Posted by Tess Waggoner on May 03, 2019 in Blog

Leadership, Poetry, Friendship, and the Pursuit of Justice Echo at AAIF’s Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards 

The Arab American Institute Foundation celebrated the Spirit of Humanity, offering the promise of hope in the face of darkness in recognizing Gus Newport, Lyse Doucet, RAICES, Emel Mathlouthi and the late Miriam Zayed at the 21st annual Kahlil Gibran Spirit of Humanity Awards on May 2, 2019. The gala brought together dignitaries, distinguished guests, community leaders, organizations and individuals to celebrate the enormous contributions of this year’s awardees to our common future, and to promote inclusion and social justice.

Arab American White House reporter Vivian Salama acted as Master of Ceremonies for the event. As the event coincided with observances of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Salama noted the importance of remembering such tragedies:

“Because what is worst in humanity demands an answer, we will answer by honoring what is best in humanity. What we do here tonight cannot alter the horrors of the past, but it can remind us all of our commitment to a better, more just world.”

The first award of the evening was of Special Recognition to Emel Mathlouthi, a Tunisian singer-songwriter who catapulted to international fame when she returned from political exile in France, performing the song “Kelmti Horra (My Word is Free”) on the streets of the capital amid mass protest during the Tunisian revolt of 2011. Attendees were twice graced with performances from Mathlouthi, who opened with a stunning acoustic performance of “Naci en Palastina (Born in Palestine).

AAIF Board Chairman, the Honorable George Salem, addressed the crowd, describing the work of the Institute and the Arab American Leadership Days programming that immediately preceded and were held in conjunction with the Gibran gala.

Dr. Courtney Radsch, Advocacy Director at the Committee to Protect Journalists, presented the Anthony Shadid Award for Excellence in Journalism to Lyse Doucet. In her acceptance of the Anthony Shadid award, Doucet displayed the humble, empathetic approach to storytelling that defines her work, greeting the audience in Arabic and focusing her entire remarks on the life and legacy of the award’s namesake. She spoke intimately and with great emotion about her experiences with her colleague, acknowledging and directly addressing his family members in the audience.

The former head of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and longtime AAI National Policy Council member Denyse Sabagh  presented the Award for Institutional Excellence to RAICES, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services, which is now the largest immigration services provider in Texas, working at the front lines to protect families separated through Trump Administration policy. Jonathan Ryan, CEO and President, accepted the award on behalf of the organization, delivering fiery remarks about the interconnected struggle Americans of conscience face regarding the urgent need for immigration reform.

AAI Executive Director Maya Berry then briefly surveyed some of the work of AAI and its foundation, highlighting work on hate crime data reporting and collection, the NO BAN Act, and the Yalla Count Me In campaign, a national Census 2020 Get Out The Count (GOTC) campaign. In a nod to Mathlouthi's lyrics, Berry said,

"The work of the Institute is of the voice that will never give in." 

Berry introduced Congresswoman and AAI Board member, the Honorable Rashida Tlaib, saying,  

“As the oldest of 14, born in Detroit, the proud daughter of Palestinian immigrant parents, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib is confident in who she is. A fighter for her district, for her community, and for justice.”

When Master of Ceremonies Vivian Salama entered the stage to introduce the Congresswoman wearing an intricate thobe, a traditional form of Palestinian ceremonial dress which the Congresswoman herself wore for her swearing-in on January 4, attendees burst out in spontaneous applause. Congresswoman Talib was welcomed to the podium by a room on their feet, welcoming and celebrating her.  

Presenting the Najeeb Halaby Award for Public Service, Congresswoman Tlaib recounted years of friendship with the late Miriam Zayed due to their shared involvements in Arab American civic and political life, and of Senator Dick Durbin’s recognition of Miriam in an April 11, 2019 statement on the floor of the Senate. Zayed’s award was accepted by the eldest daughter of Miriam Zayed, Khawla Murad who, like her mother, works as an ESL school teacher in the Chicago area.  

Danny Glover presented the Award for Individual Achievement to his longtime friend and fellow activist The Honorable Gus Newport, the former mayor of Berkeley, CA honored for a lifetime dedicated to pursuing civil and human rights for all peoples. Glover gave a heartfelt and forceful accounting of the core peace and justice issues that defined the life and career of the Mayor and connecting them with the work of other honorees. A video message from Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, a long-time friend of Newport’s, was also featured at the gala.

The Honorable Gus Newport spoke with great clarity and force about his time of two United Nations Commitees during his tenure as mayor of Berkeley, California- South African apartheid and the Question on Palestine- drawing a clear and unequivocal connection between them, saying,

“The worst apartheid situation I had ever seen was in Palestine.”

His speech reflected on a family history experiencing hate crime and discrimination, and highlighted the interconnections between the human rights issues that epitomized the message of human fraternity and fundamental equality that his social justice work represents. Looking to the future, Newport told the gala attendees, 

“In love it must be, and in working together collectively, we shall overcome”

Paying respects for International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Arab American Institute President and co-founder the Honorable James Zogby delivered impassioned remarks about the stark challenges and horrific bigotry that have faced communities historically, and in the present, but also described a force of change that he sees transforming our community and nation.

“We use this event to honor those individuals and groups who have helped increase our collective awareness of the world's suffering and have, in ways big and small, worked to alleviate that pain.”

As the gala drew to a close, Americans, proud of their Arab heritage and dedicated to service of country and community, gathered with allies, partners, and friends in civil rights, democracy, and humanitarian organizations alongside local, state, national and international leaders and - on the eve of International Press Freedom Day - joined Mathlouthi in singing for the freedoms they cherish and fight to protect. It was a fitting ending to an evening dedicated to the 'Spirit of Humanity,' celebrating the life and legacy of Kahlil Gibran.

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