Senator George J. Mitchell

Posted by Arab American Institute on June 23, 2015 in Blog


Growing up in the small town of Waterville, Maine, Senator George J. Mitchell inherited the rich cultural values and the histories of his two immigrant parents. His mother was born Mintaha Saad in a small village in the mountains of Lebanon. In 1920, at the age of 18, she came to America and took a job working the night shift at a textile factory, working long hours to support herself and her family. His father was the son of Irish immigrants, but was orphaned before being adopted by John and Mary Mitchell, who were both born in Lebanon and had also moved to the United States to start a better life. Mitchell’s father worked as a janitor in Waterville, where he met Mintaha and started a family.

Mitchell attributes his success to his mother and father, who impressed a clear message on their children: the simple, universal values of faith, family, country, and work. Mitchell himself describes his mother as “by far the most influential and impressive person in my life, more than anyone or anything else. She is responsible for who I am and what I’ve done.” He spoke of his mother’s stories about how beautiful Lebanon was, cherishing its memory and permanent importance to her identity, even though she wouldn’t return to her homeland until much later in her life.

Mitchell, as a result, lived a true immigrant experience. Born to parents with little education but strong morals and determination, he was encouraged to get an education and work towards the American dream. Years later, he would become the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate, help broker peace in Northern Ireland, and serve as the U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace. He would be nominated for a Nobel peace prize, receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and receive an honorary knighthood from the United Kingdom.

His deep caring about others and their concerns carried over into his work as a peacemaker and diplomat. In 1995, he served as a Special Advisor to President Clinton on Ireland, then as the Independent Chairman of the Northern Ireland Peace Talks. Under his leadership the Good Friday Agreement, an historic accord ending decades of conflict, was agreed to by the Irish Government, the UK, and the political parties of Northern Ireland. Many cite Mitchell’s personal intervention and dialogue with the parties as crucial to the success of the talks. During his acceptance of the Liberty Medal for his role in the agreement, he is remembered as saying “I believe there’s no such thing as a conflict that can’t be ended. They’re created and sustained by human beings. They can be ended by human beings. No matter how ancient the conflict, no matter how hateful, no matter how hurtful, peace can prevail."

Senator_Mitchell_Photo.jpgThe principles of objectivity and fairness he learned while serving as a federal judge remained present throughout his career. His report on the Second Intifada—the eponymous Mitchell Report—was well regarded by the Bush Administration, the European Union, and many other governments.

But there are parts of his career that go beyond medals and honorary titles, and the Senator spoke about one of these experiences in his remarks. When he was a federal judge in Maine, he enjoyed presiding over nationalization ceremonies, turning immigrants much like his parents into new Americans. “It was always very emotional for me” he remarked “because of my parent’s history.” He would make a point of talking to them and asking about their stories, remarking that one of these new Americans was able to sum up the American dream in one sentence: “I came because in America everybody has a chance.”

Despite having met with Presidents, Kings, and Prime Ministers, Senator Mitchell considers his mother, his father, and his Lebanese heritage as the most influential parts of his life. AAI was honored to present Senator George J. Mitchell with the Najeeb Halaby Award for Public Service at the 2014 Khalil Gibran 'Spirit of Humanity' Awards Gala in recognition of his distinguished and storied career. In his powerful remarks, he wanted to change one thing about the award, asking if they would add just three words to his plaque: Son of Mintaha.

Read more stories about Arab immigrants and their descendants on the "Together We Came" main page.

*Family photo found at c/o Simon & Shuster