Posted by Guest on June 11, 2019 in Blog

On Friday, June 7, 2019, AAI interns sat down with AAI President and Co-Founder Dr. James Zogby for the first brown bag lunch of the summer. His talk gave us insight on the treatment of Arab Americans 50 years ago, the advancements made in community activism during that period, and the work still needed to be done. 

Dr. Zogby began the lunch by introducing his background and history. As a young, first-generation Arab American, Dr. Zogby’s emergence as an activist began with the Palestine Human Rights Campaign. At a time when nearly every major advocacy organization refused to help or even engage with the Palestinian people, the PHRC served to humanize a group that was actively ignored. However, Dr. Zogby noticed a clear difference between seasoned Arab activists and his own generation. While older Arabs held deeply seeded beliefs about differences in groups based on country of origin or religion, Dr. Zogby characterized his generation as among the first to be born and raised in America. Distinctions such as Shia, Sunni, Lebanese, or Syrian did not matter anymore when your entire ethnicity was being dehumanized. Yearning to advance Arab American interests, Dr. Zogby founded the Arab American Institute in 1985. The institute had three goals: policy-making, voter registration, and civic engagement within the Arab American community. 

Reflecting on the creation of AAI, Dr. Zogby believes AAI has achieved its initial goals of shaping the political consciousness of the community known as Arab Americans, gaining a seat at the table of policy negotiations, and developing respect towards that community from elected and appointed officials. Dr. Zogby said that decades ago he could not have imagined calling the office of a Congressman. Now, AAI regularly collaborates with Congress and several government agencies to secure and protect the rights of Arab Americans. More Arab Americans than ever hold political office, and elections are influenced by blocs of Arab American voters. Countless former AAI interns have become leaders in government, advocacy, or law. AAI has become the central resource for promoting the interests and issues of Arab Americans. 

Humbly, Dr. Zogby acknowledges he would not have had the success that he has achieved without being surrounded by people who truly believed in his mission and passion. Fortunate to be able to build a foundation that provided so many opportunities and platforms to speak up for Arab Americans, Dr. Zogby has made a lasting impact on the Arab American community. 

Of course, much more progress is necessary — the work of AAI is never complete. Continuously, the Arab American community must remind elected officials that they have similar issues and interests: education, healthcare, safety, equal treatment and rights. Continuously, we find new policy fights emerging, from halting immigration bans based on national origin to ensuring each state has hate crime reporting and data collection laws. Nevertheless, these issues ultimately affect all Americans. As Dr. Zogby so eloquently spoke, “Our issues are your issues, your issues are our issues, and all these issues are America’s issues.” 

Perhaps the most intriguing part of the discussion was when a policy intern, Anne-Katrine, asked Dr. Zogby about his experience as a professor at Davidson College in North Carolina, where she is a student. One week prior to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Dr. Zogby hosted a live satellite feed between American students and students from the university of Baghdad. Nearly the entire college and surrounding town attended the livestream to interact with the Iraqi students. The discussions that followed offered a refreshing and humanizing perspective of the impending invasion, a necessary break from the 24-hour media coverage of the impending military action. Dr. Zogby vividly recalls one of his students declaring, “I cannot look them in the eyes and know we are going to bomb them one week later.”

A few months after the invasion, Dr. Zogby prepared another satellite feed with the same Iraqi students, except the toll of the war was clearly visible. The livestream could only occur during the day in Baghdad because the university did not have electricity, and the Iraqi students expressed their rightful grievances and resentment of the invasion. In this instance, the conversation highlighted the sharp contrasts in views of the invasion by some Americans and Iraqis.

Overall, the entire story offered a glimpse of the unique insights Dr. Zogby has been able to offer by connecting Americans directly with Arabs. When efforts are made to engage with Arabs and Arab Americans, we find ourselves more understanding of each other’s experiences, and find ways to build upon our similarities toward a common purpose. 


This blog was guest-authored by Maya Chamra, a 2019 Summer Field Intern with the Arab American Institute Foundation.