Recap: Empowered Women of Arab America
By: Sara Tawfik/Arab America Contributing Writer
On Sunday, March 21, 2021, the Arab America Foundation presented “Empowered Women of Arab America” with eight dynamic women that are rising in their respective careers. Registrants from across the United States in addition to coverage in the Arab World via Al Jazeera’s Mubasher/Live broadcast channel connected on Arab Mother’s Day to empower women.
The event explored Arab American unity and identity with discussions from exciting speakers in public service, professions, business, media, and the arts with special performances.
The primary purpose of the event and the Arab America Foundation is to connect, educate, and empower Arab Americans by hosting inspiring and successful Arab American women who represent some of the best in Arab America.
We started the evening with Arab America Foundation co-founders Warren David and Dr. Amal David introducing the Empowered Women of Arab America moderator Sara Shouhayib. Sara Shouhayib is an Emmy-award-winning journalist currently working in Bakersfield, CA as the morning news anchor for KBAK/KBFX. She is also the producer and host of the network’s “Health Alert for Eyewitness News” segment. Sara is a proud daughter of Lebanese immigrants having grown up in Troy, MI, and she credits her father as the driving force behind her optimistic outlook on life.
Shouhayib started her moderation by expressing the honor she felt for the opportunity to share the stage with such inspiring women.
Shouhayib began the conversation by introducing Annissa Essaibi George. Annissa Essaibi George currently serves as an At-Large Boston City Councilor after having been elected in November 2015. Before venturing into politics, Essaibi taught as a teacher for Boston’s public schools for 13 years and she is a lifelong resident of the city. Additionally, her role as a teacher gave George a unique perspective into the challenges and inequities faced by Boston’s families. As a City Council member, she has also spearheaded efforts to combat the opioid epidemic, homelessness, and providing affordable mental health care. Finally, Essaibi is the daughter of Tunisian immigrants.
When being asked how her Arab American heritage inspired her in her career and the challenges she’s faced because of them, George expressed that when you put the work into achieving your goals and you are passionate about those goals, it’s not a surprise when those goals are met. She also continued to express the challenges with the lack of support from her community. She expressed the importance of leading, especially when you are different from others and demonstrate to the generation after you that your foreign name does not define your capabilities.
Toni Breidinger is a professional race car driver who currently races for NASCAR in the ARCA Menards Series and is a limited season driver for NASCAR’s Camping World Truck Series. In February 2021, she made history as NASCAR’s first female Arab American race car driver after she completed a top-20 finish at Daytona International Speedway’s Lucas Oil 200. Breidinger is also the winningest female driver in the United States Auto Club (USAC) where she has had 19 career victories. She is of Lebanese heritage through her mother who is from Beirut, and Breidinger grew up in the Hillsborough area of California.
When asked how being an Arab American has inspired her career, Breidinger explained that her mom is a big inspiration to her. Knowing that her mother was a war refugee in Lebanon and not receiving the same opportunities that she’d received has made her grateful for those opportunities. Her message to young women is to continue to stay true to yourself and be comfortable in your own story. She focused on how being confident in yourself and paving the way for others is her message to young people.
Dr. Rana el Kaliouby is the Co-Founder and CEO of Affectiva, a company that specializes in creating ethical Artificial Intelligence (AI). She is also a scientist and entrepreneur. With a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge, El Kaliouby has pioneered the field of emotion recognition technology (emotion AI) especially within the fields of mental health and autism. One of her research goals is to make AI equitable, diverse, and without algorithmic bias, and to humanize technology. She is passionate about ethics especially when it comes to the field of AI. She is of Egyptian descent and el Kaliouby has received numerous honors including being named to Forbes’s “Top 50 Women in Tech,” Fortune’s “40 Under 40 list,” and she has also attained a Post Doctorate from MIT.
El Kaliouby credited her mother’s success for her own success. She’d explained that her mother was one of the first Arab American women to enter the field of technology in the 1970s. She continues to explain that the work ethic and the perseverance within the Arab heritage is one of the reasons behind her success and what keeps her motivated. Another aspect behind her success is the Arab warmth and generosity that has inspired her. Her guide to her success is overcoming the voice of inner doubt.
Nano Raies is a Syrian American singer, songwriter, and composer. She is originally from Homs, Syria, and with her family, she escaped the Syrian Civil War to come to live in the United States. During the war, Raies decided that she would never stop singing and was determined to take vocal lessons even in a warzone. When she arrived in the States, Raies realized her dream of becoming a professional singer by graduating from the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA. Finally, Raies says that she wants to be “an example for those who have been through conflict and strife to believe that nothing is impossible.”
What’s inspired Raies the most within the Arab Heritage was the cultural music that she’d grown up listening to. She’d explained that the music inspired her to write and show her own Arab heritage to the world. Her challenge, a lot like many of her fellow-panelists, was the pressure to be involved in the STEM fields. However, her passion for music kept drawing her back to a career as a musical artist. Her message is to believe in yourself and stay persistent in your craft.
Sali Osman currently serves as the Chief Security Officer for the International Monetary Fund (IMF). She has over two decades of experience working in security, risk management, and cybersecurity for the US Federal Government. She has also worked in various settings including “human services, media, industrial, oil, and gas.” Osman started her career in law enforcement and has dedicated her life to protecting corporate assets, preventing cyberterrorism, creating incident response teams consisting of computer forensics experts, and the security logistics of managing acquisitions, mergers, and divestitures.
What inspires her the most about her Arab heritage was the comfort in her minority. It inspired her to be different within both the American and Arab communities. She took extra steps in her life to showcase her Arabic heritage through the traditional Sudanese toub, and speaks Arabic to represent her culture. The challenge she’d always faced was being dismissed as “just a woman” in her field. She, however, took it as an opportunity to prove them wrong. She gives the message to challenge the status quo. She continues to give the message, specifically to Arab immigrants, to leave their differences behind and build the nation that we’re all working towards in America.
Mona Dajani currently serves as the Global Head of Energy and Infrastructure Finance Team at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP. Dajani is a dual-certified lawyer in the United States and the United Kingdom as well as an engineer, and she also has a(n) MBA. She has over two decades of experience working in global infrastructure and energy and Dajani represents multiple groups including the commercial industry, financial and public institutions, and governments. She has led initiatives in renewable energies including “solar, wind, hydrogen, hydroelectric, geothermal, biomass, connectivity, and among others.” Dajani has received numerous career honors including that she was named as a “Fellow to the Construction Lawyers Society” for the last three years which is given to only a small group of lawyers.
Dajani explains that her Arab heritage is inspired by her parents, who had immigrated to America at a young age and inspired by their sacrifices for the family. She’d explained that her parents made her feel like she didn’t have any barriers to pursue her goals and her dreams. Like so many of her fellow panelists, Dajani broke through barriers when by persevering with her goals and achievements. She emphasizes the importance of being true to herself as she concludes her message to Arab American women. She also emphasized how important it is to “pay it forward” in your community.
Brenda Abdelall is a “Senior Advisor for the Office of Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, and she is also a presidential political appointee by President Joe Biden at the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS).” Before being appointed, Abdelall taught at the University of Michigan Law School and the University of the District of Columbia Law School. She has over a decade of experience working in domestic and public policy, civil rights, global social responsibility, and Abdelall has a special interest in working with communities of color and minority faiths. Finally, Brenda is passionate about promoting social justice for refugees and Arab Americans.
Abdelall grew up in a family of very outspoken Egyptian women that have climbed their way up to success which inspired her in many ways. She was taught from a very young age to never shy away from speaking out and lead with compassion. One of Abdellal’s most personal challenges is that she felt like there wasn’t anyone who can understand or relate to her identity around her. This made it very difficult to find mentorship within communities that she wanted to thrive in. she ended her statement by explaining how critical it is to mentor and empower the younger generation so that the challenges that the older generation had to face. Abdelall expressed how important it is to invest in your community as well, and explained that leadership and success can only be measured by how we grow others.
After hearing all of our inspiring panelists discuss what inspires them about their Arab Heritage and how they’ve overcome obstacles and challenges of being a successful Arab America, we got to listen to a very special performance from Nano Raies. She performed a song about her country called “Tell Me” in which she explains the relatable feeling of missing your homeland. We continued our conversation with audience participation as Sara Shouhayib selected several of the audience questions. After our audience discussion, we had another opportunity to hear a closing song for Arab mothers everywhere from Raies.
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.
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