This past Thursday, October 18th, ten Arab journalists from countries in the Arab Spring visited Philadelphia while on a Foreign Press Tour sponsored by the New York Foreign Press Center, a branch of the State Department’s Public Affairs Bureau.
The journalists were from varying media outlets in countries Yemen, Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya such as Tahrir Newspaper, Lebda Radio and Television, and Radio Shems. Escorted by State Department representatives and interpreters they met with a panel of Arab-Americans from the Network of Arab-American Professionals of Philadelphia to ask them questions about the upcoming Presidential Election and gauge what issues are important to Arab-Americans and how they, as a minority community, get their voices heard in the political processes in the United States.
The panel was hosted at Pepper Hamilton LLP, with the help of NAAP members, Noor Taj, Stephanie Wahba, and Noora Sheikh who are all attorneys at the firm. Many topics were covered in the informal discussion but real insight was given on both ends of the spectrum. When asked where Arab-Americans see their community being in the next four years, Marion Abboud, Program Officer of the MENA region at NGO Women’s Campaign International, shared, “There are many misunderstandings of what the Arab community is, we will see more and more Arabs involved in the public and development sectors and politics much more than before.”
When asked about their identity as a minority community, Areen Taj, graduate student and teacher’s assistant at Temple University, stated, “We have an internal struggle and we don’t know when we’re supposed to be more American and when to be more Arab,” followed by Noor Taj, her sister and attorney at Pepper Hamilton, “We need a culture of respecting differences; a diversity of thought and to be frank, I question the source of Arab channel news but I also question the source of American news.”
One of the journalists from Tunisia, Mouna Ben Gamra Ep Jalel of Le Temps Newspaper, stressed, “I am disappointed in your community because you’re in America and have more opportunities than we do and yet you don’t take advantage of it.” And surprisingly enough, Mouna did not receive any resistance to this statement and the whole room only nodded in agreement. The panel could not deny that there were more opportunities available to them than the countries in the Arab world but they did offer the group of journalists information about what Arab-Americans were doing to get more involved. “We are Americans so we care about domestic policy too. The economy, civil rights, women’s issues, these things matter to us too,” says Noor Taj followed by Marion Abboud stating, “Our generation is trying to change things. Past generations did not have the opportunities we have today our generation has now united a lot more and seeing what has happened in the region has really revitalized us.
An Egytian reporter from Al Akhbar Newspaper, Mohamed Hendaway Ahmed Waly, said about their visit to DC earlier that week, “A representative from the State Department in DC said that they can never give us a straight answer because Arabs all over cannot agree on what they want America’s role to be in the Arab world and sadly I have to agree with him.” This was a point to be made and the room understood and agreed with it but Abboud said one thing that did acknowledge what direction they were all headed in, “But what we’re doing right now, having this event, will allow us to bridge the gap between us and allow us to communicate with you and you with us so we can hopefully continue understanding each other more and start building a broader consensus among Arabs all over the world including Arab-Americans so we can keep hosting events like this.” And with that the evening ended with a new sense of understanding and like Abboud suggested, the gap between the two worlds got a little smaller after that, especially with the group photo that brought them all together.
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