Honored during Democratic Convention in Boston
On the opening night of the Democratic National Convention in Boston July 26, the Arab American Institute (AAI) hosted an event, "Meet Us at the Bazaar," celebrating the American political process and honoring Arab-Americans running for office and representing their states as delegates to the convention.
Inside the hall, buffet tables were layered with bowls of hummus and babaganoosh, roasted vegetables, cheeses and pate, and skewers of chicken and lamb. Middle Eastern music swirled through the circular room, occasionally interspersed with solo performances by oud artist Nabil Ata. A side gallery highlighted the contributions to science, religion, technology, education, and arts and crafts by Arab immigrants to the United States over more than 100 years.
"We have a chance to elect a president and vice president that care about the Arab American community," shouted Steve Baddour, a Massachusetts state senator of Lebanese ancestry.
"Arab-Americans need to be part of the decision-making process. We can win all across the country by pulling together," said Joe Driscoll, a Congressional candidate from Pennsylvania.
"With a change of administration, we can bring some sense to immigration laws and the Department of Justice," added John Conyers, a U.S. representative from a Michigan district with one of the largest Arab-American communities in the country and an ardent spokesman for Arab-Americans during his three decades in Congress.
The AAI aimed to present Arab-American concerns as part of the broader American political dialogue, and not those of a special interest group.
"We need to take away the feeling of segregation that many in the Arab community feel. We need to get people more involved in the political process," said Fay Beydoun, executive director of the Michigan branch of the AAI.
This sentiment was echoed by Maseen Khouri, one of the members of the host committee: "Events like this show that Arab-Americans are a presence at the convention. We are involved in politics. We are an active community."
Several speakers spoke about the common experiences that Arab-Americans share with other minorities in the United States.
Brian O'Dwier, of the National Democratic Ethnic Leadership Council, drew a parallel between the conflicts in the Middle East and those in Northern Ireland.
Because of the efforts of former President Bill Clinton, he said, "the people of Northern Ireland can now go to bed without fear of a bullet or a bomb. The Arab-American community needs to organize to make sure its voice is heard, just as ours was heard. We need to make sure that no more lives are lost in Northern Ireland or the Middle East."
Private conversations at tables around the room gave evidence of the kind of grass-roots organizing to which O'Dwier referred.
Neal Abid, of the Democratic Executive Committee of Orange County, Florida, decided to run for a delegate slot in the convention after witnessing the infringements on civil rights following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. And he succeeded, along with Taleb Salhab, Janan Smither, and Carol Mansour, after the Arab American Leadership Council in Orlando bused over 100 Arab American voters to the district caucus.
In Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Newman Abuissa earned his delegate role after hosting community gatherings in his house. The experience, he said, "transformed me from feeling like a foreigner to an elected delegate with the vote and trust of more than half of the rest of the Democratic voters in Iowa."
"We have a lot to bring to the table," said Ismael Ahmed, executive director of the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services, an organization that provides health care, food deliveries, and other vital services to residents of Dearborn, Michigan. He said Arab-Americans have cultural traits that are appreciated in American society -- strong religious beliefs, a powerful work ethic, family values, and importance of education.
Ahmed said that unlike other ethnic groups, Arab-Americans for several generations had little need for political involvement. But then came the Arab-Israeli wars and oil crises of the 1960s and 1970s, which thrust the Arab world and Arab-Americans into the political spotlight.
Ahmed said Arab-Americans need to develop strong political action committees and community centers to serve as bridges between large, national organizations like the AAI and smaller, grass-roots groups.
The concept of serving as a bridge between cultures, one American and one Middle Eastern, is central to Ferial Masry, a Saudi-born California delegate, now running for a seat in the California State Assembly.
"As a woman and an Arab, I can serve as a role model to the people of the Middle East, as one who is willing to take action for change. It doesn't do any good to see things I don't like and do nothing. People have to take charge, to be responsible for their society," she said.
She believes there is no inherent conflict between the two cultures, that she can represent not only her California district but the best of both the West and the Middle East.
"The Middle East has a richness of history and deep spiritual values. For much of the world the U.S. embodies modernity and forward-thinking," she said.
Her influence has extended back to her native Saudi Arabia. She regularly receives calls from Saudi journalists, surprised that Americans would vote for her. And they ask her questions about how to implement democracy. Why is her opinion important? "You have credibility," they say.
Foreign policy, immigration, civil rights, and Middle Eastern conflicts are not the only issues that are on the agenda to Arab-American voters and legislators. Justin Nadeau, running for a Congressional seat from the First District in New Hampshire, deplores the loss of 26,000 jobs in his state and is a firm advocate of investing in small businesses as well as pressing for a "just peace" in the Middle East.
Chris John, Congressional representative from Louisiana, now seeking a Senate seat, has fought for environmental causes and served on the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Energy and Air Quality and Health subcommittees.
Don Mongiardo, running for the U.S. Senate in Kentucky, drew on his training as a physician to motivate him to come to the AAI event in order to hear the concerns of Arab-Americans: "The more information you can gather only enables you to make better informed decisions."
Of great concern to Arab-Americans, he said, is the "improvement of a health care system that costs too much, covers too few, and whose quality is in decline."
The concerns of the Arab-American electorate and the contributions it can offer American society represent a buffet as rich as the tables of Middle Eastern delicacies that filled the Cyclorama. Of the event, Abdallah Al-Zuabi, national field director of the AAI, said, "Tonight is an affirmation and celebration of our contribution to the welfare and well-being of America. We have added another tribute to American democracy and principles, and celebrated our history with our fellow Americans and educated those who do not know about those of Arab descent for a better America."
Thornton - Washington File Special Correspondent
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