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Together -- Following the Path of an Icon

An ADC Op-Ed on the Death of Nelson Mandela by Fatina Abdrabboh, Esq.

Although I was only an elementary school student, I remember vividly Nelson Mandela’s trip to Detroit in 1991. Hundreds of us Arab-Americans gathered together at Tiger’s Stadium to hear the words of a man who spoke out so fearlessly against oppression. I recall distinctly my grandmother’s excitement as she rushed us out of the house that morning. An immigrant from Palestine, my grandmother, like other immigrants to the United States, endured the numerous injustices and vagaries that often engender the immigrant experience. This visit by Mandela, therefore, resonated deeply with her.

That summer day in Detroit, the man with the profoundly universal message drew people from all walks of life. I remember throngs of people from all walks of life listening intently to every word: there were Muslim Imams, Christian Pastors, Jewish rabbis, ordinary folks, and immigrants from all over concentrating carefully in seats within arms length from my grandmother and I. The day’s memory includes the Ford assembly line workers, many from my immigrant community, who cheered loudly. Together, we packed the stadium and applauded intensely for what, as a child, seemed like each sentence he uttered.

In the coming days, as I assume my new role as Director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) in Michigan, I am overwhelmed with hope from the memory of that gathering in Detroit with Nelson Mandela, the icon. As we mourn the world’s loss with his recent passing, it is not just his words we must consider. An honoring of his words absent the overarching institutional context may miss the key point. Instead, for us committed to stand against all forms of racial and gender discrimination, it is the memory of his life, just as much as what he said that matters. Nelson Mandela’s life is a testament to how both words and actions lay the foundation to the social change that would come to define history. Most significantly, it is the then-unpopular setting that should be most extracted in our lesson today. Indeed, it is our collective hope that our institutions, both public and private, non-profit and governmental will carve out their own icons from within who can resemble, no matter how small the traits of Nelson Mandela.

Despite how often we may fall off track, together, as he urged, we can find our common humanity and learn to respect difference. Embracing values and embodying them will foster institutions that promote justice for all. Nelson Mandela now belongs to history; in honor of him we must commit to being on the right side of history.


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