Project: Cedar has asked me to write some Words of Wisdom beginning with this question: What does my Lebanese heritage mean to me? With this question, where does one begin? It begins with my family, especially my father and mother, both of whom emigrated from Lebanon because they knew that only in America can one live out their hopes and dreams for themselves and their children.
My father came to this country with his brother soon after World War I, and my mother came in 1932, shortly after she married my father. They settled in Mount Hope, Beckley, and finally Charleston, West Virginia, because of the large Lebanese and Syrian community who lived in WVA. Many of the families migrated from Aita Al Fakhr, my father’s small village in Lebanon located close to the Syrian border. My mother was from Aitaneet, a diminutive mountain village in the Bekaa valley. Even though my mother was Melkite and my father was Orthodox, it was traditional at that time for the wife to follow the husband’s religion so all of the children were baptized at St. George Orthodox Church in Charleston, WVA. When my father passed away, we moved to Cleveland, Ohio, close to my mother’s family where we attended my mother’s St. Elias Melkite Church.
My parents were proud of their heritage and were determined to instill that pride in their children. They always talked about Lebanon, or the old country, and what a wonderful country it was. They spoke to us in Arabic whenever they had the opportunity although we were always embarrassed when they spoke Arabic in front of our non-Lebanese friends. We were raised on Lebanese food, attended Orthodox and Melkite church services, associated with our Lebanese friends and relatives whenever we could and attended all Lebanon-related festivities. For Lebanese parents, nothing was more important than their children getting a good education. Absolutely nothing. My mother used to say: “You will never find a Lebanese person on welfare.” And she was right. I never met a Lebanese on welfare. Both parents would say to me: “Be proud, never deny your heritage, and always say you are Lebanese whenever asked.” So being Lebanese meant you had to respect your heritage, make sure you received a good education so ‘you can make something of yourself’, never embarrass your family, and always remember that even though it’s important to love Lebanon, you are an American and this is your country.
I give the same advice to young Lebanese Americans that my parents gave to me. There is no difference or a “generation gap” when it comes to the values they tried to inculcate: develop self-respect, get a good education, be a responsible citizen, maintain strong family ties and be proud of your heritage. Can someone think of better advice?
Without listing a litany of personal and professional accomplishments, I experienced a successful career in education, worked in international trade, served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bahrain, got involved in politics, worked on Capitol Hill for 10 years, and served as Executive Director of the American Task Force for Lebanon for almost 23 years, the most challenging period in my career. The challenge as the ATFL Executive Director was to maintain a balance between advocating policies that are in the best interest of the United States while at the same time trying to make sure those policies benefitted Lebanon. The most significant accomplishment was getting the US government to lift the travel ban to Lebanon so that Americans could freely travel without the fear of criminal penalties. Unless this policy was changed there could never be normal relations between the US and Lebanon.
It took the cooperation of the Lebanese and non-Lebanese community, the support of Members of Congress from both political parties, support from the diplomatic community, and the business establishment to accomplish this goal. The annual ATFL Gala Awards Night provided an opportunity to recognize the achievements of prominent Lebanese Americans and the contributions they have made to society. Among those honored were individuals like former US Senator and Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Four Star General George Joulwan, consumer activist Ralph Nader, former White House Chief of Protocol Ambassador Selwa “Lucky” Roosevelt, former Senate Majority Leader and US Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell, successful businessman and philanthropist Nijad Fares, and renowned geneticist Dr. Huda Zoghbi, and many others too numerous to mention.
One of ATFL’s most notable achievements was raising more than $750,000 through direct mail and generous matching grants from Representative Darrell Issa’s Family Foundation and the American Red Cross to purchase 13 new, state-of-the art ambulances for the Lebanese Red Cross. We are proud of our humanitarian accomplishments. Working closely with the Shriners Hospitals for Children, ATFL was able to bring children from Lebanon to be medically treated for severe burns and orthopedic maladies free of charge. Finally, working with the US Department of State, the Lebanon Mine Action Center, Mines Advisory Group, UN agencies, and other nonprofit organizations, ATFL was able to generate millions of dollars in funding to help clear unexploded remnants of war in Lebanon. In cooperation with the Marshall Legacy Institute and the Department of State Bureau of Weapons Removal and Abatement, ATFL was able to raise funds to provide medical assistance and vocational training for victims maimed by remnants of war like landmines and cluster munitions.
Given the refugee crisis in Lebanon and the demands placed on the Lebanese Armed Forces to protect Lebanon’s security, ATFL has been instrumental in encouraging the US government to provide adequate funding to address these two issues. Another challenge is to keep the issue of religious intolerance and the persecution of minorities—and majorities—in the Middle East in the public eye.