A Night to Remember

05/02/2015 08:42 am ET | Updated May 02, 2016

Our annual Khalil Gibran "Spirit of Humanity" Awards Dinner serves as a reminder of why we do the work we do. It speaks to us of the goals we've set for ourselves, the progress we've made, and the challenges we continue to face.

Thirty years ago, when we launched the Arab American Institute, the political forces that fought to marginalize our community were stronger than our efforts to be included. Our history and culture were denigrated; our organized efforts were excluded from mainstream political activity and discourse; and, all too often, simply being identified as an Arab American was considered more of a liability than an asset.

Because this state of affairs was wholly unacceptable, we resolved to fight back and, as a result of the hard and smart work of dedicated leaders across the country, the tide began to turn. Serious problems remain. Our community still faces challenges to our full inclusion; the protection of our rights and liberty are too often compromised; and, more often than not, America's political discourse about the Arab World remains ill-informed and misguided. But what has changed is that today Arab Americans are in the forefront of mainstream political coalitions working for justice, equality, and peace, at home and abroad. We may not be winning, but our voices are being heard and cannot be denied.

All of this was on display at this year's Gibran gala. The two-day event provided us an opportunity to showcase outstanding Arab Americans, to award significant American figures whose works and ideals reflect values we hold dear, and to engage in policy discussions about issues of importance to our country and our world.

A highlight for many attendees at the Gibran dinner was the presence of actress and activist Salma Hayek who was recognized for her outstanding humanitarian work, as well as her efforts to promote her Lebanese Arab ancestry. In receiving the award, Salma related experiences from her recent visit to Lebanon where she had just premiered her newest film, "Khalil Gibran's The Prophet". She also spoke passionately about her visit with Syrian refugees in Lebanon and the generosity of Lebanese host communities who are doing all they can to take in their now homeless neighbors.

Michael Baroody was recognized for his outstanding career and for the contributions he and his family have made to advance civil and informed debate on the critical issues facing America. The Baroody family's commitment to public service and to reasoned discourse, embodied in Mike's own life's work, is a matter of pride to all Arab Americans.

We were also delighted to honor John Sexton, NYU President and advocate for global education, and Pulitzer prize winner, Lawrence Wright. Sexton is a true visionary who understands that as our world has become smaller and as the fates of nations and peoples have become more intertwined, our educational institutions must keep apace. Recognizing this new reality, he has transformed his university into a truly global institution bringing together students from many continents to learn with and from each other. NYU's students graduate with more than a degree. They leave with an expanded consciousness and a confidence in their own possibilities to make change.

During the Gibran dinner, we introduced two young Arab Americans who have been playing leadership roles in the struggle for racial justice in America: Ahmad Abuznaid, co-founder and director of The Dream Defenders; and Tarik Mohamed, founder of the "We Can't Breathe PAC". And we closed the evening with reflections about the crises facing the people of Baltimore and so many other communities in America--where issues of racial injustice and police brutality continue to define the daily lives of millions of our fellow citizens.

This year, we were pleased that the White House decided to use our venue to have National Security Advisor, Susan Rice deliver a wide-ranging foreign policy address.

Rice began noting how our community had "to overcome barriers of exclusion and intolerance" in order "to make sure Arab Americans are full participants in our democracy". And spoke of the role we now play in "helping to lead...on a range of civil rights and political rights issues". She singled out several young Arab Americans in attendance who have dedicated themselves, at an early age, to public service and advancing public awareness of social issues plaguing our country and our world.

Rice then ticked off a series of major challenges facing the US and the Arab peoples, beginning with a restatement of the Administration's commitment to a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace--that included an end to the occupation, and "an independent, viable, and contiguous Palestinian state"--"based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps". She also restated the Administration's opposition to Israel's settlement activity, and expressed concern with the slow pace of work in Gaza saying that "we must accelerate reconstruction...and...address core challenges to Gaza's future--singling out the need to "reinvigorate Gaza's connection with the West Bank".

She made clear that the Administration is committed, together with coalition partners, to defeating ISIS and to achieving negotiated solutions to Syria's long war and to the escalating conflict in Yemen. Rice also pledged to continue its leading role in providing humanitarian support for Syrian refugees. But went further, noting the Administration's efforts to assist Lebanon not only in its battle against ISIS, but in its struggle to support its people and its communities who are being challenged by the flood of Syrian refugees who have overwhelmed the country.

Rice also affirmed the Obama Administration's resolve to complete a pact with Iran to limit that country's nuclear program, while making clear that the US would work with and support its partners in the GCC to assure their security.

All in all, a powerful set of messages and commitments intended to reassure the Arab World. These themes were enlarged upon the next day when our national leadership went to the White House for a briefing with the Administration's top Middle East policy advisers.

In addition to the Congressional and White House briefings that are part of our annual Gibran event, this year we were honored to host the US premier of Salma Hayek's new film on Gibran's "The Prophet". Following the film the audience had the opportunity to engage with Ms. Hayek in a lengthy conversation about her work.

Those who have traced the trajectory of Arab American political struggles over the past 40 years could not help but come away from this year's event with the clear sense that the community has made real progress. We have created a venue that makes an established star like Salma Hayek proud to identify with her community, that can boast of accomplished leaders like Michael Baroody, and can showcase emerging leaders who will continue to build on the gains we have made. And it is no small achievement that we provide the platform for a major foreign address by the Administration.

There are, of course, critics who are more comfortable with what they describe as their "purity" and who prefer to wallow in their impotence grousing from the margins of American politics. But for those who understand that politics is hard work, and that gaining respect and recognition requires engagement in the process, this year's event is one to remember.

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