Formed in April 2001, NAAP Washington DC is a nonpartisan, volunteer based organization dedicated to the development of a prosperous and influential community connected through our national network.
We work to connect, organize and empower the Washington DC Arab-American community. Get Involved Today!
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NAAP was formed in 2001, when a group of college students in Washington DC founded NAAP to provide graduating Arab students with a means to continue their community activism and involvement after college.
These recent grads sought to channel their energies into community advancement, while also developing their skills and networks in the professional area.
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June, 2017 Member Spotlight – Zaki Barzinji
Why is the White House liaison to Muslim-American communities role so important? How have your background and interests prepared you for this position?
I always saw my role as being the bridge between Muslim-Americans and their government. It’s a bridge that goes both ways. I saw firsthand how important it was for senior officials to have a pulse on the community’s triumphs and challenges, and sometimes just being in the room meant I was able to lend a perspective that would otherwise be absent.
On the flipside, it’s just as critical that our community learn how to better engage all levels of government, to tell our stories more pointedly and effectively, and to articulate concrete policy asks. So while I was helping senior White House officials better understand our community, I was also helping our community become more effective at engaging government. And it was important to me that we weren’t just highlighting the voices of those who we already knew, and who agreed wholeheartedly with our positions. I tried to make a conscious effort to broaden our engagement to include those who were more critical of the administration and to try and leave the DC bubble as much as possible to hear from communities that would never have the chance to come to the White House.
My first experience with the power of politics came when I was 14 years old, not too long after 9/11, when I wanted nothing more than to blend in and hide my Muslimness. That all changed when my mom decided to run for local office. Suddenly, all my classmates received mailers featuring my big smiling family (including my mom in hijab), and everyone instantly knew. My mom would take me door to door to meet folks living in her district. That forced me to come out of my shell and to meet and connect with people I would never have spoken to otherwise. And the fact that my hijab-clad mom could confidently extend her hand and have deep conversations with all sorts of people gave me a renewed sense of confidence as a Muslim-American. That experience instilled in me a lifelong passion for using both storytelling and politics to build bridges over strange waters.
After college, I ran a chamber of commerce for minority-owned businesses based in Virginia. We leveraged our members’ profiles as job-creators and industry experts to advocate for the same policies that matter most to our community, but from an economic standpoint. Using that narrative often got us into more unique spaces than other non-profits, and taught me that our community has so many different tools for influence at our disposal that often go unused.
In 2013 I worked on Terry McAuliffe’s campaign for Governor of Virginia and served as his statewide outreach director for Arab-American and Asian-American communities. That role required engaging with a diverse range of communities, each with a very different set of priorities and sensibilities. I had to learn on the job how to listen deeply rather than pander and how to authentically represent rather than pay lip-service.
After the campaign I spent two years working for the Governor on a range of issues including tech policy, homeland security, transportation, healthcare, and immigration. Gaining substantive policy experience as well as a deeper understanding of how an executive office deals with dozens of different agencies was tremendously instructive.
All these experiences together rounded me out as someone who could move between community outreach and substantive policy development, who could both do on the ground engagement and bureaucratic navigation. I think it was that exact blend of experience, sprinkled with a geeky love of literature, storytelling, and superheroes, that ultimately made me a good fit for my role at the White House.
What was your favorite part about the position?
One of my favorite parts was getting to help with what we referred to as the 10LADS. Since he first took office, President Obama made a commitment to reading 10 letters every day from average Americans. He kept up with that practice all the way through his last year in office, when I joined the White House. Every time a letter written by a Muslim landed on his desk, he would handwrite notes on it and a draft response would get sent to me to review. As a result, I got to read so many fascinating snapshots of people’s lives who decided to pour their hearts out to the President, with no chance of knowing their letter might actually reach his desk. I read letters from young Muslims who faced bullying on a daily basis but nevertheless were proud to be American, from parents who feared for their children’s lives, from Muslim doctors writing in support of Obamacare and whose faith was merely tangential. I feel like I got to know my own community better through their deeply personal messages to the President, and it was the greatest honor to help him write heartfelt responses.
What do you think is the biggest issue facing the Arab-American community today? How can groups like NAAP begin to tackle X issue?
Arab-Americans are in the same boat as so many other marginalized communities. More than ever, in so many different ways, we’ve been made to feel like we don’t belong in our own country. We’ve seen unprecedented spikes in hate crimes, bullying, xenophobic executive orders, and more. But while it may seem hysterical hate has reached new heights, so too has the opportunity for solidarity and collaboration between communities. In today’s climate, it’s more important than ever that groups like NAAP push their members outside their comfort zones and become vulnerable with other communities that may be facing similar challenges. I’d love to see a joint project between NAAP and Latino young professionals on the nexus of xenophobic immigration policies. Or with Jewish professionals on the rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes. Now is the time for our communities to work closer together than ever before. Lord knows the waves are too strong for us to keep standing alone as islands.
May, 2016 Member Spotlight
This month’s spotlight is Laila Mokhiber, an active member in the NAAP-DC and wider Arab-American community.
Let us know who you would like to be featured next!
When did you join NAAP? And what made you decide to join?
I began attending NAAP-DC events with my older cousins in the early 2000s, well before I was of age to officially join. I remember my first event was a mixer at Guarapo in Arlington – I was probably 17. From there, it was history! I eventually joined in a formal capacity as the Outreach Chair of the NAAP-DC Board in 2011. I’m most proud of doubling DC’s membership during my year on the board!
What is your favorite part about being an Arab-American?
Labne. 😉 On a more serious note, our rich culture, history, family, and sense of belonging. Despite being in America for four generations, a deep love and appreciation for our culture was instilled in us from a young age. I can’t pick just one thing. Despite having weak Arabic skills, I live for the traditional sounds of our music. I’m not talking today’s pop, I’m talking Wadih Al Safi, Fairuz, Umm Kulthum, Abdel Halim Hafez. Oh, and the warmth of Arab hospitality, there’s nothing like it! My favorite part? The unending sense of family. The worst part? The unending sense of family… obligations! 🙂
What do you think is the biggest issue facing the Arab-American community today?
Unfortunately there are many issues. I’d say some of the most challenging here in the United States are negative stereotyping and institutionalized racism, and internally, a lack of cohesiveness amongst leadership.
Tell us more about your current job, and what your favorite part about it is.
I currently serve as the Director of Communications for UNRWA USA. I’ve been blessed to be able to spend the last three years contributing my communications skills to an organization that is doing something measurable and very tangible for Palestine refugees in the Middle East. Since I started, I’ve traveled to Lebanon twice and Palestine (including Gaza) three times. I found a job where I work alongside five fantastic women, that pays for me to educate Americans about the plight of my people, and sends me annually to my ancestral homelands — that’s probably my favorite part. You may have heard of our signature event, the Gaza 5K, it is a nationwide walk/run that funds UNRWA’s Community Mental Health Program in Gaza in order to provide psycho-social support to children suffering from PTSD and other psychological trauma. I highly encourage anyone reading this to join the movement.
What would you like to see more of at NAAP-DC?
I love the direction NAAP-DC has been going in lately, from the community service projects, to the new book and writing clubs. I’d like to see, and get more involved with, more mentorship and connecting across generations!
March, 2016 Member Spotlight
This month, we’re featuring Hanna Hanania, another of our NAAP ‘founding fathers’ (you can read our February spotlight below). Since his role in creating the organization, he has remained active in the Arab-American community, working to build coalitions between different Palestinian-American organizations. He offered us more insight into the inception of NAAP, and his vision for the future of the community.
What was your personal reason for deciding to create NAAP?
During the late 90s, the student movement in the US was very active and involved in promoting many human rights issues – especially lifting the siege on Iraq. The Arab-American students were even more active and led the movements. The situation in Palestine and the humanitarian suffering in Iraq were uniting the Arab-American students on campuses across the US.
There was a strong national movement to establish a united body, and many Arab student conferences took place. They were very successful, however many of the young graduates did not have a venue to remain active, to network, and to promote our rich culture.
We had a union for the students in DC that included Arab-American student associations from eleven universities in the area. Through our network, many of the young graduates acted as mentors for the students in the schools they attended. At that point, we felt that we should form a network that would allow us to continue supporting the student movement and meet our own aspirations to remain active on issues of concern. And so NAAP was born, starting with a meeting of two, and then four, and then six young graduates at many coffee shops around DC. We quickly grew into a very large network.
What have you been doing since your NAAP days?
The last few years, I spent lots of time forming a Coalition for the Palestinian American Organizations. Considering the current situation and the divisions in Palestine, it was a very hard task to accomplish. However, after having nine national meetings and three years of hard work, it became a reality. We managed to have nine national organizations join the coalition, and last year, I was elected to be its first co-president.
Additionally, I introduced and worked on the idea of forming a coalition for the Muslim and Christian (mainly Arab but even wider) organizations. The idea was very much welcomed, and the coalition was formed. Working together, we are able to defend Islam and show its real face in America, as well as protect the Christians in the Middle East – in the same way that Islam and Muslim leaders have been protecting them for the last 1500 years. One of my favorite events was a fundraiser held at the ADAMS Center to raise money to help the Iraqi Christian refugees.
What do you think is the biggest issue impacting Arab-Americans right now?
Identity and defining issues that unite us. In NAAP, we were very successful in promoting the Arab-American identity. It was an organization where Arab-Americans of different countries of origin, religion and time of immigration to the US were able to network and work on projects collectively.
The Arab-American community at large was in agreement on most issues and concerns. Today, we face a crisis regarding our identity. Most Arab-Americans are starting to identify themselves by their very narrow sect or country of origin. Our priorities are different.
This is a reflection of what is happening in the Arab world today. NAAP was able to maintain its character and keep its priorities straight, and I hope it will lead the community at large and continue to reflect the Arab world in a positive way.
In your opinion, have the issues facing Arab-Americans changed over the years?
Drastically. When we started NAAP, our differences were the strength of our network. We defined ourselves as Arab-Americans, and our main concerns and issues were fighting discrimination, ending the Patriot Act, and helping Palestine and Iraq. These priorities and sentiments were shared by almost everyone. Today, even though NAAP has managed to sustain its character and lead others in these issues, the community at large has become so fragmented.
What would you like to add as guidance to the NAAP community in today’s America?
In the end of the last century, we managed to present an example of a united community that cared about each other regardless of its differences. We were so strong and fought very tough battle together. We represented examples of success both within our American community and in the Arab world. Let’s continue to lead the Arab community and not be a reflection of divisions back in the region.
I am very proud of the NAAP experience and how it has managed to maintain its diversity and remain a leader in the community. The organization is well-positioned to continue its leadership role and unite to identify our goals and community priorities for the future. The successful NAAP experience should become the reality of the community at large.
February, 2016 Member Spotlight
Nadia Ghannam, a founding NAAP member, is the Director of Community Relations and Outreach at the General Delegation of the PLO in Wshington, DC. She reminisced with us about her time at NAAP during its inception, and also spoke to us about the general state of the Arab-American community and issues it faces today.
What do you think is the biggest issue affecting the Arab-American community right now?
Well, politically, the climate is horrendous. It has placed many of us in defensive mode in trying to address issues like Islamophobia, the events going on in the region — whether it’s Syria or Palestine or elsewhere. We need to equip ourselves better in order to tackle these issues in a more effective manner.
Many people in our community have gotten “tired” and stepped away. The level of activism in that regard has slowed down. It’s like a game of musical chairs with many of our community members. We see the same players over and over again, and it’s been difficult to recruit new voices into our narrative. We have to learn how to market activism in a way that is going to encourage people to be more active — it doesn’t have to be just political. You can affect change in your own personal capacity — whether it’s volunteering, participating in your kids’ local schools, writing a letter to your local paper or local representative, etc. We’ve come far, though, and things don’t happen overnight –however, as a general community we need to work harder on being more “proactive” rather than “reactive” — particularly in this current political climate.
Another issue is that we’re not coordinating well together. There are many different events and initiatives going on at the same time, but if I don’t hear about it on Facebook, for example, then I don’t know what’s going on. The different Arab-American communities — from Palestine to Libya to Egypt — need to work better together to coordinate on the issues that matter to us.
Finally, what about the next generation? What about our youth? It’s great to be assimilated, but it’s equally as important to hold onto your heritage. You can be just as American and as Arab as you’d like — it doesn’t have to be difficult to be both. You don’t necessarily have to choose one identity over another. We are Arab-Americans — why not celebrate both parts of our identities? I’m worried that a lot of our youth are falling by the wayside and it is our responsibility as a community to empower them to be proud of their heritage, language, traditions, and customs.
What do you wish to see more of in terms of Arab-American programming at NAAP-DC?
Part of our original mission was to focus on college campuses. This is critical. We need to continue focusing on the youth, on the young members of the community so that they keep their roots and heritage alive and thriving. An Arab youth summer camp would be fantastic, for example!
Each month NAAP-DC features special moments, people, and work that are relevant to the Arab-American community in the DC area. This can be a significant member of the community, a piece of poetry, or a noteworthy article. If you’d like to submit an entry, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.