Posted by on October 04, 2013 in Blog

By Marc Sabbagh
Fall Intern, 2013


It may come as a surprise to some, but West Virginia is home to a notable concentration of Arab Americans. The community in West Virginia is active and engaged in every facet of life, including politics.

John Ellem is one such member of the Arab American community in West Virginia. Since 2001, Ellem has served in the West Virginia House of Delegates representing the 10th District. Ellem is one of two Arab American representatives in the state legislature, along with Doug Skaff Jr. who represents the 30th District. U.S. Congressman Nick Rahall, who represents West Virginia’s 3rd congressional district, is also Arab American.

Last week, AAI spoke to Ellem on his role in the West Virginia legislature. An Arab American with Syrian and Lebanese roots, we had previously asked Ellem and other Syrian Americans for their opinion on a possible military strike on Syria, which we posted on our website.

Ellem’s grandparents immigrated to the United States from Lebanon and Syria in the early 1900s through Ellis Island. They later moved to West Virginia in hopes of better economic opportunities and job prospects. Ellem was born in West Virginia and was always interested in public service. He graduated from Wheeling Jesuit College and the West Virginia College of Law and has worked as an attorney ever since. In July of 2000, he opened Ellem Law Office.

In the House of Delegates, Ellem has been the Minority Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee for the past 8 years and also serves on the Constitutional Revisions and Natural Resources Committees. He is a member of the Legislature’s Joint Commission on Special Investigations and recently served on the House Committee on Redistricting. 

We asked Ellem about how regional issues, including events unfolding in Syria and prospective U.S. military involvement in the conflict have impacted his community and his role as an Arab American public servant. He noted that the Syrian crisis has focused more attention on the Arab American community in West Virginia and across the country in a positive way and he is happy that more Arab American opinions and commentary have been featured in articles and commentary on the events now reshaping the Middle East.

Ellem said he has noticed that more Americans in general are interested in hearing his and other Arab American perspectives on the crisis unfolding in Syria. He noted that many in his district want to learn more about the Middle East and Arab culture to go beyond what they hear in the news, which is oftentimes negative.

Still, Ellem sees room for further involvement from and contributions by Arab Americans, specifically on the national level, in regard to the regional tumult. With his experience serving for 7 terms and 14 legislative sessions this coming January, Ellem hopes that he can be one of those Arab American voices contributing and providing his expertise and insight.

Ellem recalled attending a State Department meeting under President George W. Bush in 2005 to discuss and offer input on wide-ranging regional issues with other Arab Americans from across the United States. He believes the State Department and president could host more initiatives and roundtable discussions similar to the one he attended to add “more input on the national level from Arab Americans and others in the community.” He said: “It’s something we [Arab Americans] want to do, because it’s our heritage and something we are very proud of.”

In addition, Ellem has worked a lot with the Turkish government on a state level through the Mid-Atlantic Federation of Turkic American Associations (MAFTAA) to begin cultural dialogue and foster business, education, and political relationships between Turkey and various states and the U.S. government. He believes similar initiatives with Arab countries and Arab Americans could go a long way in encouraging economic growth, cultural understanding and political development regionally.

To learn more about Arab American political life in West Virginia or in your state, visit AAI’s interactive “Arab American Roster” and our state profiles.

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