Posted by Mona Ahmed on May 01, 2018 in Blog
More than 600 distinguished guests and dignitaries joined the Arab American Institute Foundation (AAIF) for the 20th anniversary of the Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards Gala on April 26. The 2018 Gibran Gala brought communities from across the country together to recognize individuals, organizations and communities whose work, commitment and support make a difference in promoting coexistence and inclusion in all walks of life. NBC News Reporter Vivian Salama, who acted as Master of Ceremonies, began by setting the tone of the evening. “For two decades, the Arab American Institute Foundation has been shining a light on those whose service makes a real difference. As Kahlil Gibran said, ‘I slept and I dreamed that life is all joy. I woke and I saw that life is all service. I served and I saw that service is joy.’”
Senator George Mitchell virtually presented the first award of the evening for Individual Achievement to the Honorable Frances Black, an Irish Senator and distinguished musician. Mitchell, who also dedicated his life to public service, touched on his work for the Good Friday peace agreement, and on how meaningful the Individual Achievement Award is to him as a past awardee. He commended Black’s dedication and commitment to serving underrepresented communities as admirable. In addition to Black’s successful music career, she established the RISE Foundation for families to receive support and education on addiction and related issues. Because addiction is a disease that affects every part of the family, RISE promotes recovery for all family members. As a former addict, Black exhibits the strength and power to rise above. During her inspirational message to the audience, Black said that, “The values that AAI stands for are ones that I’ve held deeply throughout my life: a respect for diversity, a firm belief in inclusion, and an insistence that America is at its best, that Ireland is at its best, that the world is at its best when it affords the same opportunities, dignities and support to all those who call it home.”
Taha Alhuraibi, executive chef and co-owner of Saba’ Restaurant in Virginia, took the stage next to present the Award for International Commitment to José Andrés and World Central Kitchen. Alhuraibi immigrated to New York in 1998 from Yemen, where he studied the hospitality industry with the intention of sharing Yemeni cuisine with his newfound American community. Established in 2014, his restaurant is among the first to serve traditional Yemeni food to the greater D.C. area, and was recently featured in the Washington Post. When introducing Andrés, Alhuraibi said, “Food shapes civilization. It drives trade, migration, love. Without it, we literally couldn’t exist. So it’s no wonder that someone who has dedicated himself to the culinary arts is also dedicated to advancing humanity through the art, science and business of food. Simply put, ‘food as an agent of change.’”
Andrés and his team from World Central Kitchen delivered millions of meals, the most of any aid group, to all 78 municipalities of Puerto Rico in the wake of Hurricane Maria. About his work, Andrés promised, “I learned that by spending time in places like Haiti and other countries, if I want to give my daughters a better world it will not be by building walls that will make them somehow blind to what’s happening in the world. But by helping these other countries is the way I will really give safety to America, by empowering every single man and woman of America, and of the countries surrounding America. That’s the way walls will make America safer and better. Thank you for the award today, and I promise you in the future: wherever there is a fight, that we can go and help so that people may have the same plate of food that we are having here tonight, World Central Kitchen will be there.”
Of their work, AAIF Executive Director Maya Berry said, “Individuals like Andrés who rise to the occasion and heed a call to service truly embody the spirit of Gibran. We are honored to highlight the accomplishments of Andrés and World Central Kitchen.”
After Andrés impassioned speech, AAI Board Chairman George Salem took the stage and reminisced about the goals he and AAI’s founders, James Zogby, Helen Samhan, Jean AbiNader, and John Zogby, had 33 years ago. He commented, “It was our goal to not only ensure that Arab Americans represented our community in all levels of public service, but that they were able to do so while acknowledging their ethnicity with pride. Thirty three years after AAI was created in 1985, we are proud to say we have Arab Americans participating in all levels of public service. Despite the challenges we faced along the way. The distinguished careers of so many, including many of you tonight, demonstrate that our goal has been realized.”
Next, Hadil Al-Mowafak, known for being the lead plaintiff in one of the ACLU’s first lawsuits challenging the Muslim Ban, presented the Award for Institutional Excellence to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). Al-Mowafak honored the ACLU by saying, “Whether it’s a student’s right to speak freely in the classroom, an individual’s right to privacy, or a citizen’s right to vote without interference, the ACLU has worked tirelessly to ensure this nation lives up to its ideals of liberty, freedom, and equality for all. As the country faces new challenges, the ACLU continues to be a beacon of hope for many, signifying what is possible.”
ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero, who accepted the award on behalf of the organization’s more than two million members and supporters, commented on the current climate. “Trump is at war with the ideals of justice, democracy, liberty and equality--and those ideals have defined the essence of our nation. It is hard to escape the idea that we’re living in Donald Trump’s America, which seems to be a nation defined by rage, racism and resentment. But remember this my friends, that even when the president is at his worst and even when he seems willing to smash a treasured tenant of American democracy on a petulant whim: We do not live in Donald Trump’s America, Donald Trump lives in our America.”
After Romero’s remarkable speech, the focus of the evening shifted to the 20-year legacy of AAIF’s annual Kahlil Gibran Awards Gala. Speaking of the milestone, AAIF Executive Director Maya Berry remarked, “Yesterday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in a case that we hope will right a wrong, this administration’s attempt to ban Muslims from our country. Just this morning, a man who displayed extraordinary bigotry towards Muslims and members of the LGBTQ+ community--among others--was approved to be our nation’s top diplomat. He will be our country’s face to the world. After a campaign riddled with racism, xenophobia and bigotry, we now have policies in place that have set our country back and require each and every single one of us--without regard for party--to affirm those voices advancing fear do not represent us. I know this, and you know this. Our amazing staff live it, when they partner with more than a hundred community-based organizations in 16 states across the country with our #ReportHate Project to do what is right. Our amazing coalition partners live it everyday when they stand with us against invasion into our privacy rooted in the false claim of protecting our national security. Those we have honored over the past two decades, they live it when they simply affirm who we are by the good work they do everyday.”
A video looked back at some of the amazing highlights from 20 years of the Kahlil Gibran Awards Gala. Attendees were reminded just how much these organizations have accomplished over the years. Among the many past awardees featured were Amnesty International, Save the Children, St. Jude’s and the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Following the recognition of all the achievements these groups have made to bettering humanity, Berry then took to the stage to highlight some of the work AAI has done to engage in, and foster a sense of community for Arab Americans. She highlighted initiatives such as the #ReportHate project, and the Freedom of Information Act suit filed against the Office of Management and Budget to demand answers for the dismissal of a MENA category for the 2020 census. She noted that, “It’s times like these, that you need inspiration to do the hard work that must be done. In the last year, our team has been busy, not just keeping up with an ever changing environment but also methodically advancing a grassroots agenda that is aimed at working with local allies to strengthen our community partnerships and build relationships with local and state officials.”
This was followed by Reema Dodin, Floor Director to the Democratic Whip, Senator Dick Durbin, who presented the final award of the night to Ambassador Marcelle M. Wahba. Dodin previously served as Floor Counsel and Research Director to Senator Durbin, and as an aide on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Human Rights and the Law. In 2017, Dodin co-authored the book Inside Congress: A Guide for Navigating the Politics of the House and the Senate, which demystifies the caucus structures, procedural guidelines, and nuanced internal dynamics of the legislative branch.
Dodin noted that for someone who took up her ambassadorial post to the UAE just days after 9/11, “Ambassador Wahba’s skills as a diplomat and her invaluable insights as an Arab American helped to build strong bridges of cooperation between nations and these bridges have served the world well.”
Wahba received the Najeeb Halaby Award for Public Service to honor her 22-year dedication to improving relations between the United States and the Middle East. Over the span of two decades, Amb. Wahba climbed the ranks at the U.S. Department of State from Deputy Policy Officer in the Near East Office, to Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the United Arab Emirates (UAE). As the first female Arab American Ambassador to the UAE, Amb. Wahba drew on her heritage to inspire her public service. Commenting on Wahba’s public service, AAIF President Dr. James Zogby said that her commitment was an example for Arab Americans across the country aspiring to best serve their communities.
On receiving the Najeeb Halaby Award for Public Service, Wahba spoke about the tragedy of recent US wars in the Middle East, “The catastrophic consequences of the invasion of Iraq, the subsequent rise of the Islamic State group and the ongoing war in Afghanistan demonstrate the folly of the United States trying to impose its will on the region. For far too long, the US has focused on, and invested almost exclusively in the military-to-military ties that now define most of our bilateral agreements.”
She also thanked the many people who made her service possible. “I wouldn’t be here tonight to receive this extraordinary award and recognition, without the support of the not so small village that has stood by me throughout my career. I begin with my parents who had the courage to uproot the family from their beloved Egypt to become immigrants--moving right after the 1967 war.”
Dr. Zogby then took the stage to conclude the evening and to put recent events in context. He said that all the awardees had an “amazing ability to translate personal suffering into hope.” Touching on the frustration felt by Americans nationwide, Zogby talked about the dueling narratives that have defined America, “We talk about the values reflected by the people we’ve awarded tonight: The compassion of Frances Black, the grit of Anthony Romero in the trenches everyday, the vision of José Andrés, and the commitment to public service of Marcelle Wahba. Good people will look at bigotry and intolerance and say, ‘that’s not America, that isn’t who we are.’ Unfortunately that is who are we, and that is who we’ve always been. We were founded as a nation in original sin. That’s who we were, it’s who we are becoming that is different. We have the capacity to change and we have as a nation been fighting to actualize the ideals of who we want to be. But those two Americas stand in contrast all the time. We’ve got a lot to do but I’m confident with leadership like the leadership here tonight, we can actualize the America that we want to be.”