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James Abourezk, First Arab American U.S. Senator, Dies at 92

posted on: Feb 24, 2023

James Abourezk, First Arab American U.S. Senator, Dies at 92
Former Senator James Abourezk

February 24, 2023–James Abourezk, attorney and Democratic politician who served as a United States senator and United States representative from South Dakota and co-founder of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee(ADC), died today on his 92nd birthday.

He was born in Wood, South Dakota, the son of Lena (Mickel), a homemaker, and Charles Abourezk, an owner of two general stores. Both of his parents were Lebanese immigrants. He grew up near Wood on the Rosebud Reservation and has lived in South Dakota most of his life.

Abourezk represented South Dakota in the United States Senate from 1973 until 1979. He was the author of the Indian Child Welfare Act, passed by Congress in 1978 to try to preserve Indian families and tribal culture.

He was instrumental in the creation of both the American Indian Policy Review Commission and the Select Committee on Indian Affairs. He became chairman of the Indian Affairs Committee from its creation in 1977 to 1979.

Abourezk was elected in 1970 as a Democrat to the United States House of Representatives and served from 1971 to 1973. In 1972 he was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he served from 1973 to 1979.

Abourezk was an outspoken critic of Israel and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East after touring the region and visiting his parents’ hometown in Lebanon as a senator. The position lost him many political allies, and he decided to retire from the Senate after a single term.

In 1980, Abourezk co-founded the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and traveled throughout the U.S. organizing Arab Americans in the wake of the “Abscam” debacle. Abscam was an FBI sting operation where agents dressed up as “oil-rich sheiks” in the late 1970s and early 1980s that led to the convictions of seven members of the United States Congress, among others, for bribery and corruption.

Abourezk’s marriages to Mary Ann Houlton and Margaret Bethea ended in divorce. In 1991, he married Sanaa Dieb, a restaurateur. They moved to Sioux Falls where she opened an award-winning Arab restaurant.

Survivors include his wife; children Charles Abourezk, Nikki Pipe On Head, and Paul Abourezk from his marriage to Houlton; daughter Alya Abourezk from his third marriage; a stepdaughter; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Warren David, president of Arab America and a former national president of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said, “during a time when discourse regarding the negative portrayal of Arabs and the injustice faced by Palestinians were scarce, he (Abourezk) acted as a pioneer who instilled a sense of immediacy in the Arab American community–he was a trailblazer in that regard.”

Compiled by Arab America

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