More Than a Record-Breaker: A Hero’s Journey

Immediately upon meeting Michael Haddad in person, you will notice his tremendous strength of willpower and determination. At the age of six, he was subject to a spinal cord injury from a Jet Ski accident, which left three-fourths of his body paralyzed from the chest down. Today, defying all odds, he walks by carrying his body one-step at a time – using 26 pound braces initially designed to only hold him upright for limited periods of time. His physical support system alone, however, does not fully encapsulate his remarkability. “Through his perseverance, determination, and belief in science, Michael was able to defy his paralysis and walk upright by adopting a unique walking pattern, similar to a Swing Through Gait pattern (SWG) using the support of an orthotic exoskeleton.” Only through his awe-inspiring spirit and passion has Michael been able to achieve miraculous accomplishments, of which he has many.

He has broken three world records through his walking and climbing, representing his beloved Lebanon along the way. On March 8, 2015 Michael achieved his third world record by climbing the Black Summit or Al Qornet El Sawda – the highest point not only in Lebanon but in the entire Levant – at 10,131 feet above sea level under the training and supervision of the Lebanese Army Rangers Regiment. He also carried himself for twelve miles, amounting to 60,000 steps, on a journey that took him through the mountains of Lebanon, where he persevered against all manners of natural obstacles, including sub-zero temperatures. Commemorating World Oceans Day in 2014, Michael also climbed the iconic Raouche Pigeon rocks and hoisted himself up 131 feet, relying only on his upper body to do so.

Since 2019, Michael has been recognized as a Goodwill Ambassador for Climate Action by the UNDP’s Regional Bureau for Arab States. Already having dedicated his platform to raise awareness on the impact of deforestation, environmental destruction, and climate change, Michael went above and beyond his own accomplishments by completing his Arctic Walk for Climate Resilience and Food Security, in June of last year, during which he carried seed samples from twelve Arab countries and a book by Pope Francis to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault—the world’s largest backup facility for seeds. He trained with the UK Rangers Regiment in preparation for this Arctic Walk and was featured in the media, globally.

For many, Michael Haddad’s athletic accomplishments alone would be inspiring. What makes him more than an athlete and role model, however, is his relentless commitment to his goodwill and humanity; going beyond the limits by pushing his own personal boundaries, endurance, and sense of responsibility and positivity. A research team representing the Lebanese American University (LAU), American University of Beirut (AUB), Phoenix Energy, Order of Physical Therapists of Lebanon and Orthotics Professionals and Engineers collaborated to develop an exoskeleton capable of enhancing the life of people suffering from spinal cord injuries. Michael’s participation in this cutting-edge research, also in collaboration with a special medical team from LAU and AUB and other international bodies, has not only improved his own access and physical mobility, but has also brought hope to communities challenged by disabilities and the lack of universal accessibility.

He remains committed to improving accessibility conditions on behalf of the disabled community, as demonstrated by his focus on the mobility needs in the Karantina neighborhood following the August 4th Port of Beirut explosion. As an activist abroad and at home, Michael has be recognized by the UN, multiple universities, and NGOs in many locations for his exceptional accomplishments.

Describing Michael, Thomas Abraham says, “At a very young age, most children are taught to believe in the impossible. Michael Haddad is God’s instrument of showcasing that the impossible is possible, and Michael’s key to achieving the impossible is he believes in the supreme being. Michael embodies the holistic presence of mind that, with his determination, willpower, and commitment to reach the impossible, he has accomplished the same based on his faith in the Almighty. Michael, indeed, is a walking miracle that cannot be defined without looking into his faith in the divine being who has used Michael as an instrument of trust that embodies the pure essence of love.”

It has not been a simple transition, but as an experienced entrepreneur, motivational speaker, and activist, Michael Haddad is able to do many things, having built an effective platform for himself to inspire change. His actions and achievements speak louder and bolder than his words. He is so much more than a paraplegic athlete and role model; he is a hero.

To read his complete story, visit .

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans. The ATFL-sponsored Congressional Delegation met with Michael Haddad in November of 2021. Featured in the image above (from right): Congressman Darin LaHood, Michael Haddad, Congressman Darrell Issa, and Ambassador Ed Gabriel, Ret. 

Syria and Lebanon – Paying the Price of Neglect

Syria and Lebanon – Paying the Price of Neglect

How much more can the Syrian people be forced to endure? With plunging rates of human development in education, health, basic welfare, and other services, not to mention the continued denial of human rights, the abandonment of local governance to the Assad regime, the fragmentation of the country among warring factions, and the absence of any realistic alternatives to a continued stalemate among them, Syria has been pushed beyond repair. It seems that nether Russia nor Iran have a plan other than maintaining the status quo – without the resources or financial capabilities to undertake the widespread investments necessary for survival and reconstruction of the country.

As recently reported, “Even before the earthquakes that devastated northwestern Syria in February, the UN had said that 14.6 million Syrians were in need of humanitarian assistance, with 6.9 million people internally displaced and more than 5.4 million Syrian refugees living in neighboring countries. Hundreds of thousands also sought asylum in Germany and other parts of the European Union, as well as further afield.” Not only has Syria wound up with a devastated economy, but the professional class outside of the capital, Damascus, has largely dissipated as a force for development.

You may wonder, then, why our attention is increasingly focused on Syria despite the many unresolved challenges in Lebanon. Their futures are entwined, as their histories have been. After adding together Hezbollah’s Syrian adventures, the role of Iran in Iraq, and the political links to Lebanon, it is apparent that each can play a role in the continued erosion or emerging successes of the other. Syria is Lebanon’s largest market. Many families share roots that go back hundreds of years. Their cultures are so similar that the food, music, and performing arts all blend into each other.

A decade ago, there were optimistic forecasts of Tripoli and Aleppo twining to facilitate the reconstruction of Syria, in the post-war aftermath. Well, Syria is still divided and Lebanon is now ruined. So much for predictions. Tripoli became the center of poverty in Lebanon – if not, in the entire coastal Mediterranean region – and Aleppo was destroyed twice by ISIS, further ruined by the anti-ISIS campaigns of the government. Today, what has become apparent in both countries is that the central governments are notoriously unreliable and unable to meet the needs of the country from basic infrastructure to telecommunications and energy.

Some Sunshine?

Local initiatives in both countries – not considering the Levantine Energy packages bringing power from Jordan and Egypt – are possible options for creating manageable paths forward for communities and even regions. Local community empowerment under various labels relieves the governments of providing a range of services to citizens at the local level. Utilizing the human resources that were once abundant in both countries deals both with the brain drain issue and magnifies what benefits can accrue from utilizing local talents and energies so that more products can be created for export, value can be added to existing products, and demand can be increased for local services including production of exports.

Various studies conducted pre- and post-pandemic, have spelled out the capacity and areas of opportunity for economies to reduce their import costs and create new streams of income.

The reason why this analysis aims to look beyond Lebanon is that the Syrian markets are right next door. Bringing together the qualities of the two markets as well as the entrepreneurial talents that both have to offer create synergies enabling communities in Syria and Lebanon to overcome their stigmas of poverty and regression. As far as Lebanon is concerned, “The business community is confident – that there are enough unemployed individuals with relevant skills to meet labor demand in these sectors. These initiatives could entice qualified youth to forego emigration, create high-quality private sector jobs, produce additional sophisticated products, increase economic output, reduce demand for public sector jobs, and efficiently utilize savings in the absence of a functioning banking sector.”

Neither country needs to rely on the central governments except for facilitations. As it stands today, in Lebanon, “The overvalued exchange rate and relatively high labor costs contributed to reducing the competitiveness of locally manufactured products in foreign and local markets before 2020. Compounding this, the monopolized market structure lowered entry incentives in key manufacturing sectors. As a result, from 2011 to 2019, value added in manufacturing dropped by 25% to $3.1 billion, and by another 27% from 2019 to 2021.” On the local level, these non-competitive barriers can be reduced significantly, and the pairing of Syrian and Lebanese labor and brainpower can bring about a range of successes.

This alternative serves both countries, reduces tensions, promotes stability, and requires few actions by a central government whether they be autocrats or kleptocrats. Putting power and initiative back in the hands of local communities engenders the stability desperately needed in both countries.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans. 

Will Syria Push Lebanon Off the Cliff?

At a January 29 press conference, Secretary of State Antony Blinken was clear: “We don’t support normalization.” That theme of US foreign policy has been adamant since the start of the Syrian civil war, during which time over half of the pre-war Syrian population has been killed or displaced. While the Lebanese host communities have shared in the suffering of the refugees as their economy has imploded, the EU Council on Foreign Relations reports that, “The Lebanese financial crisis of the last few years has seen between one-third and one-half of all direct UN cash aid in the country swallowed up by Lebanese banks, resulting in refugees and others in need missing out on much-needed international assistance.”

It is no surprise that while the elites in both countries profit from the suffering of the people, according to the report, “The desire to leave is confirmed by, for example, a recent poll that revealed at least 69 per cent of Syrian refugee respondents are planning to leave Lebanon for a third country – a 42 per cent surge in two years.”

This statistic reflects both their forced displacement and the conditions that refugees increasingly encounter in host countries. For example, “In Lebanon, over 80 per cent of Syrian refugees have no legal residency documentation, which is essential to access employment, education, and basic services, and to exercise freedom of movement.” Not unlike the situation of the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, this reflects more of the impact of the vagaries of the local power-sharing agreement as well as the blatant hostility towards refugees in general.

In mid-January, The United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, warned that 90 per cent of Syrians live below the poverty line, while 60 per cent of Syrians suffer from food insecurity. This is compounded by the lack of medical and education facilities that leads some families to seek relief as refugees elsewhere, either through perilous relation or moving to other host communities spreading stress elsewhere.

The overwhelming pressures to support their families and be employed has eroded the family-centered values of Syrian society, leaving the Assad regime with a war-torn country with large numbers of phantom supporters. Children are forced to work, often in informal job sectors, or forced into early marriage to qualify for certain benefits and support. This has spilled over into Lebanon as the economic hardships for both peoples deepen.

Even the recent traumas associated with the earthquakes have been exploited by the regime to its benefit, holding hostage international access to humanitarian relief, and diverting supplies to regime supporters. House Foreign Affairs Chairman McCaul, rejected the notion of any degree of normalization with the Assad regime to facilitate support for the earthquake victims. The Syrian government was unable to provide assurances that relief supplies would reach those in need and the areas of instability without government interference. McCaul reiterated congressional opposition to any type of normalization that would end up supporting the regime.

Arab countries, on the other hand, are rushing to Syria to re-establish relations while ignoring the inhumane and barbarous actions of the Assad regime over the past 13 years. While the US and the West still hold Saudi Arabia accountable for the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, many of the Arabs have developed amnesia about the Assad regime’s annihilation of the Syrian people. As our colleague Adnan Nassar reports, this has implications for Lebanon’s future too, as Syria still wields leverage on Lebanon; works to undermine the security of its common borders through large-scale smuggling; and contributes to the financial and political instability of the country.

Not only neighboring Arab countries, but also Iran via their militias and military, which along with Hezbollah and Russia, are responsible for the survival of the Syrian state under the Assad regime, have seized the opportunity of earthquake relief to deepen their footprints into and embrace of normalization with Syria. This further undermines the Lebanese government’s ability to wield sovereignty over its own country and mitigate instability.

Once again, Lebanon faces a dilemma. On the one hand, there are extensive cultural and familial ties with the Syrian people. On the other, Assad’s Syria has shown time and again that it has no interest in a neighbor that holds values unacceptable to a totalitarian regime. The close ties in banking and commerce, trade and finance which have always served their mutual interest – that is, before the complete meltdown of Lebanon’s banking and financial service sector – are a millstone, today. These developments, however bleak they may be, must not be ignored. Time for Lebanon to wake up to the reality of the other 800 pound gorilla in the region.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of the American Task Force on Lebanon, a non-profit, nonpartisan leadership organization of Lebanese-Americans.

ATFL Mourns the Loss of Senator James Abourezk, 1931-2023.

ATFL mourns the loss of Senator James Abourezk, the first Arab American Senator from the state of South Dakota and a prominent American of Lebanese descent. As a former high-ranking Senator, attorney, and veteran, he was a man who was driven by his commitment to his values – even when they were not shared by others. As Ralph Nader describes, “It was not that he was so honest, so down to earth, or so engaging with friend and foe alike. Rather, it was his willingness to be a minority of one pressing into visibility the plight of the forgotten, the oppressed and the excluded.”

Representing the State of South Dakota in the US Senate from 1973 to 1979 and in the House of Representatives from 1971 to 1973, Senator Abourezk was well known for his advocacy on behalf of Native Americans and is attributed to the establishment of the American Indian Policy Review Commission, which laid the foundation for laws such as the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act of 1975 and the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. He also founded the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee and fostered a legacy that was critical of anti-Arab and Islamophobic discrimination.

ATFL President Ed Gabriel and Senator Abourezk became fast friends when they first met in 1977, meeting on issues concerning American Indians. Gabriel had just become Executive Director of the Council of Energy Resource Tribes, a tribal organization dedicated to the sovereignty of tribal resources, and Abourezk had just become Chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs. “We immediately bonded as close friends the day we met,” Gabriel recalled. “Two American kids from rural America, sons of Lebanese immigrants, fighting to protect the sovereignty and self-determination of Indian tribes. Jim’s fight for what was right will never be forgotten.”

Senator Abourezk was born in 1931 to two Lebanese immigrants who settled in the Great Plains around the turn of the century, and was raised on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in southern South Dakota. He passed away in Sioux Falls at the age of 92.

ATFL offers its solemn condolences to the family and friends of Senator Abourezk, and to the individuals and communities who benefited from the Senator’s tireless advocacy on their behalf.