Dingell of Michigan, and Arab American member Garret Graves of Louisiana. Each spoke of the important role Arab Americans play in the U.S. political process.

A panel of experts briefed our leaders on many of the key issues. Helen Samhan, former Executive Director of AAI, spoke of how crucial it is to establish a Middle East & North Africa (MENA) category on the 2020 census to correct the severe undercount of the Arab American community.

On the topic of surveillance and the problematic nature Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) programs, Naureen Shah, Director of Amnesty International’s USA’s Security and Human Rights program, spoke of our concerns regarding the curtailing of civil rights when communities are set aside for special monitoring.

Ahmad Abuznaid, cofounder and legal and policy director for the Dream Defenders, spoke powerfully about the importance of various communities speaking with a united voice on intersectional civil rights issues.

While Syria has fallen from the headlines, Dr. James Zogby, AAI’s founder and President, reminded our attendees today that while the U.S. has pledged large amounts to support Syrian refugees, we have shamefully processed less than 700 refugee applications since the start of the conflict. He spoke of how critical it is that we not only support Syrians but also their host communities in Lebanon and that while it remains stable, the prolonging of the conflict in Syria will continue to overextend the already taxed Lebanese infrastructure.

Matthew Duss, President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, highlighted recent developments on the issue of Palestine, including the introduction of recent Congressional legislation that would affect the U.S.’s Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) negotiations with the European Union. The bill, passed last week, effectively targets trade partners who participate in the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement against Israel or Israeli settlements. The most troubling part of this bill is the that Congress has recognized Israeli settlements as part of Israel proper – a deeply consequential policy decision.

Today’s Hill briefing is just one part of the Arab American Insitute’s 2015 Leadership Days. Tonight, we will be celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Arab American Institute at the Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards Gala. We will be honoring Salma Hayek, the Honorable Michael Baroody, John Sexton, and Lawrence Wright.

Ambassador Susan Rice will deliver a keynote address to the Arab American community.

Tomorrow, over 100 leaders will go to the White House to advocate on behalf of their communities with Obama administration officials.