Event Recap – Get to Know Your Government: Panel at the 61st Ramallah Convention


Watch the Panel live here!

On July 5th, the Arab-American Business and Professional Association (ABPA) successfully hosted a panel at the 61st Ramallah Convention in partnership with the American Federation of Ramallah Palestine (AFRP). The panel featured speakers from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Small Business Administration, and the Department of State for a discussion on how to help Arab-Americans becoming top public servants.

Dr. Rita Stephan from the Department of State is seen speaking at the podium. On the far left is Mr. Roberto Ramirez from the Census Bureau.

The panel was opened by Mr. Fuad Sahouri, the Founder and President of ABPA. He spoke about his reasons for re-orienting ABPA’s mission to focus on educating the next generation of Arab-American leaders. He discussed how other racial and ethnic groups, such as Hispanics and Asians, already have well-established internship programs, and how Arab-Americans are the last of the groups to establish such a program. Mr. Sahouri closed by stating that ABPA’s mission is to “[introduce] the consciousness of our incoming generation to the value of civil service so that we are integrated, rather than assimilated, within the country.”

Mr. Sahouri then introduced the moderator of the panel, Dr. Edmund Ghareeb, a senior scholar at the Jerusalem Fund and distinguished author on US-Arab relations. “The percentage of Arab-Americans who work in federal government agencies is only 4%,” Dr. Ghareeb said, noting significance of ABPA’s mission. “Arab-Americans are actually deeply rooted in this continent,” he argued, mentioning Harvard University research on how Columbus brought Muslims and Arabs with him to America. Dr. Ghareeb talked about the different waves of Arab immigration to America; the first was in the 1860’s, and it was mostly Syrians. “Up until 1907 or 1908, Syrian-Americans were refused citizenship in the United States,” he said, because “they were considered Mongolians,” as they were migrating from the lands of Ottoman Empire at the time. As Dr. Ghareeb explained that, after a lawsuit, Arabs were designated as part of the ‘white’ category, which is why Arab-Americans to this day remain in the ‘white’ category on the census. 

Colonel Abbas Dahouk formerly served in the U.S. Military and is now an active member of ABPA’s Advisory Board.

Following Dr. Ghareeb’s speech, Mr. Roberto Ramirez from the Census Bureau delved on the controversy on MENA (Middle East and North Africa) designation on the Census 2020. Ramirez said the Arab-American community is the only community that tries to get out from “white” category. After conducting research and tests in the past few years, the Census Bureau decided not to move forward with a new racial category for Arab-Americans; but, instead, there will be opportunities to reflect specific ethnic backgrounds and self-designations in the 2020 forms. Ramirez highlighted that the Census data is “about fair representation”, and that no matter where a person writes in their heritage on the form, it will be recorded as such.

After the Census discussion, Mr. John Klein, a lawyer for the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), described the ‘three C’s’ that SBA focuses on: capital, contracts, and counseling. He then talked about the ways in which small, diverse, or female-founded businesses could get federal contracts, emphasizing the need for community feedback on and participation in the process. “It’s important to tell the government what you like as well as what you don’t like”, he said.

As an Arab-American serving at the Department of State, the next panelist Dr. Rita Stephan spoke about her experience. “I was previously an activist, and I said, ‘I cannot be a bureaucrat’,” she shared about her early skepticism. Dr. Stephan spoke about her life experience in diplomacy and foreign affairs, from meeting with peacemakers and diplomats to being in Geneva during the Syrian peace negotiations. She also shared about the backlash she experiences occasionally from the Arab-American activist community, which has a profound distrust of the government. “I am a public servant”, she said firmly. “I don’t serve any administration, I serve the American taxpayers.” Dr. Stephan also discussed her current work at The Middle East Partnerships Initiative, which “focuses on promoting peace and prosperity in the Middle East and North Africa.” She finished by encouraging other Arab-Americans to join the U.S. government. 

The panel was hosted in Washington D.C. at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel.

The last panelist, Ret. Colonel Abbas Dahouk, the Vice President of Middle East Programs at Advanced Technology Systems Company, shared similar sentiments. Col. Dahouk served in the army for 33 years, and has received many awards and medals, including the Legion of Merit Medal and the Global War on Terrorism Medal. Col. Dahouk spoke about his experience as a Lebanese-American in the army. “Being an Arab in the military at that time, they had no programs for teaching; [other foreign races], they walked on the base, went through English training, got their cert level, and went through basic training. In my case, there was nothing like this; I went straight to basic training,” he said. Col. Dahouk then spoke about his encounters with other Arabs when he was in the Middle East with the army, recalling how shocked many Arabs were that America allowed Arabs to serve. “You can educate America about the Arabs, but you still have to educate the Arabs about America”, said Col. Dahouk. He added that Arab-American community needs to become more prevalent in the government—as for many Arab-Americans, “joining the government is still a foreign concept, and we have to break that; it has to become a natural concept.”

The panel was closed by Dr. Ghareeb, who shared the poem “I Believe in You” from the famous Lebanese writer Khalil Gibran. “I believe you can say to the founders of this great nation, ‘Here I am, a youth, a young tree whose roots were plucked from the hills of Lebanon, yet I am deeply rooted here, and I would be fruitful’,” as the poem goes, “Young Americans of Syrian origin, I believe in you.”

1 Comment

  1. Lobna Ismail on July 13, 2019 at 11:19 am

    Profound professional education and advocacy for Arab Americans to serve as civil servants. Thank you.

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