Posted by Meredith Pahowka on May 01, 2017 in Blog

AAIF-17-042.jpgHundreds of guests came out for the 2017 Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards Gala, hosted by the Arab American Institute Foundation (AAIF) on April 27th. The 19th annual Gibran Awards brought the Arab American community together to recognize individuals, corporations, organizations and communities whose work, commitment and support make a difference in promoting coexistence and inclusion in all walks of life. The Master of Ceremonies for this year was Ayman Mohyeldin. Mohyeldin is a distinguished journalist who is currently a foreign correspondent for NBC News and an anchor for MSNBC. Mohyeldin told the audience that it was an honor to stand before them to “celebrate the community and recognize so many outstanding individuals that have contributed so much, not only to this organization, not only to this community, but in service of this country.”

AAIF-17-045.jpgAuthor and journalist Lawrence Wright presented the first award of the evening: the Anthony Shadid Award for Excellence in Journalism. Wright was the recipient of the 2015 Anthony Shadid Award. This year’s award was presented to Steve Coll. Coll is a journalist, author, Pulitzer Prize winner and Dean of the Columbia University School of Journalism. He was honored for his lifetime of excellence in journalism and his efforts to advance the profession. On his award, Coll said, “it’s especially humbling because of the connection to Anthony who I knew as a colleague and friend for many years, and who is an inspiration to so many people in our field.”

Senator Amy Klobuchar, who applauded the work of AAIF and all that it does, noted she is from a state with a large refugee population whose “very existence is under assault.” She presented the Award for Institutional Excellence to the The Arc of the United States, an organization that advocates for and promotes the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The Arc CEO, Peter Berns, accepted the award with an inspiring message. He shared a Kahlil Gibran quote that symbolizes all of the work the Arc has done for nearly 70 years: “You give but little when you give of your possessions.It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.” 

AAIF-17-195.jpgAfterwards, AAI Board Chairman George Salem took the stage and remembered AAI’s 32-year history of ethnic political empowerment. He noted the Arab American elected officials in the audience such as Congressman Darin LaHood. Several other elected allies were also in the audience including Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Congressman Keith Ellison. AAI Executive Director Maya Berry remarked on the perseverance of the Arab American community saying, “We have faced some challenging travails before today and will continue to face more tomorrow. We too have shown we can flourish in tough conditions.”

A special guest message from Vice President Al Gore was displayed to introduce the Najeeb Halaby Award for Public Service and Vice President Joe Biden also appeared by video message to introduce awardee, Greg Simon. VP Biden called Simon “a man of absolute total integrity” whose public service career has been incredibly impactful. Greg Simon reflected on his long public service career and what it means to him. “We must keep the door to citizenship open to honor those who suffered so much, to reach that door. If my public service stands for anything, it stands for this – we are a great nation because of that open door.” 

AAIF-17-181.jpgJen Smyers, of Church World Service, presented the Individual Achievement award to Hamdi Ulukaya, philanthropist and founder of Chobani. Smyers described Ulukaya as an individual who is committed to empowering “sustainable, local change.” An immigrant, Ulukaya established his Greek yogurt company “Chobani” in 2007. In less than a decade, he grew the company’s worth to more than $1 billion. After witnessing the worsening refugee crisis around the globe, he established the Tent Foundation—his personal philanthropy that seeks to improve the lives and livelihoods of the world’s 65 million refugees and displaced people and help them realize their full potential. During his final inspirational message to his audience, Ulukaya remarked that Kahlil Gibran suffered but he “channeled it into love, forgiveness, unity, in humanity everywhere. That’s what I try to do by making yogurt everyday.” 

After Ulukaya’s remarkable speech, the focus of the evening then shifted to Palestine. AAI President James Zogby introduced a touching video on Palestine. Zogby remarked on the Palestinian people’s resilience and hope and “amazing ability of a people to translate personal suffering into hope.”

AAIF-17-207.jpgThe last award of the evening went to Palestinian artist and writer Kamal Boullatta. Boullata received a Special Recognition Award for his lifetime of work and dedication to bettering humanity. AAI President James Zogby said that his sense first sense of Palestine came through poetry, came through art. Zogby honored Boullata not only for his work but also for “the spirit of Palestine that lives in him and that he has been able to create for us in his art”. Boullata presented several incredible works of art to the audience, which serve as a true testament to the impact he has had on elevating Palestine. Boullata said regarding Palestine’s significance: “Just as the heart is a small organ that determines the body’s life or death, Palestine’s role in the region’s history has been as determinative to its surrounding world.”

AAI President James Zogby took the stage again to conclude the evening. He commented, “As I think about the work of Kamal Boullata and the anniversaries we’re approaching in the timeline of the Palestinian story, I come away hopeful for a brighter future, one with justice for those who long for it and deserve it. I hope you’ll take away that spirit as well, and keep it with you.”

For more photos, click here.

Watch our Gibran 2017 highlights below!