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Pathbreakers of Arab America—Andre Sayegh

posted on: Mar 13, 2024

Mayor of Paterson, New Jersey, Andre Sayegh, Photo Credit: Facebook

By: John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer

This is the thirty-seventh of Arab America’s series on American pathbreakers of Arab descent. The series includes personalities from entertainment, business, sports, science, academia, journalism, and politics, among other areas. Our thirty-seventh pathbreaker is Andre Sayegh, mayor of Paterson, New Jersey. He was born in Paterson on March 20, 1974, to a Syrian mother and a Lebanese father. He is a practicing Roman Catholic. Andre is recognized as a progressive mayor of New Jersey’s third-largest city, with a sizeable Arab American population and many other ethnicities. He is a proud Arab American who deeply sympathizes with the war-afflicted Palestinians of Gaza, some of whom have close family in Paterson.

Andre Sayegh, proud Arab American of Paterson, New Jersey, a progressive mayor of a diversified city

Sayegh has brought a modernizing approach to the mayoralty of Paterson. Elected in 2018, he has a long record of service to his community, commencing as a member of the City Council. Andre served on that Council from 2008 until 2018. According to Wikipedia, he graduated from DePaul Catholic High School in 1992, from Seton Hall University with a B.A. in History, and then an M.A. in Public Policy and Administration from Columbia University. Sayegh speaks Arabic. He is married to Farhanna Sayegh and has two daughters and a son.

Sayegh began his public service career as a member of the Paterson school board, followed by his city council position. He first ran for mayor of Paterson in 2014, losing that race. However, he ran again in 2018 and won. Then, a coalition of various groups, including Christian and Muslim Arabs, African Americans, Peruvians, and Latinos, joined him in his run for mayor. Andre was subsequently honored for his progressive approach to governing by the Bloomberg-Harvard City Leadership program. That program chose 40 mayors from around the U.S. and foreign countries to participate in a year-long education and professional development program designed for mayors to help deliver results to residents. There, Sayegh had the opportunity to learn from other mayors of cities such as Miami, Atlanta, Seattle, Quito, and Reykjavik.

From his involvement in the Bloomberg-Harvard program, Andre brought several innovations to Paterson to improve governance and transparency. Thus, the City hired a new Chief Innovation Officer and Chief Data Officer, both funded by a foundation. Sayegh also launched a Financial Empowerment Center and an initiative named ‘Mayors for a Guaranteed Income.’

Based on a worldwide innovation competition, Bloomberg Philanthropies designated Paterson as one of 15 winning cities of the 2021-2022 Global Mayors Challenge. That win resulted in assistance in such areas as greater access of residents to parks and an improved census count. The improved census count put Paterson into a “first-class city” category (population of 150,000), making it eligible for more grant funding and other resources.

Along with many other large American cities, Paterson has not escaped crime and issues surrounding gun control. These problems almost always involve the role of police, the perceived use of excessive force, and the involvement of minority citizens. A problem of the “revolving door” of police leadership in Paterson is believed to be responsible for “dysfunction within police ranks and a lack of trust in local law enforcement.” For those and other reasons, the New Jersey Attorney General took over control of the Paterson Police Department on March 27, 2023.

Sayegh spearheads Paterson leaders’ quest for ceasefire in Israel-Hamas war

Given Paterson’s large Palestinian American population, it should come as no surprise that their voice would emerge in opposition to the war in Gaza. Representing Arab Americans, Mayor Sayegh, according to New Jersey Spotlight News, “renewed the city’s call for a ceasefire in Gaza, pointing to nearly 20,000 men, women and children who’ve been reportedly killed in the region in just the last three months.” That was in February. Now, the numbers have increased by 10,000 more. Sayegh was “joined by several Palestinian-American residents who spoke of the deaths of their loved ones in Gaza.” More recently, a varied group of faith leaders, namely Muslim, Jewish, and Christian, joined in a call to President Biden to urge a two-state solution in the region.

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In another news report, USA Today Network Gaza, a Palestinian from Paterson, Ahmad Qatanani, the physician in training, had dreamt of becoming a doctor to help save lives. Just three weeks ago, Ahmad found out that “15 of [his] relatives were killed in Gaza. Tragically, Ahmad no longer has any family in Gaza.” Quoting Andre, USA Today wrote, “The bloodshed must end immediately…This is a humanitarian crisis that requires a humanitarian response. There must be an immediate cease-fire to save innocent lives and to end the pain and suffering.”

In a closeup view of Paterson, news source headed its story, “In Paterson’s ‘Little Palestine,’ a community is united in grief.” The story focuses on Amjad Abukwaik, a pharmacist who named his business Sheefa Pharmacy after the Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza. Amjad was born there, and now “thousands of people have been trapped amid heavy shelling during the Israel-Hamas war that began in early October.” Little Palestine is “one in a long stretch of Arab-owned stores, restaurants, bakeries and offices on Palestine Way in South Paterson, where locals and visitors enjoy traditional foods, hookah, shopping, and conversation over sweet mint tea.”

But now, the mood in ‘Little Palestine’ has shifted. With the outbreak of war, the mood in the neighborhood is characterized accordingly: “Instead of smiles and joyful embraces, people offer solemn nods. News blares on television sets in stores. At the pharmacy, Abukwaik tries to focus on work but says he cannot stop thinking about the suffering in Gaza.” He continued, “This has been the hardest time for us…It’s been the toughest thing I have been through, watching your own family, the place you grew up, watching kids, infants, women, old and young, being killed as if they were animals.” In this little Palestinian enclave in Paterson, everyone knows someone killed in Israeli airstrikes, and almost everyone can see their former towns on TV news, now heaps of rubble.

Arab Americans have been immigrating to Paterson since the late 1800s, and at least 10,000 of them are people of Palestinian descent. They celebrate their identity each year via a Palestinian flag-raising ceremony, and recently, they even renamed a part of Main Street ‘Palestine Way.’ Topping off these, last year, Mayor Sayegh signed an agreement with the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah, making Paterson and Ramallah ‘Sister Cities.’

Lately, however, being Palestinian in Paterson has been much more painful than joyful. As the pharmacist, Abukwaik described “feeling helpless as he mourns for relatives killed in Gaza, and for survivors who lack food and clean water.” Another Palestinian American noted that 41 members of her family had been killed in Gaza, saying, “I can’t function, can’t eat and can’t think. I wake up every morning at sunrise, and the first thing I do is check on my family. The last thing I do before I sleep is check on my family. My family is scattered all over the place, waiting for death. This must stop.”

Photo — USA Today

When families speak by phone with relatives in Gaza, they can’t help but hear “the whistling of bombs …in the background.” Gaza families talk about what they had seen that day, “lifeless bodies, children ill from drinking dirty water, and families without food or lights.” Typical of Paterson’s Palestinian Americans are statements such as, “I wake up every morning holding my breath, terrified to hear back news from my family.”

Through all of this, Andre Sayegh, as both mayor and friend of his constituents, supports all residents. Though he is not Palestinian, Andre’s focus has shifted uniquely to the needs of Paterson’s Palestinian community. Both on a personal level and in his professional role as Mayor, Sayegh is uniquely equipped to provide personal and official support to them as they weather one of the worst emotional storms they have ever encountered.

–“Andre Sayegh,” Wikipedia Biographies of Arab Americans, 2024
–“Paterson leaders continue to call for ceasefire in Israel-Hamas war,” New Jersey Spotlight News, 2/19/2024
–“Paterson Mayor Andre Sayegh says there must be an immediate cease-fire in Gaza,” USA Today Network, 11/2/2023
–“In Paterson’s ‘Little Palestine,’ a community is united in grief,”, 11/17/2023

John Mason, Ph.D., focuses on Arab culture, society, and history is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America. The reproduction of this article is permissible with proper credit to Arab America and the author.

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