Updated: Meet the Arab Americans in the Biden Administration
By: Theo Stamatis / Arab America Contributing Writer
President Joe Biden promised the American people that his administration would reflect America’s diversity. Throughout his campaign and once elected president, Biden has been a vocal advocate of every ethnicity and background being represented: African American, Hispanics, Asians, and finally at the table – Arab Americans. The Biden administration has recognized the overwhelming advocacy from the Arab American communities across the country of which 59% supported him last November compared to 35% for Trump. So far, there have been twenty Arab Americans chosen to be in the Biden Administration with more expected to follow.
Christy Abizaid, Director of the National Counterrorism Center
Background: Abizaid, the daughter of General John Abizaid is a proud Lebanese American. Abizaid holds a B.A. degree in Psychology from the University of California, San Diego, and an M.A. in International Policy Studies from Stanford University.
Experience: Abizaid spent nine years working as a senior analyst within the Department of Defense before joining the National Security Council as a Director for Counterrorism from 2011-2013. She served as the Senior Policy Advisor to the Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism. From 2014-2016, Abizaid was appointed Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense – Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Central Asia. She served at the Defense Intelligence Agency Joint Intelligence Task Force Combating Terrorism for seven years as the Senior Intelligence Analyst in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Division and the Iraq/Middle East Division. President Biden nominated her to be the Director of the National Counterterrorism Center. She was confirmed on June 24, 2021, by a voice vote.
Ismael Ahmed, Nominee for Member of the National Council of the Arts
Background: Ismael Ahmed most recently served as the Associate Provost for Metropolitan Impact at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. In this position, Ahmed was responsible for connecting academic initiatives for 9,000 students and 540 full and part-time faculty with over 500 community, business, and governmental partners. Prior to that, he served in Governor Jennifer M. Granholm’s administration as Director of the Michigan Department of Human Services, the state’s second-largest department. He co-founded the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) in 1971 and was appointed executive director in 1983, growing it into a national human service and advocacy agency with affiliates in 24 cities.
The son of first-generation Lebanese-Egyptian immigrants, Ahmed is co-founder of The Arab American National Museum in Dearborn and serves as an executive member of its advisory board. Since 1984, he has led Detroit’s Concert of Colors – one of the largest world music festivals in the United States – which he co-curates and co-chairs. He also produces and hosts “This Island Earth” on WDET Public Radio Detroit, where he conducts multi-cultural music & arts programs with music and guests that represent cultures from across the planet.
Hady Amr, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Israel-Palestine, U.S. State Department
Background: Hady Amr, of Lebanese American heritage, has returned to the State Department to work on Israeli-Palestinian issues. This is his fifth executive branch post, including previous posts at DOD, DHS, USAID, and DOS. Most recently, during the Obama administration, he served as deputy special envoy for Economics and Gaza for the special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Amr was a fellow at the Brookings Institution and contributed to the Biden administration’s strategy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He was also a member of Biden’s transition team at the State Department.
Kinan Azmeh, Nominee for Member of the National Council of the Arts
Background: Originally from Damascus, Syria, Kinan Azmeh brings his music to all corners of the world as a soloist, composer, and improviser. Notable appearances include the Opera Bastille, Paris; Tchaikovsky Grand Hall, Moscow; Carnegie Hall and the UN General Assembly, New York; the Royal Albert hall, London; Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires; Der Philharmonie, Berlin; the Library of Congress, the Kennedy Center, Washington DC; the Mozarteum, Salzburg, Hamburg’s Elbphilharmonie; and in his native Syria at the opening concert of the Damascus Opera House.
He has appeared as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic, the Seattle Symphony, the Bavarian Radio Orchestra, the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the Qatar Philharmonic, and the Syrian Symphony Orchestra among others, and has shared the stage with such musical luminaries as Yo-Yo Ma, Daniel Barenboim, Marcel Khalife, John McLaughlin, Francois Rabbath Aynur and Jivan Gasparian.
Azmeh serves as artistic director of the Damascus Festival Chamber Players, a pan-Arab ensemble dedicated to contemporary music from the Arab world. He has also been playing with the Silkroad Ensemble since 2012, who’s 2017 Grammy Award-winning album “Sing Me Home” features Azmeh as a clarinetist and composer. Azmeh is a graduate of New York’s Juilliard School as a student of Charles Neidich and of both the Damascus High Institute of Music where he studied with Shukry Sahwki, Nicolay Viovanof and Anatoly Moratof, and Damascus University’s School of Electrical Engineering. Azmeh earned his doctorate degree in music from the City University of New York in 2013.
Nabeela Barbari, Director of Resilience and Response, National Security Council
Background: Nabeela Barbari is a proud Palestinian-American. She has a bachelor’s in Political Science and International Relations from VCU, a master’s degree in U.S. Foreign Policy and Political Science from George Mason University, and a master’s in Homeland Defense & Security from the Naval Postgraduate School.
Formerly an executive with the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA), Barbari now leads integrated risk management, national security policy, and critical infrastructure security in her new role with the National Security Council (NSC). Barbari oversees these aspects as NSC’s director of resilience and response at the White House, under the executive office of the president. She was appointed to the role in Feb. 2021, after serving with the Department of Homeland Security for 12 years. Previously, Barbari held multiple roles with DHS’ National Protection and Programs Directorate (NPPD), CISA’s predecessor agency. Also, Barbari formerly served as a senior analyst with Technology Management Services, now part of IBM. She took part in projects supporting DHS.
Reema Dodin, Deputy White House Director of Legislative Affairs
Background: Dodin was born in North Carolina.[ii] Her parents are Palestinian and emigrated from Dura, near Hebron. Dodin graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a degree in economics and political science and followed it with a law degree from the University of Illinois.[iii]
Experience: For 14 years, Dodin served in Senator Dick Durbin’s Office. She rose through the ranks in Senator Durbin’s office from a law school intern to deputy chief of staff. In addition to her tenure in the Senate, Dodin volunteered for then-candidate Barack Obama’s presidential campaign, focusing on voting rights.[iv]
Maher Bitar, Senior Director for Intelligence Programs at the NSC
Background: Bitar is a Palestinian-American who has a law degree from Georgetown University and is a graduate of Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service.[xiv]
Experience: Since 2017, Bitar served as the general counsel for House Intelligence Committee Democrats where he played a key role during the first impeachment of former President Donald Trump.[xv] Prior to his appointment, Bitar served as the director for Israel-Palestinian affairs on the National Security Council under President Obama.[xvi] Before that, he was the deputy to Ambassador Samantha Power when he served as the National Security Council director for multilateral affairs and human rights.[xvii]
Laila ElGohary, White House Liaison, General Services Administration (GSA)
Background: Laila El-Gohary is the daughter of Egyptian parents. She has a bachelor’s in Political Science and Philosophy from the American University in Cairo and a master’s in International Relations and Metaphysics from the University of Washington.
El-Gohary was director of technology and operations-presidential personnel at the Obama White House in 2015 and 2016. She also was Deputy CTO for the Biden for President campaign, and CTO of the 59th Presidential Inaugural Committee. She was appointed White House Liaison for the General Services Administration (GSA) in February 2021.
Gwen Graham, Assistant Secretary for Legislation and Congressional Affairs – Department of Education
Background: Secretary Graham is the daughter of former Florida Governor Bob Graham. She is of Lebanese and Greek descent and her grandfather was born in Beirut, Lebanon. Graham received her BA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 1984 and her Juris Doctor from American University’s Washington College of Law in 1988.
Graham is a respected former Member of Congress with a reputation for fairness, compassion, and problem-solving. Graham served as the Congressional representative from Florida’s 2nd District during the 114th Congress and was known as one of the House’s most bipartisan members. She is an attorney and, prior to her service in Congress, focused her practice on public education as Chief of Labor and Employee Relations for the Leon County School District. She was involved in every aspect of the educational process and was recognized for her integrity and fairness. The Florida Education Association and the Leon Classroom Teachers Association were the first organizations to endorse her Congressional candidacy. She also served as a board member of the statewide Florida Educational Negotiators. Graham is a proud product of public K-12 education as are her children, and she served as PTA President and School Advisory Council Chair while they were young. She has worked on a number of presidential campaigns, and in 2004 served as John Kerry’s surrogate coordinator in Florida. She currently serves as a board director of the Bob Graham Center for Public Service at the University of Florida, the Florida State Parks Foundation, Ruth’s List, and as Vice-Chair of the City of Tallahassee Independent Ethics Boards. She was nominated by President Biden to be the Assistant Secretary for Legislation and Congressional Affairs at the Department of Education. She was confirmed by voice vote on October 6, 2021.
Tariq Habash, Special Assistant, Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development, Department of Education
Background: Habash, the son of Palestinian parents, holds degrees from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and the University of Miami with a degree in Economics and Political Science.
Habash joins the Biden-Harris Administration after years of fighting on behalf of 45 million student loan borrowers. Most recently, Habash helped launch the Student Borrower Protection Center, a national research and advocacy nonprofit where he led the Investigations Project to protect student loan borrowers. Prior to this work, Habash was a senior policy associate at The Century Foundation, working on higher education affordability, accountability, and consumer protection issues.
Anton Hajjar, Member of the Board of Governors U.S. Postal Service
Background: Anton George Hajjar is a labor and employment attorney and was formerly general counsel of the American Postal Workers Union.
After receiving his J.D. at Tulane University Law School, where he was a member of the Board of Editors of the law review, he became a law clerk for Judge John Minor Wisdom at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. He was later an attorney for the National Labor Relations Board in the Appellate Court Branch and its Contempt Litigation Section. He is admitted to practice in the District of Columbia and Maryland, and before the United States Supreme Court and other federal courts.
Hajjar is a third-generation Syrian American who grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., and currently resides in the Washington DC area.
Vanessa Harmoush, Special Assistant, Office of Communications and Outreach, Department of Education
Background: Born to Lebanese immigrants and a native Coloradan, Vanessa holds a Bachelor of Science in journalism from the University of Colorado – Boulder.
Harmoush recently served as the Colorado communications director for the Biden for President campaign. Prior to that, Vanessa was communications director at Rocky Mountain Values, working on issues of healthcare and climate. She also worked at the Colorado State Legislature for the Speaker of the House and prior to that at the State Innovation Exchange.
Ur Jaddou, Director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS)
Background: Jaddou is the daughter of immigrants – a mother from Mexico and a father from Iraq – born and raised in Chula Vista, California. She received a bachelor’s and a master’s degree from Stanford University in Philosophy and a law degree from UCLA School of Law..
Jaddou has two decades of experience in immigration law, policy, and administration. Most recently, she was the Director of DHS Watch, a project of America’s Voice, where she shined a light on immigration policies and administration that failed to adhere to basic principles of good governance, transparency, and accountability. She is an adjunct professor of law at American University, Washington College of Law and counsel at Potomac Law Group, PLLC. Previously, Jaddou was the Chief Counsel for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) at the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) from June 2014 to January 2017. Jaddou’s experience on immigration policy began as counsel to U.S. House of Representative Zoe Lofgren (2002-2007) and later as Chief Counsel to the House Immigration Subcommittee chaired by Rep. Lofgren (2007-2011). Jaddou has also served as the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Regional, Global and Functional Affairs in the Bureau of Legislative Affairs at the U.S. Department of State (2012-2014).
Sara Minkara, U.S Special Advisor on International Disability Rights, Department of State
Background: Sara Minkara is an advocate, expert, and facilitator in the fields of disability, inclusion, authentic leadership, and social entrepreneurship. Minkara is a Muslim-American of Lebanese descent. Sara is a graduate of Wellesley College and the Harvard Kennedy School. She advises numerous academic, government, and policy groups on issues related to disability, gender, interpersonal dynamics, inclusion, and entrepreneurship, including the United Nations and the Harvard Kennedy School’s Executive Education program. She has been recognized for her many contributions through appointments and awards, including Forbes 30 Under 30, the Clinton Global Initiative, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology IDEAS Global Challenge, and the Vital Voices “100 Women Using Their Power to Empower” program.
She is the founder and a Board Member of Empowerment Through Integration (ETI), a nonprofit organization she established while still an undergraduate student. ETI’s mission is to disrupt the narrative surrounding disability through both empowering youth with disabilities individually and accelerating authentic inclusion globally. More than a decade later, ETI and the programs Sara designed are still active in the Middle East & North Africa (MENA) region, providing social and life skills development for refugees and other children with disabilities. As an internationally recognized champion for disability inclusion, leadership, individual empowerment and social enterprise, Sara promotes adaptive approaches to social and workplace challenges.
Ahmad Ramadan, Legislative Officer, Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs, Department of Labor
Background: Ramadan is the son of Lebanese parents. He holds a bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University in Political Science and Government. Ramadan will become the first Arab American to serve in the Office of Congressional and Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of Labor.
Recently, Ramadan for two years was Congresswoman Debbie Dingell’s Constituent Services Representative & Grant Manager. Before that, Ramadan served on her reelection campaign as Senior Advisor and GOTV Director. Ramadan did work with the Biden Campaign in Michigan, serving as Deputy Coalitions Director. He has been a Field Organizer for Arab American Outreach for the Michigan Democratic Party – Coordinated Campaign and worked with the American Red Cross.
Kelly Razzouk, Deputy Chief of Staff at the US Mission to the United Nations
Background: Kelly Razzouk is the proud daughter of immigrants from Lebanon and Serbia. She graduated summa cum laude from Southern Adventist University in 2005 and obtained a Juris Doctor (J.D.) in International Law and Legal Studies from DePaul University College of Law.
Razzouk has over a decade of experience as a senior U.S. Government official, starting her career as a Presidential Management Fellow after graduating from law school. Kelly worked at the Office of the Geographer for Global Issues, Bureau of International Organizations, U.S. Embassy Amman Jordan and as a negotiator at the UN Human Rights Council. Prior to that, she spent eight years at USUN as the Mission’s lead human rights negotiator and Senior Policy Advisor to Ambassador Samantha Power, leading human rights policy and political prisoner advocacy. She also served as an advisor to Ambassador Susan Rice and congressional liaison in her Washington office. She spent two years representing the International Rescue Committee at the UN as Director of Policy and Advocacy. Now, Razzouk is the Deputy Chief of Staff for the UN Mission to the UN, chosen by US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
Fayrouz Saad, Director of Public Engagement, USAID
Background: Saad was born and brought up in the Arab-majority community of Dearborn, Michigan, as the daughter of Lebanese immigrants who still run a small meat wholesale business in Detroit. She graduated from the University of Michigan with a double major in Political Science and Psychology, and in 2014 received a master’s from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government where she studied urban policy and economic development.
Saad’s career spans from campaign staffing and community organizing to immigration issues at the local, state and national levels. Between 2004-2008, Saad worked as a field organizer for John Kerry’s and Gino Polidori’s campaigns. Her organizing work targeted Arab American community relations, voter registration, civic engagement and advocacy strategies through the National Network for Arab American Communities and the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services. Saad was Vice President of Chicago-based political advocacy firm Cambridge Global Advisors. where she worked with the federal government on the implementation of CVE in the Dearborn community.
Fayrouz has experience in state government prior to her current role where she served in Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s administration – leading the Office of Global Michigan where she was tasked with leading the administration’s efforts on immigration policy. Before that she served under Mayor Mike Duggan as the Head of Immigrant Affairs for the City of Detroit, During her tenure at DHS, in addition to serving as a liaison between governors, mayors and other local elected officials in the office of Intergovernmental Affairs (IGA), she assisted the department in coordinating community relations between Arab, Muslim, Sikh, South Asian and Somali communities and their law enforcement partners on CVE initiatives.
Dana Shubat, Senior Legislative Affairs Advisor
Experience: Prior to her appointment, Shubat has served in Senator Michael Bennet’s office as a legislative aide.[vii] In that capacity, she often served as lead contact in dealing with issues pertaining to the Middle East.[viii]
Brenda Abdelall: Senior Advisor – Office of Civil Rights, Department of Homeland Security
Background: The proud daughter of Egyptian immigrants, Abdelall’s family moved from Taylor, Michigan to Ann Arbor, Michigan, seeking to find a more diverse community. She graduated with both a BA and JD from the University of Michigan and later became a Professor at the University of the District of Columbia’s David A. Clarke School of law where she taught legal writing.[ix]
Experience: Abdelall started her career practicing law, representing the interests of Arab American and Muslim American communities in front of the U.S. Department of Justice, Department of Education and the White House.[x] During the 2020 Presidential Campaign, she served as one of the key volunteers for President Biden’s “Arab Americans for Biden” group.
Bechara Choucair, Vaccinations Coordinator
Background: Born in Beirut, Lebanon, Dr. Choucair earned a B.S. in Chemistry and a Doctorate of Medicine from the American University of Beirut. In addition, Dr. Choucair also has a Master of Science degree in healthcare management from the University of Texas in Dallas.[xi]
Experience: Since 2016, Dr. Choucair has been Kaiser Permanente’s Chief Community Health Officer, working on projects outside the typical purview of a healthcare organization.[xii] Before working at Kaiser, Dr. Choucair was chosen in 2009 to be Chicago’s public health commissioner where he helped launch the city’s first public health agenda.[xiii]
Ike Hajinazarian, Regional Communications Director
Background: Born in Columbus, Ohio to Lebanese-Armenian parents, he is a graduate of Indiana University and George Washington University School of Political Management.[xviii]
Experience: He served as the Western Pennsylvania Regional Press Secretary for the Biden campaign after working in communications during the primary.[xix] Prior to joining the Biden campaign, he worked on Capitol Hill – first as a Press Assistant for Sen. Donnelly and as Deputy Press Secretary for the House Homeland Security Committee.[xx]
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