Successful Arab Americans have traveled all over the Middle East, from Kuwait to Libya, through the U.S. Speaker Program. Engaging with audiences in person or virtually, they have shared their American experiences. Here are some of their stories:
In response to the September 11 terror attacks, Zainab Al-Suwaij co-founded American Islamic Congress, a nonreligious nonprofit. The organization primarily promotes civil society and civil rights, fosters acceptance and mobilizes moderate voices in the American Muslim community.
A common question she gets after speeches is, “Have you faced discrimination in the United States for wearing a headscarf?”
Her answer: “No.”
“I am part of the American mosaic, that mix of cultures, ethnicities, and we’re all proud to be who we are with the heritage that we come from, as well as being proud Americans,” she said.
Al-Suwaij moved to the United States from Iraq to start a new life following the uprising against Saddam Hussein in 1991. Being an Arab American has given her the opportunity to celebrate her joint identity, enjoy democracy and worship God “in a freedom that I was not able to be given,” she said.
“It’s a country that values you as a human being and also gives you the opportunity to improve yourself as a person as well as to help others all around the world,” she said of the United States.
Before becoming founder and chief executive of International Strategic Management, which backs organizations creating opportunities for immigrants and other marginalized communities, Faris Alami held a series of odd jobs and briefly experienced homelessness.
His journey from the Palestinian territories to New York City during the first Gulf War in 1990 resonates with audiences. Alami lived with friends for a few months in the U.S. before opening a T-shirt business that raised money for hungry people around the world.
“I made 400 bucks (a month),” he said “It wasn’t a lot, but for me, 400 bucks meant I could eat more than one meal a day.”
From there, he sold perfume, drove a limousine and managed department stores before launching his successful enterprise, which designs and implements various programs that support entrepreneurs and small-business development.
“I’ve been blessed,” Alami said.
‘The best home’
In America, you can build the life you want, Roy Abdo says, because despite inevitable obstacles, you can orchestrate your destiny.
“I tell them ‘I’m going to give you the keys’ and then they’ll have to take the keys and open the doors themselves,” Abdo says.
The Lebanese American, who has dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, founded Digital Revamp, which builds digital strategies for nonprofits, startups and Fortune 500 companies. Abdo is also the company’s chief executive.
Abdo boarded one of the last flights to leave Lebanon in 2006 before the “July War” closed Beirut’s Rafic Hariri International Airport. He arrived in Greece to study in Crete through a three-week partnership with Georgetown University. He couldn’t go home when the program ended because of fighting there. But alumni at William Jewell College in Missouri bought a plane ticket for him and organized a scholarship that covered room, board and tuition so that he could attend that institution.
“America is the best home I could ever ask for,” he said.
For Akram Elias, being American is a way of thinking as defined by three documents: the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Elias is founder and president of Capital Communications Group Incorporated. It focuses on public diplomacy, federalism, political relations, cross-cultural communications and international business networking.
He tells audiences that in other places, identification is based on common cultural traditions, blood ties and religious beliefs. But in the U.S., the Founding Fathers came up with the three documents, an extraordinary construct that defines what it means to be American.
“You can enjoy any aspects of our ‘cultural heritage,’ but to integrate and become an American, you take on this political way of thinking, this construct,” Elias says. “It’s not like we the people have voted to get one another these rights. These are a gift of the creative force.”
An American of Lebanese origin, Elias has lived in the Washington area for almost 40 years, and he’s passionate about the work he does.
“It’s my way way of giving back,” he said. “It’s my obligation.”