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Arab Americans: Networking, Volunteering, Empowering

14 June 2012 No Comment

National Arab-American Service Day volunteers take a group photo at Mt. Carmel House in Washington, D.C.

“In short, if I were to describe the typical Arab American woman participating in NAAP, she would be highly engaged in the community, up to date with global developments, concerned with making a difference, and participating alongside men as an equal partner.”

Connection Point Manager Yasmina Mrabet interviewed Nadia Harb, a Lebanese American member of the Network of Arab-American Professionals (NAAP) about her work empowering communities across the United States through social, cultural, professional and service initiatives. Her responses are below.

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Can you tell me a little about your personal background, and how you became involved with the Network of Arab-American Professionals (NAAP)? What is the aim of this organization?

I am an Arab American of Lebanese descent; I lived most of my life in Lebanon. Then about three years ago, after completing my graduate studies in political science at the American University of Beirut, I moved to California. Last February I moved to Washington, D.C., and upon my arrival, I worked for a short period of time at the Arab-American Institute, where I became acquainted with the Network of Arab American Professionals-D.C. Chapter. The grassroots and member-driven nature of the organization intrigued me as did the organization’s focus on the commonalities among Arab Americans while still maintaining a respect for existing diversity in the community. I recognized an opportunity to connect with other Arab American professionals but also to connect with communities throughout D.C. by participating in and leading public service activities.

The Network of Arab-American Professionals (NAAP) is a non-partisan, all volunteer-based organization dedicated to strengthening the Arab American community. It has eight chapters across the country, and aims to empower the community through social, cultural, professional, and service initiatives. Over the past year I have served as the Public Service Chair for NAAP’s D.C. chapter, which has over 1500 members from Maryland, Virginia and D.C. The D.C. chapter places special focus on what unites Arab Americans and other diverse members of the community; its members come from a variety of countries of origin and often hold divergent political views and practice different religions.

In what ways does NAAP contribute to the community? How has it responded to recent Arab Spring events, given that many members of the Arab community have personal and family ties to the region?

NAAP contributes to the community in a number of ways by promoting professional networking and social interaction among Arab Americans, through its efforts to educate Arab American and other communities about Arab culture and concerns, and through volunteerism. Throughout the year, our chapter in D.C. holds many networking and capacity building activities aimed at facilitating the professional, social, and personal growth of its members. NAAP-D.C.’s networking events are often co-sponsored and attended by other Arab American organization and businesses. This allows us not only to build and strengthen relations between Arab American organizations and benefit from the services of Arab American businesses but also allows us to introduce our members to the work of these organizations and businesses and provides them with an opportunity to become involved. In addition, our networkers are attended by professionals in a range of fields and interaction between jobholders and jobseekers often take place with attendees eager to discuss their experience and guide jobseekers to potential job opportunities.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, we held several media events aimed at educating the community about the developments in the Middle East and North Africa region. We chose to use the media, as we feel that it plays an important role in impacting change and in educating Arab Americans and other Americans with heritage from the Middle East and North Africa on how they can participate in change as active citizens. One of the media events, for example, brought together representatives from Al-Jazeera English, an Arab American sociologist, and an Egyptian journalist who discussed their coverage of the Egyptian uprising, how activists utilized social media (Facebook, Twitter, etc.) to organize and maintain the momentum of the uprising that ultimately resulted in the overthrow of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and what role social media can play after the ouster of the old regime.  The event also included a presentation by the founder of KABOBfest, a popular Arab-American blog, highlighting the role of Arab Americans and other activists and bloggers from the Middle East and North Africa by bringing attention to issues of concern to the Arab American community in particular, which extend to the American community as a whole.

In addition, our activities often attract Arab American professionals across organizations, including efforts to bridge gaps between various religions through interfaith activities. Last but not least, we carry out many community service activities including food drives, online fundraisers, and cleanups.

Gardening at Mt. Carmel House women's shelter

In what ways are women involved in the efforts of the Network of Arab-American Professionals?

Women form an important core of the network both at the board and the membership level. The 2011 NAAP Board that I served on was predominantly women, in fact, six of the nine board members were women, and they often took the lead in organizing events. The 2011 NAAP-D.C.’s Vice Chair, Ethar Darwish, singlehandedly managed the network’s Arabic classes. Mehrunisa Qayyum, NAAP-D.C.’s Media Chair, arranged NAAP-D.C.’s media events and initiative. Fatima Ahmed, NAAP-D.C.’s Membership Chair, was the driving force behind NAAP-D.C.’s highly successful 10th Year Anniversary Gala. What is more impressive is that outside NAAP, these women lead very busy lives, are career driven and family oriented, but still manage to volunteer a tremendous amount of time and effort to our initiatives.  We receive many inquiries from our women members on how they can be involved in our activities, and simply put, our activities would not be as successful as they have without their involvement. In short, if I were to describe the typical Arab American woman participating in NAAP, she would be highly engaged in the community, up to date with global developments, concerned with making a difference, and participating alongside men as an equal partner.

One aspect of your mission is to advance the Arab American community by empowering, protecting, and promoting its political causes and interests in the US and abroad within all levels of society. What are some examples of these causes and interests, particularly related to women that NAAP has been involved with?

NAAP-D.C. contributes to the mission of empowering the Arab American community and promoting its causes in a number of ways. The first is directly through activities that aim to promote awareness among Arab Americans and the greater community regarding various issues impacting Arabs and Arab Americans, including through educational initiatives such as how to use media as a tool for change. We also collaborate with other Arab American organizations and participate in their activities, particularly those related to protecting and advancing Arab American rights, and empowering Arab and Arab American women. We recognize that other Arab American organizations are doing great work in promoting these causes and instead of duplicating efforts we choose to support through participation and collaboration.

It is important to note that while the NAAP chapters across the U.S. share a common mission, they also maintain a degree of independence when implementing the mission’s objectives. As an example, while NAAP-D.C. participates and takes a stance on political issues that unite Arabs across divides such as the Palestinian cause and the protection of Arab American civil liberties, we have chosen to refrain from involvement on political issues on which we are divided as Arab Americans. Our chapter in D.C. focuses on public service activities rather than overly political activities.

While NAAP identifies as Arab American, we realize that we are living in an increasingly interconnected world and also identify as global citizens. As such we participate in a plethora of activities that are not strictly related to the Arab American community. For example, we have actively organized online fundraisers and food drives aimed at alleviating the famine in the Horn of Africa. On this year’s Arab American Service Day in May we chose to volunteer with two women’s shelters in the D.C. area, the Rachael Women’s Shelter and Mt. Carmel House, both of which provide support to women of all backgrounds in the community. While my personal interest in women’s issues influenced the selection of these activities, our co-sponsors, including Arab American and Muslim organizations (American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, D.C. Chapter, American Muslim Interactive Network, American Task Force for Lebanon Project: Cedar, and the Arab American Institute) quickly embraced this effort. We received more requests from both our women and men members to volunteer for these activities than we could accommodate! On a personal level, as an Arab American woman, I will continue my involvement in activities that promote women’s engagement in society and I believe Arab American organizations, including NAAP, will continue to increase their engagement of women.

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