Posted by Waseem Mardini on May 01, 2015 in Blog

On the occasion of its 30th anniversary the Arab American Institute was thrilled to honor four exceptional individuals for their valuable contributions to society that embody the spirit of Arab American poet Kahlil Gibran.

Award-winning actor and activist Salma Hayek Pinault received the Award for Individual Achievement for her tireless work to improve the lives of women and girls worldwide. In an interview with Al Arabiya, Ms. Hayek said she was honored to receive this award from the Arab American Institute and spoke of the importance of reminding people of "the tremendous contributions that the Arab American community" has made to the United States.

Taking the stage at the 2015 Kahlil Gibran Gala on April 29 in Washington, DC, Salma began by speaking of her heritage beginning in Mexico. Her birthplace Coatzacoalcos in the Mexican state of Veracruz, was home to communities with roots in the Middle East including her paternal grandparents who are Lebanese. Salma said she was raised to be proud of her Arab heritage. 

"I am a citizen of the world, and my country is humanity"

Salma spoke of how she has always been an immigrant. As she moved from one place to the next throughout her life she adapted to each culture and embraced the people she encountered.  There were challenges along the way. She told the story of how when she was first discovered she was told the name Hayek was "ugly" and would be hard to pronounce, and that "nobody would ever remember it." Ms. Hayek was not swayed and remained proud of her name and heritage as she started her acting career. She joked that when she arrived in the United States she was no longer considered "one of the Arabs" as she was in Mexico, but was now "the Mexican" because of her accent. Once again, Ms. Hayek was pressured to shed a part of her identity and lose her accent, but she stayed true to herself.  

Everywhere she goes Salma takes the passion of her ancestors, who, like her, left their country with the dream of a better life, "with them in my heart, I dream of a greater future for the world." As an activist, Salma has worked in India, Africa, the Americas, the Balkans, and the Middle East. She always felt a part of those communities, and said "there is no other way to be an activist" and that only when you feel you are a part of the people are you able to find solutions. From the outset of the conflict in Syria, Salma has been privately sending aid to the refugee camps and supporting the Syrian people through her organization Chime for Change. Hayek said she was very proud of her Lebanese background given how that country has embraced so many refugees within their borders.

"Tonight, it's a magical night"

Salma spoke warmly of her Lebanese grandfather, who was born April 2, 1902. Of the many memories of her grandfather, with whom she was very close, she reminisced about seeing the face of Kahlil Gibran on her grandfather's bookshelf. Salma lost her grandfather when she was six and spoke of the appreciation she had for learning to deal with loss at an early age. Later in her teens, Hayek once again saw the face of Kahlil Gibran, and through reading The Prophet she found her grandfather again. Salma described how the words of Kahlil Gibran are deeply personal to her, and that it is crucial to pay tribute to Gibran's legacy as millions of people across the world, among all religions, and through many generations continue to share that same connection to the words of the late Arab American poet-philosopher.