Palestine. A word that evokes a strong sense of pride. It is deeply personal. It is painful.
It has never been easy for me to discuss Palestine. Partly because I will never know what it feels like to live under military occupation and to be faced with the daily indignities that come with it. I have never been to a refugee camp. I have never had to flee my home and run for my life only to be faced with a long and arduous journey to a new land -- but my grandparents did.
And I can close my eyes and try to imagine what it must be like. I can try to comprehend the unfathomable decisions that must be made in tragic human conflicts. I can understand that people who are subject to humiliating searches are another's mother or father. I can understand that a kidnapped victim is someone's son or daughter. I can understand that the young three-year-old boy who drowned as he fled with his family is someone's nephew.
Yet here I am, "living in plenty and in peace," sheltered from the elements, with running water in my apartment and food stocked in my fridge, safe from indiscriminate sniper fire and missiles. It was said during a recent discussion that if you are an eight year old in Gaza, you have already lived through three wars. To put it simply, that is a mind blowing. When I was eight years old in the United States I was in third grade. End of story. This is why it is difficult for me to discuss Palestine. It is more than a divisive political topic. It is personal.
Every four years ahead of presidential elections, the Arab American Institute (AAI) holds a National Leadership Conference in Dearborn, Michigan. Presidential candidates are invited to address the attendees, and participants mobilize ahead of the election. This past weekend's conference marked the thirtieth anniversary of the Arab American Institute. This milestone warrants reflection.
Over the course of the conference, more than 200 Arab American leaders from across the country convened to develop our platform ahead of the 2016 election. We engaged in substantive policy discussions, and looked at how various legislation and initiatives like The Department of Justice's Guidance on Profiling and the Department of Homeland Security's Countering Violent Extremism programs have direct impacts on our lives. Panelists were challenged to address concerns of the attendees. Participants debated with each other. They disagreed. They coordinated. They organized.
But what stood out to me was not the policy discussions or how we move forward. What struck me the most was our commonalities and sense of community. It was most evident during the domestic policy discussion when the final panelist explained her desire to be part of a student organization that organized around Palestine, and explained its significance was partly "because they understand what it means when I say I'm Palestinian."
"Because they understand what it means when I say I'm Palestinian." Those eleven words capture the essence of community and the importance of identity politics. To me, it means being part of a community that understands these issues are more than a divisive political topic. It is being part of a community of individuals whose shared experiences bring them together.
The shared feelings of pain, loss, longing and hope that run through many immigrant communities were highlighted throughout AAI's conference. It was demonstrated during Friday's Refugee Voices panel when recently resettled refugees shared their stories and discussed their desires for their children to have an education and an opportunity to have a prosperous life. There was a sense of compassion and humanity that are often lacking in public discourse, yet I believe are two of the defining characteristics of our community. It was proof that what unites us is far greater than any disagreements between us.
As we convened in Dearborn, our community recognized those who paved the way for future generations of political empowerment. It was a stark reminder that our opportunity to have a seat at the table and engage in public dialogue should never be taken for granted. It was said several times throughout the conference, but is worth repeating -- we stand on the shoulders of giants.
The next thirty years are on us.
As the charismatic young man at our community town hall asked "How are the next thirty years on us when we don't even know who we are," it took me full circle to the young activist who spoke earlier in the conference -- "They understand what it means when I say I'm Palestinian." That is what the Arab American community means to me. It is a place I can call home. It is an identity that is my own. A community of individuals who share a sense of loss and longing, hope and pride -- a community that refuses to be defined by the headlines, and are instead resilient in their common humanity and goodwill.
Yes, I am Palestinian. I am Lebanese. I am Syrian. I am Iraqi. I am Yemeni. Out of many, one. I am Arab American. E pluribus unum.
To the leaders that empowered us, created the opportunity for us to have a seat at the table, and a home in political advocacy -- thank you.
To the young Arab American millennials wanting to get involved -- email us. Follow us on Twitter. Keep the conversation going. Join us in April for Arab American Leadership Day.
Our voices have been excluded before; we must work to ensure they never are again.
The next thirty years are on us.