Connect Arab America: Empowerment Summit Engages 29 Speakers in Public Service, Outreach, Business, and Culture
Last week, February 1-5, the Arab America Foundation hosted 29 speakers who came together for the Connect Arab America: Empowerment Summit. 350 online registrants connected throughout the five-day summit in addition to coverage in the Arab World and other regions via Al Jazeera’s Mubasher/Live broadcast channel.
The Summit explored Arab American unity and identity with discussions from exciting speakers in public service, cultural institutions, business innovators, influencers, and performances by exciting artists from the U.S.
The primary purpose of the conference is to connect, educate, and empower Arab Americans by hosting inspiring and successful Arab Americans to present the best of Arab America.
Below is a recap of the week’s activities. Arab America contributing writers, Theo Stamatis, Raneem Ghunaim, Mariam Kanaan, Sara Tawfik, and Claire Boyle contributed to this article.
Monday, February 1: Connecting with Public Officials
If there is anything that the Connect Arab America: Empowerment Summit told us, it’s that Day 1; it scored a huge success, as others did too! Connect Arab America Day 1 showcased several Arab American Public Officials from across the country. The panelists were asked a variety of questions by moderator, Ghida Fakhry, about their heritage, experience in public service, and the advice they would give to young Arab Americans who want to run for public office. There were plenty of highlights from the first day of the Empowerment Summit. Many of them touched on their upbringing and their entrance into public service.
Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib began talking about the love she has for telling the story of an immigrant family like her family.
“I actually love sharing all the things about my family and being a part of an Immigrant family no matter who the audience is…it is really important that we continue to share those stories because that is how we connect.” – Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib
Fayrouz Saad discussed her background where she stated “my journey really starts specifically… what put me here on this path is that I am a product of a post-9/11 world because I was in college when 9/11 happened and that day my parents for fear of my safety and the product of anti-Arab backlash because of the attack, my parents picked me up and took me home and not really understanding why…it completed shaped who I am.”
Mayor Andre Sayegh passionately discussed his heritage and political experience stating, “my heritage has not been a hindrance, it actually inspired me…because our purpose here in Paterson is to prove to the world that Palestinians exist, and they are productive and they are here to stay.”
City Council President Mike Khader mentioned his experience as an Arab American, “being Arab is like being white without the privilege…you’re never going to be accepted by either one.”
Delegate Sam Rasoul talked about being in the Arab American community and the purpose of community, “it was always about building those broad coalitions and shaking things off when crazy things come up.”
State Representative Abraham Aiyash mentioned his Yemeni background by citing the following story: “One of the very first lawsuits in the courts with respect to allowing folks to come into the U.S…it was a Yemeni man who made the argument that ‘he too can be connected to a white person because he was an Arab therefore, he was a descendant of Jesus.” “My motivation for politics is rooted in empowering the community so they realize their own agency.”
Tuesday, February 2: Connecting with Cultural Institutions
Day 2 of the “Connect Arab America: Empowerment Summit, we had the honor of connecting and meeting with heads of Arab Cultural institutions. With their diverse thoughts and workplaces, we had the pleasure of getting a small insight into what it is like being an Arab American in today’s society and what it was like working and representing the Arab community, culture, and heritage in general.
The panel opened with the moderator, Malika Bilal, who did a phenomenal job introducing the panelists and welcoming the audience. Malika Bilal is a broadcast journalist, widely known for co-hosting and digital producing the Emmy-nominated Al Jazeera news talk show ” The Stream.” She currently hosts Al Jazeera’s podcast, “The Take.” After the brief introductions as Malika began asking questions or as she called it “we’re gonna get raw here, this is what the conversation is for,” we got to hear what each of them had to say.
The first question was “How is landscape different now than it was 16 years ago, what has changed since then and why is it necessary.” This question was mainly directed at Dr. Diana Abouali who is the director at the Arab America National Museum, to which she replied with, “we went from educating the people about who Arab Americans and their cultures were to now, being like soul searching for Arab Americans and their desire to learn about the Arab American communities.” Dr. Sally Howell, director of the Center for Arab American Studies at the University of Michigan-Dearborn, replied to the same question: “back in the 80s, it was not clear that Detroit will have a vast population mainly like Yemeni and those fleeing the war in Lebanon but now with the sudden increase of Arab population, our goal is to tell a story of who Arab Americans are and to document their history and public culture. After 911 the institutions became essential to improve the now broken image of Arab Americans.”
As the conversation was smoothly flowing, Dr. Akram Khater of North Carolina State University jumped in to make an important point: “perhaps now, some people are not blaming Arabs as much as they used to but the reality is we are still excluded from the narrative of America. I think it is important to keep that in mind…..we are the ones who built America, we fought in its wars, we are the ones who made inventions we are the ones who teach in schools, we are the ones who built these roads and walked those bridges.” His statement left everyone speechless as it could not have been said any better.
The topic of culture and representation of the Arab American heritage was one of the main topics discussed, everyone agreed and argued for the importance of representation and savoring Arab culture as it plays a key role when it comes to storytelling. To that, Kate Seelye of the Middle East Institute added: “the museum became the Arab Spring crystals, we could not be dedicated to the Middle East and increasing understanding if we did not include culture as a clear pillar.”
The moderator then turned to Dr. Beshara Doumani of Brown University and the Chair of Mahmoud Darwish and asked him about who were the kinds of students to enroll in his classes? He replied that Brown University has a diverse student body. He added that in his classes, the number of mainstream students equals the number of students of Arab heritage. He also added, “I love this young generation, it comes naturally to them, at least the ones that I see in the bubbles in which I live; you don’t have to introduce, persuade or try to convince anybody anything, most of them have these instincts but what they lack is, and I will be the first to say it, is knowledge on the topic; they don’t always know.” He explained the importance of educating ourselves and others on our culture and heritage.
Keep in mind that this is only a brief glimpse of the event, if you are interested in listening to the entire panel see the video linked below.
Wednesday, February 3: Connecting with Business Leaders
Do you remember the first grain sown in your imagination…when and by whom?” This was the question posed by Aljazeera’s host of Min Washington, Abderrahim Foukara to Yemeni-American CEO Aneesa Muthana, who works in manufacturing, producing parts for the likes of Aerospace and TESLA. Her answer was that it was her Yemeni parents who impacted her the most. “It goes back to my parents coming to this country in the ’60s. They worked in a manufacturing facility when racism was something no one was talking about…I learned how to run a company from the inside out and decided to partner up with my uncle.
Again Aljazeera’s host Abderrahim Foukara, who also happens to be the Washington D.C. Bureau Chief identified with the next guest as both hail from Al-Maghreb, North Africa. Mr. Foukara asked the Tunisian American Samy Kobrosly about how he ended up in the business he was in. Like Aneesa, Kobrosly, co-founder of Snacklins also grew up around manufacturing. Kobrosly’s mother worked in a large factory in Iowa, and thus helped plant the seeds of his entrepreneurial imagination.
The grain of Palestinian-American Rami Kashou’s dream was ‘sown’ in his imagination when he was allowed to start ‘sewing’ during his teenage years. He was often commissioned by the socialites to design their ensembles.
In true Arab tradition, like Kobrosly and Muthana, the family of Rami Kashou was a large influence. “It started with the support of my parents,” he said. “My father who’s a self-made businessman taught me to jump with courage and take risks and also I was blessed with a wonderful mother who handed me fabrics where I was able to join her to the local seamstress to perfect my designs. Kashou added ” I think that that’s where dreams are born from the darkest corners of life. The dream to become a designer came from the lack of childhood space for someone who grew up around jeeps and soldiers and violence under occupation. It happened as a way of coping with a difficult reality.”
Farouk Shami provided gems of wisdom. “Necessity is the mother of invention,” said Shami. “I came in 1965 as a student. Instead of washing dishes, I went to beauty school; I loved science and everything about it…Hair color was not in fashion over 56 years ago. I told my father, I’ll be the best hairdresser in the world, I became allergic to hair color. I was told to quit, but I was able to create hair color with organic products and change the beauty industry. I thought Palestinians are revolutionary, so I want to revolutionize this industry…Arab Americans are good contributors in every aspect of life.”
Manal Saab reflected on her role as a woman in business, relaying that “the bar has to be set much higher.” She continued to say: “as we still live in a world where if you are a woman, an immigrant, and someone with an accent, you would be looked at differently…I’m a true believer that if you succeed on your own but don’t look behind you and appreciate those who paved the way for you, then you’ve failed. it’s never an individual success that’s a true success.”
In a similar fashion, Kobrosly agreed, stating that along with the irony giving credit to the Muslim who made a vegan pork rind, so his real job was “to offer opportunities to those who don’t have that opportunity.” Muthana chimed into the same thread, explaining the challenge of finding a skilled workforce in our communities as well as to those who need it most. “I’d love to advocate for people of my heritage, but there’s just not enough in the pool. This is why I do a lot of outreach.”
Thursday, February 4: Connecting with Influencers
On Day 4 of the Connect Arab America: Empowerment Summit, we connected with some of the Arab Influencers that are making a difference through Social Media and Entertainment. We celebrated Arab American unity, heritage, and identity with discussions from the moderator, Shereen Ahmed who is a multi-talented singer and actress, currently starring as Eliza Doolittle in the first national tour of My Fair Lady, Shereen Ahmed who addressed her sharp panelists: Syrian Canadian influencer with a wide platform through Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Vine, and Instagram, Saif Shawaf; also, Instagram and YouTube relationship advisor known for her comedic content and her blog; Expired and Fabulous, Faiza Rammuny; The 4th panelist was Mai Kakish, who is a writer, a food blogger, and social media persona @AlmondAndFig. Last but not least, the TikTok influencer, Salem Furrha, and his family of eight and four grandchildren.
All panelists discussed their Arab identity through social media, and how they use their platform to make improve the understanding of Arab Americans and the people of the Arab World, each of expanding and impacting their audiences in America and in the Middle East.
Mai Kakish has worked to curate many of her recipes, she states “I started writing those recipes in hopes to inspire my children and document them for my children. The Internet is loaded with recipes. I realized very fast after I moved to Chicago that our cuisine, the Palestinian cuisine, is simplified. In the end, in this industry, it is often under names as Middle Eastern Mediterranean. It was never labeled as Palestinian cuisine. They’re really taking our story and not really including it in that food narrative. So I used food. It’s really food is a fabric of life. It’s really easy, I thought, to talk through foods about, you know, my Palestinian grandmother, which is a story of many Palestinian grandmothers in return.”
Salem Furrha speaks on how he and his family came up with their content and states “We get together every night and we sit down. We’re lucky because we have a household of 10. So we can get different ideas from everybody. Actually, everybody pitches in and gives us a different idea. You’d be surprised. Even the youngest one in my household give me ideas. And we went with it and done well. So we’re always one day ahead and put our heads together and try to come up with some good content.”
Saif Shawaf gave advice on being relevant in Social Media impacted the world by saying this: “There’s no secret formula to staying relevant and coming up with great content and ideas. Sometimes it happens within a second. It literally drops on me and I make it happen. See, that’s where the key is. One idea comes to you. You have two options. Either give yourself five thousand excuses how it’s not going to work, how people are going to hate it, how it’s going to be embarrassing, how your cousins are going to judge you or you do it and the moment you do it, the moment you stop fighting yourself, you know it’s going to be a viral video and those are the ones that I fight myself on ten thousand times, but I still do it. Those are the ones that actually succeed.”
Faiza Rammuny expressed the importance of breaking stigmas and staying true to yourself by saying “I feel like my following has grown because I’ve been able to stay true to myself, the good, the bad, the ugly, but also more so that I’ve been unafraid to give the good, the bad and the ugly in our community, because it’s like, yes, the news does put out things and we do have so many stigmas. But it is our responsibility to put out a better image of how we want the world to see us and how we want to be perceived as a people. And if there are stigmas we don’t like, we have to break them and we have to do what we want to do and what we need to do to put out a different image. So I feel like my page has grown simply because regardless of what everybody says or however angry anybody gets and they have their hissy fits or get their panties or hijab in a knot, I still stay true to myself and put out what I want and what stays true to myself, to me and my following.”
Friday, February 5: Connecting with Our Culture
Day 5 of the Connect Arab America Empowerment Summit featured the best that Arab American culture has to offer. Our featured guests included Arab America contributing food writer, Blanche Shaheen as the moderator, pop singer, Abir, comedian, Ahmed Ahmed, wedding singer, Emad Batayeh, and writer and international development expert, May A. Rihani. The panelists answered questions ranging from overcoming discrimination due to their Arab American identity, and also how do they use their art to be a platform for empowering the community.
Remarking on her identity as an Arab and Muslim woman, Abir mentioned that “the modern Arab woman is the woman that she stands in her own thoughts, mind, and the choices she made for herself, not what people told her to do. My parents always told me, don’t live for other people, live for yourself.” Ahmed Ahmed stated that being a comedian allows him to “continue break[ing] down these stereotypes, and besides, no one can hate you when they’re laughing at you.” Emad Batayeh’s conclusion on his identity and love of Arab wedding parties or hafla is because as he said, “music is my life, I love to make people happy, and I love celebrating with people!” May Rihani gave us a glimpse into the wonderful and empowered world of Arab literature by reading quotes written by Gibran Kahlil Gibran and her uncle, Ameen Rihani. Ameen Rihani wrote that like matter itself, an ideal is mutable but indestructible, it doesn’t die, it only undergoes a change.” She also reflected by comparing President Joe Biden to Gibran’s quote that read, “tenderness and kindness are not signs of weakness and despair, but they are manifestations of strength and resolution.”
At the end of the summit, we got to rock out to some awesome Arab and Arab-inspired music from Emad Batayeh and Abir. Abir sang two songs, those being, “Finest Hour,” a song about being happy even when things are not always going well, and her hit single, “Inferno,” off her current album, “Heat” which was released in summer 2020. Batayeh sang numerous songs in Arabic of which I, unfortunately, do not know the name to, but this music had the entire Zoom crowd laughing, clapping, some were playing the tabla (drum), others were swaying to the beat, and everyone enjoyed that we all got to ‘connect’ on the final day of this amazing summit!
About the Arab America Foundation
The Arab America Foundation (AAF) is a non-profit (501c3) educational and cultural organization. The mission of AAF is to promote the Arab heritage, empower and educate others about the Arab identity, connect Arab Americans, and build coalitions with diverse organizations across the U.S.
The Arab America Foundation is grateful to our sponsors who supported the Connect Arab America: Empowerment Summit: The Adel B. Korkor Foundation for Mental Health; Ziyad Brothers Importing; and Amana Mutual Funds.
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