A Great Idea

James Zogby’s Column

Four years ago, Ed Gabriel had a great idea. He wanted Arab Americans to create an award that recognized individuals and institutions for their contributions and service to humanity.

The Arab American Institute adopted Gabriel’s idea and three years ago launched its Kahlil Gibran “Spirit of Humanity” awards. Named after the Lebanese born American poet, the award has been given annually to those who foster democratic and humanitarian values and whose work has promoted the common good.

Shortly after launching the concept, President Clinton named Gabriel to be U.S. Ambassador to Morocco. He served in that post, with distinction, and now at the end of his term, Gabriel has returned to the Untied States to formally participate in his first Kahlil Gibran Awards ceremony.

This year’s event gives testimony to the success of Gabriel’s idea. The winners of the 2001 Gibran awards are: international pop-star Sting for his work to protect the rainforests and indigenous populations as well as his efforts to promote cross cultural understanding; the Grameen Bank whose micro-credit programs has moved millions of people from poverty; Reading is Fundamental, which motivates young children to read through their volunteer programs and by giving children their own books; and the Arab Community Center of Economic and Social Services (ACCESS), a Michigan based agency that annually provides a wide rang of medical and social services to tens-of-thousands of families.

This year’s winners join an impressive list of past Gibran awardees that have included: former Senator George Mitchell for his work to promote peace in Northern Ireland, Federico Mayor for his leadership of the United Nations Economic, Social and Cultural Organization (UNESCO); the Aga Kahn Foundation which promotes health, education, and rural development in low-income countries; The American Lebanese Syrian Associated Charities (ALSAC) which, as the fundraising arm of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, guarantees much need medical care for children, regardless of their family’s ability to pay; the Ford Motor Company for its promotion of diversity and community programs; and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights for its support of human rights workers and campaigns to heighten awareness and encourage governments, international organizations and corporations to adopt policies that ensure respect for international human rights.

As impressive as the winners have been, the list of the past three years’ distinguished award presenters and honored guest speakers have added to the importance of the annual Arab American Institute (AAI) Gibran events. This year Secretary of State Colin Powell was the guest Speaker and Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, Queen Noor of Jordan and Congressman Nick Rahall (Democrat, West Virginia) and Darrel Issa (Republican, California) were presenters.

Past speakers and presenters have included President Clinton and Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala.

In addition to recognizing outstanding humanitarian efforts, the Gibran awards event has come to serve a number of additional purposes as well.

It is a major fundraising event that has so far raised $1 million to support Arab American educational and cultural projects. The funds derived from this annual event have provided internships and scholarships for dozens of young Arab Americans, supported valuable research and studies on the Arab American community and produced cultural and educational materials on the Arab world and Arab Americans.

This summer alone, the Arab American Institute Foundation will host 12 student interns in Washington providing them opportunities to work in government and in service to their community.

The annual Gibran dinner has, as well, come to serve as a major event on Washington’s political and social calendar. Among the guests in attendance at the annual event are members of the Administration, Congress and major U.S. political and media personalities.

Last year when President Clinton sought an opportunity to bid farewell to Arab Americans, he came to the Gibran dinner. And this year when the Bush Administration sought a venue for the Secretary of State to address his first public remarks to Arab Americans, it was the Gibran awards dinner.

Additionally, the event has provided Arab Americans an opportunity to share with our fellow Americans the contributions we have made to building this country. It is startling to some to learn that former President John F. Kennedy’s immortal quote-” Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country”-was taken from a Gibran poem. And generations of Arab Americans have been inspired by Gibran’s famous injunction to Arab American youth written in 1926 in which he told them “to stand before the towers of New York, Washington, Chicago and San Francisco” and say “I am a descendent of people that built Damascus and Byblos and Tyre and Sidon, and Antioch, and now I am here to build with you.”

Finally, and maybe most important of all, the “Spirit of Humanity” awards have helped to elevate Arab Americans and have provided the community with the opportunity to make a clear statement about the values they want to project and the kind of world they hope to build.

In an offhand remark on his way into last year’s dinner, President Clinton praised the concept of the “Spirit of Humanity” awards. He told me how “smart” he thought the idea had been. By honoring the types of individuals and institutions we have selected for the awards, Clinton observed, we enhance the stature of the Arab American community and we help to defeat negative stereotypes.

This could be clearly seen in the choice of 2001’s awardees. We are the community that honors human rights, self-determination and respect for cultural exchange and so we honor Sting. We are the community that values education and so we honor Reading is Fundamental. We are the community that believes in economic empowerment and free enterprise and so we honor the Grameen Bank. And we are the community that understands the importance of helping those in need and so we honor ACCESS.

Through the Kahlil Gibran “Spirit of Humanity” awards we not only have these individuals and institutions, we also make a statement about ourselves and about our traditions and values and our vision for the world community.

It was Ambassador Ed Gabriel’s idea, and now it has become a reality. And the Arab American community is better off because of it.