Posted on May 05, 1997 in Washington Watch

This week President Bill Clinton led a three-day summit meeting on volunteerism that focused national attention on the work that volunteers do in the United States. Former-Presidents George Bush and Gerald Ford, Nancy Reagan, and General Colin Powell were among the luminaries who gathered in Philadelphia to praise and promote volunteerism.

Experts estimate that approximately 93 million Americans volunteer their time every year, spending over 20 billion hours working on behalf of children, the poor, education, and other causes. The specific goal of the summit was to increase volunteer efforts to assist poor children and the conference organizers called for expanded activities in five areas: mentoring, after-school programs, health care, and volunteering by the poor.

It is unclear whether the summit will have a lasting impact, but it has sparked a national political debate about the value of volunteerism. Liberals support volunteerism because they view at as a means of building community and raising awareness of the needs of the poor. Conservatives who lobby to reduce the size of the government argue that volunteers can provide the social services that government has in the past. They also believe that volunteering inculcates a sense of personal responsibility in youth.

Studies provide support for both sides, demonstrating that volunteerism does raise the self-esteem of volunteers and build community. However, in the age of welfare reform and government budget crises, it seems unlikely that increased volunteerism can completely counteract the impact of reduced government spending on programs for the poor.

An upsurge in volunteerism has taken place in the Arab-American community as well. In the past, Arab Americans, like most new immigrants, were primarily concerned with establishing themselves, their families, and their friends in the United States. Family-, village-, and religious-based charities emerged, but these efforts had a limited impact. Twenty years ago, when I came to Washington, there were only four Arab Americans working full-time in the U.S. capital to advance the Arab-American cause. Efforts to enhance the political stature of the Arab-American community suffered from a dearth of committed activists who were willing to devote themselves to this cause. In fact, from 1950-80, most activists were Arabs studying in the U.S., not Arab Americans.

However, a new generation of young Arab Americans has stepped forward to work on behalf of the Arab-American community. This new energy can be seen everywhere. On college campuses, young Arab-Americans have become a dynamic force in student government and local community activism. In California, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and New York, Arab Americans have created social service centers to address the needs of the local Arab-American community.

This new spirit of volunteer activism has manifested itself in international affairs as well. One promising example is the Palestine Peace Project, an “Arab-American Peace Corps,” that brings the brightest young Arab Americans to the Arab world to volunteer their services. This summer, the Palestine Peace Project will bring twenty young American lawyers and law students to the West Bank to provide assistance to Palestinian legal institutions and to learn about the situation in Palestine. These lawyers and law students, who will be known as PeacePartners, are primarily young Arab Americans who have chosen to volunteer their time in an effort to facilitate the development of the legal system in Palestine.

The Arab-American PeacePartners attend the best law schools in the United States, including Yale, Harvard, Georgetown, and Columbia University. Most law students from these top schools choose to work with private law firms, where they are paid approximately $1,500 per week. Instead these students have chosen to work for nothing because they want to help their Arab brothers and sisters in Palestine.

The group is remarkably diverse, including Palestinian-Americans, Lebanese-Americans, Egyptian-Americans, recent immigrants, and first-, second-, and third-generation Americans. Most of them are fluent in Arabic, and some have worked or studied in the Arab world in the past. Many of them are the sons and daughters of immigrants who are seeking to reestablish a connection with the home of their ancestors by working on behalf of the Palestinians.

The individuals participating in the program have done incredible things in their young lives. They have represented refugees who are seeking political asylum in the United States; joined human rights delegations to El Salvador and the West Bank and Gaza; founded organizations like the North American branch of the Arab Women’s Solidarity Association and the Political Asylum/Immigration Representation Project; worked for international organizations like the World Health Organization and the Organization of American States and human rights organizations like Human Rights Watch and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund; taught Arabic at American colleges; and worked for members of Congress.

The program will provide these talented young Arab Americans with a unique opportunity to assist Palestinians who are struggling to create a democratic society governed by the rule of law. At the same time, they will learn about their heritage and return to the United States as effective ambassadors from the Arab world, able to bridge the gap between the Arab and American cultures.

The Palestine Peace Project will place participants in the program with a Palestinian legal institution, governmental or nongovernmental, where they will work on a variety of legal projects. These institutions include: Al-Haq, the Birzeit University Law Center, the Mandela Institute for Political Prisoners, the Palestinian Ministry of Economy and Trade, the Palestinian Ministry of Higher Education, the Palestinian Ministry of Justice, the Palestinian Human Rights Monitoring Group, the Palestinian Legislative Council, the Palestinian Society for the Protection of Human Rights and the Environment, and the Women’s Center for Legal Aid and Counseling.

I believe that the greatest impact of this program will come in the future. It will create a network of bright, young Arab-American lawyers who can continue to work on behalf of the Arab-American community.

Every Arab American is proud of the efforts that these young people are making, but I am especially proud because the founder of the Palestine Peace Project is my oldest son Joseph. My son grew up with an awareness of the Palestinian struggle. He remembers when the Palestinian mayors who were deported came to live with our family and when a young refugee who was maimed in the Lebanese war moved in with us.

Joseph is a lawyer who graduated from the University of Virginia Law School, one of the top-ten law schools in the United States. While he was in school, he was the President of the International Human Rights Group and was active with the Arab Student Organization on campus. He also started a Jewish-Arab student dialogue group that brought Jewish and Arab students together to discuss the Middle East political scene.

During law school, Joseph worked for one summer with the Mandela Institute for Political Prisoners, a Palestinian human rights organization in the West Bank. This experience convinced him that that more Arab Americans needed to come to Palestine to assist the Palestinians and learn about the situation first-hand. He realized that no one can fully understand the plight of the Palestinians unless they live for a time in Palestine, cross the Israeli military checkpoints, watch the Israeli settlements grow, and speak to Palestinians who have been tortured in Israeli prisons.

When Joseph graduated, the law school presented him with an award in honor of his commitment to public service. He bypassed the opportunity to work for a private law firm because he wanted to use his legal training to assist the Palestinians. He began to recruit young people to travel with him to Palestine. He visited law schools, speaking to law students and young lawyers, spreading the word about his program. He was thrilled to discover that the new generation of Arab Americans, like himself, are ready and willing to lend a hand.

These 20 young committed individuals, and other young people like them, exhibit the best of volunteerism and represent the hope for a bright new future for our people in the United States and the Arab world.

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