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Arab Americans Act As Bridge Between US, Mideast


Arab Americans Serve as Bridge Between United States, Mideast

The presidential candidates who showed up at the Arab American Institute's (AAI) National Leadership Conference found an audience more interested in discussion than speeches.

Arab-American voters are not interested in just hearing from the candidates, Rebecca Abou-Chedid, AAI's national political director told USINFO, "We want to talk to them, too."

The October 26-28 conference allowed Arab Americans to tell the candidates what they think about the issues most important to them, including the war in Iraq, Middle East peace, civil liberties and immigration.

"I hope that presidential candidates and other Americans will look at us as a resource," Abou-Chedid said. "Arab Americans can and should be serving as a bridge between the United States and the Arab world."

Arab Americans have a love for the United States that drives them to "build a bridge between the country that we love and the nations that we come from," AAI President James Zogby told USINFO. "We can help the candidates and we can help our country, but they have to listen to us to get that help."

Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul and Democratic presidential candidates Mike Gravel, Dennis Kucinich and Bill Richardson addressed the conference. Video messages from Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama were shared with conference participants as well. The three absent candidates also sent campaign staffers to speak and listen on their behalf.

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The war in Iraq and Middle East peace are important topics for the candidates to discuss with Arab Americans, conference organizers said.

"We have people who come from Iraq and know the country well," Zogby said. "We have a community that comes from Lebanon, from Palestine. If America wants to know how it's doing, what its standing is in the Middle East, Arab Americans can tell them."

"We are connected to the Middle East, to the issues that are the most pressing issues in this election," Abou-Chedid said. "That's what we can bring to this debate and bring to fellow Americans. We have an experience and a perspective that is unique."

All of the candidates addressed Iraq and the Middle East in their messages.

Ohio Representative Kucinich said he did not need a teleprompter to give his speech because "when I speak about the Middle East, it is very easy to speak from my heart. My preparation has been a lifetime of work with my brothers and sisters across the Middle East."

Illinois Senator Obama said in his video message that he is committed to ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict because "it is important to Arab Americans, it is important to Jewish Americans and it is important to me."

Candidates also described their stances on domestic issues important to Arab Americans, including education, health care, immigration and civil liberties.

If elected president, New York Senator Clinton said in her video message, "I will renew the nation's commitment to civil rights and civil liberties." She also called for strengthening hate-crime laws.

Immigration and civil liberties are issues Arab Americans understand well, Zogby said.

"We are a community of immigrants who know the promise of America and know the freedoms of America," he said. "We have a lot to say about making America stronger, making America better, about making America true to its values, about keeping America open but at the same time making it secure."

Like their community as a whole, conference participants were split among whom they support. Traditionally Arab American support has been about evenly split among Republicans, Democrats and Independents. However, in recent years Republicans have been losing Arab-American votes.

Many of the participants still were undecided. Suzan El-Rayess, a 22-year-old from Cambridge, Massachusetts, said she has strong views on the Middle East, health care and education. She is most interested in learning about the candidates' solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Ala'a Wafa, a 23-year-old law student from Saginaw, Michigan, is also interested in campaign issues but especially concerned with the candidates' character. She wants to feel that a president "says what they mean and means what they say."

AAI is nonpartisan and sees the importance of encouraging Arab-American Democrats and Arab-American Republicans to come together and discuss and debate on what is best for the community, not just their respective parties, Abou-Chedid said.

AAI also organizes voter education training and get-out-the-vote efforts to encourage the community to be involved politically.

Throughout the campaign season, Arab Americans will continue to talk about the issues that face all Americans, Zogby said. "But we'll talk about them with a unique perspective and a heightened sensitivity that we have toward those issues that makes us a community worth watching in this election."

ENDS

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