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Profile: Kareem Shora and Laila Al-Qatami, Feb. 3, 2005
ADC celebrating its 25th year: The team behind the message at ADC
By Ray Hanania
From the very day the first Arab immigrant stepped foot on American soil in the early 19th Century, Arabs in America have been misunderstood.
In 1980, a group of concerned Arab American professionals launched what would quickly become the largest and most important grassroots Arab American organization in the country, to help correct the stereotypes and assist immigrants from the Arab World adjust to this great country.
But as the organization prepares to celebrate its 25th anniversary as the nation's most important advocate for Arab and Muslim civil rights, two of ADC's professional staff spoke about how much more acute the challenges facing Arabs in America have become in the wake of the terrorism of Sept. 11th.
TheArabStreet.com spoke with two of the professionals guiding ADC's national policies as they address the new challenges facing Arab Americans in the post-Sept. 11th world.
Kareem W. Shora, JD, LLM is Director of Legal Policy with ADC. He has been with ADC as Legal Advisor since 2000 before being named Director of Legal Policy in 2004.
Laila Al-Qatami is the Communications Director for ADC. She joined the staff of ADC in October 2000 and currently is ADC's official spokesperson, succeeding former ADC spokesman Hussein Ibish in July 2004.
"Clearly, the work we do at ADC has changed both in the way ADC operates and in the way ADC approaches challenges. The priorities have definitely changed and directly as a result of September 11," said Shora, 31.
"The most striking change is the way the organization has matured. Obviously Sept. 11 has had a lot to do with that change. But it has matured in the way it addresses the challenges and the way it works with other organizations. The effectiveness and impact of the organization has improved tremendously. And the challenges we address have increased measurably."
Shora said that ADC now works in the context of coalitions. "One hand doesn't clap. The more hands that clap, the louder we are heard."
"There was a challenge before but September 11 really put us under a microscope, and I am speaking as broadly as possible as an Arab American, Middle East American and Muslim American community. We had no choice but to mature, improve and address these issues and challenges as effectively we can," Shora said.
In part, ADC's voice is augmented by a professional communications staff. Not only does ADC address civil rights issues, but they also coordinate their activities with a professional communications staff that in the Arab American community and the Arab World, is one of the best and most effective.
"What happened after Sept. 11 at the ADC office was that the phones started ringing off the hook," recalled Al-Qatami, 34.
"And, when I say the phone was ringing off the hook, I'm not talking about just in terms of communications inquiries, but across the board. We had so many Arab Americans and Americans of other ethnicities calling and asking for assistance. People were calling and asking for general information about the Arab and Muslim community. Many said they didn't know about us and asked if ADC could help teach them about the community. ADC immediately responded with several new programs and initiatives to deal with this new environment. I should note also that ADC's services are open to all as is our membership. We welcome members of all faiths, backgrounds, and ethnicities."
Al-Qatami said that in addition to writing and speaking out on high profile controversial issues, responding to media inquiries and representing or arranging for an ADC spokesman to participate in media interviews, Al-Qatami said the organization has launched several new initiatives to speak to the new concerns.
"We hired a few people to just go out and talk. People sent out to provide basic information about the Arab American community. That program has really taken off," Al-Qatami said.
"We also offer diversity training for all kinds of people, at schools, for law enforcement, and for other government and public agencies. We realized how important it was to also get out and help educate and train the American public. One on one, we had to help change people's ideas and the mindset out there about our community."
September 11 helped define for Al-Qatami how fundamental and basic the challenges were.
"On Sept. 11, I was watching the news here at the office. It must have been about 10:30 at the time, and someone called and was making threats, saying they knew we had done this and they were going to get us," Al-Qatami said.
"But, we also received a phone call from the (Washington D.C.) police chief, Charles Ramsey. And it was a bit frightening. He said we might need some assistance and support and he offered to help. I mean, everyone here in the US and around the world was shocked that something like this could happen."
Al-Qatami said that the inquiries continued to increase.
"The next day and for many months afterwards, the phone was ringing off the hook. I thought it would be more of the same, but it turned out that many were people calling and asking for basic information about the Arab American and Muslim community. It wasn't just calls from the average Americans looking to understand, but also from the media," she said.
What surprised Al-Qatami wasn't the level of the anger, but the lack of information, especially by the news media which conveys information to the American public.
"I was really a bit shocked that the media didn't seem to know the basic and fundamental issues about the Arab community. It was almost like they were calling to get a primer on the Arab community and I wondered why they didn't know it already. BUT I saw this as an opportunity for me to help them better understand and maybe even correct some misconceptions out there," Al-Qatami said.
Al-Qatami said that not long after September 11, she received a telephone call from a producer working for an ABC prime time news program.
"She was a senior producer and she said she was doing a story on 'Ay-rabs' and she said that she understood that ADC works with 'Ay-rabs.' I was surprised and I said that we don't refer to people in the community as 'Ay-rabs.' It was such a fundamental issue and an example of how bad things were not just in American society but in a news organization that is supposed to be one of the nation's most influential. The whole time she was speaking, she had to mentally correct herself. There are fundamental terms that are not interchangeable. They don't understand the basics of the Arab World or the Muslim World ... how can they do the job they are supposed to do when they don't even have the basics down?"
Al-Qatami also said that as a woman, she was constantly confronting negative stereotypes about women in the Arab World.
"Reporters would say such ridiculous things like, 'My, you speak so freely for an Arab Woman. I bet you can't go back to your country.' My father happens to be Kuwaiti and I would explain that I don't have problems like that at all as an Arab woman. I am continually surprised by the things that people ask me."
But Al-Qatami said that despite the lack of information and knowledge, the stereotypes and incorrect perceptions, she is always encouraged when they are changed.
"Another issue, especially in the news media, is that there is a pervasive problem with people trying to define who we are, rather than seeing us for who we are," Al-Qatami said.
She cited the common practice of many government and public agencies to invite people like Daniel Pipes, who is a well known and notorious anti-Arab and anti-Muslim speaker who asserts a knowledge of Arabs and Muslims that is based on stereotypes, racism and inaccurate information.
"He's invited to testify before congress and other agencies and he propagates stereotypes and misinformation which encourages others to be fearful of the community at large. One of our challenges is that we must reach the point where we can define ourselves accurately and fully, not just for our own benefit but for the benefit of the American people, too. I think this is happening, but not to the extent that it should."
Shora said the world changed almost overnight. Prior to Sept. 11, Shora said ADC was working with the Department of Transportation on issues involving airport profiling.
"About one month before, the U.S. Department of Transportation had announced they were looking into determining if a new computer system they were using was impacting Arab Americans and Muslims more so than others. They were going to spend $1 million on the study," Shora said.
"On Sept. 12, we were in a completely different world. The project was dropped. And our immediate concern shifted to a new priority. What do we tell our community. What do we tell them so they can better prepare for what was becoming an enormous backlash against them? We knew the backlash was coming. How do we help prepare them? People were being harassed and we needed to make sure that the community knew how to protect itself."
But Shora said the discrimination and civil rights challenges weren't just coming from the general public angered at Arabs and Muslims.
"After the initial wave of hate-motivated crimes, The first thing we noticed was the official discrimination coming from the government, and especially from the office of U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft. This discrimination began long before the Patriot Act was adopted. Mr. Ashcroft had implemented a new, voluntary interview program that targeted business people, tourists, students and others for voluntary interviews. It turned out that was the first inherently discriminatory act that occurred post Sept. 11," Shora explained.
"That was followed by a special registration program and the mis-implementation of all those programs. What we saw take place was that the government and politicians were making the decisions to create these programs, but they were not allocating the necessary resources to properly implement them or what they said they were implementing. In the end, the MIS-implementation went far beyond what we feared in terms of civil rights violations."
"There also was a grave failure in publicizing these programs. If a person didn't know about the programs or the need to register in a program, for example, the person could be deported and for no fault of their own," Al-Qatami said.
Many of the problems had less to do with security risks or terrorist activity, and more with the failure of the people implementing those programs to understand what they were dealing with in terms of the Arab or Muslim American community.
"They just didn't understand and the confusion caused more problems than they solved," said Shora.
Initially, the government announced a "Special Registration" program that targeted nationals from 25 countries, 24 of which were Muslim or Arab countries and the 25th was North Korea.
"They also originally included Armenia, but that was withdrawn," Al-Qatami noted.
"The problem was the program was discriminatory. We are a nation at war. At war with an enemy that has no boundaries. It had no country. We were not IN a war against Islam, as the president clarified many times. But these programs demonstrated that the government, or at least the administration, was acting as if they were. Why would you ask all nationals of those specific countries to be scrutinized when we saw many examples of others posing threats or being allegedly involved in terrorism like Richard Reid or Jose Padilla, for example? They were saying that people from those 25 countries were suspects, one way or another. All they were doing was stereotyping the War on Terrorism as being focused on Muslims and Arabs."
Shora provided the example of how the officials implementing the Special Registration program did not even understand the scope of what their program involved because they simply did not understand the basic issues and were confused about facts.
"We got a call from a man who said he was Lebanese and lived in New York City. He said he had a brother who is Palestinian, but he carried a refugee travel document on an F1 student visa. He said he understood that the deadlines were passing for Lebanese citizens to voluntarily register and wanted to know what his brother, who was Palestinian, should do. The fact is, the special registration did not mention Palestinians or Palestine," Shora said.
"When he called the INS, the INS official who answered the phone said she didn't care whether his brother is Palestinian because they didn't care about a person's religion. This is a person who is supposed to be managing a program who thought that 'Palestinian' was a religion. To us, that highlighted the lack of knowledge that was out there and how important it was for ADC to step back and start a new program. The information that was misunderstood was so basic. We initiated an outreach program to re-educate our law enforcement officials on basic programs, issues and understandings on the Middle East, Arab Americans, the Arab World and the Muslim community."
Al-Qatami said that ADC immediately raised these issues with the INS but never received a response.
In another example, AL-Qatami said that a former ADC colleague had been called to go pick up his Green Card from the INS. "But when he got there and identified his birthplace as Nablus, a city in Palestine in the West Bank, the INS refused to give it to him because they thought Nablus was Naples and that he was from Italy," Al-Qatami said.
They cited the community policing program, which is proven to be effective when managed properly.
"It can be a very effective law enforcement tool to build positive relationships for law enforcement purposes and is applied very effectively in local communities," Shora said.
"As it has applied to the Arab community, community policing has completely backfired."
"We understand that a lot of the people who do mean harm to our country speak Arabic. But, how many members of the FBI were proficient in the Arabic language before September 11, 2001? This is a police force of 11,000 to 13,000 people in the FBI yet only 10 or 11 in the FBI were proficient in Arabic. How do you make community policing work with that deficiency? It doesn't."
Al-Qatami noted that the FBI had only one trained linguist who could perform a polygraph test in Arabic.
"That man eventually raised a discrimination complaint against the FBI because of the way he was mistreated specifically because of who he was," Al-Qatami said.
Shora said that the problems that surfaced immediately after Sept. 11 also have a continuing, residual impact on the community today. People who did not come forward during the special registration program, for example, because of poor information or a lack of understanding of the program itself, are still facing challenges to prove that they registered but did not.
"Many residents come from countries where a country issues a travel document but does not consider that person a citizen or national of that country, so people fell through the cracks. Rather than recognize this so that the program works effectively, nothing was done. Instead, the people who did not register not because of their own fault but because of the government's fault still face demands that they register or be deported," Shora said.
The problem is most acute for Palestinian Arabs, in part because of the ongoing political issues involving the Palestine-Israel conflict and law makers and elected officials who are using post-Sept. 11 concerns to advance their own political agendas.
Shora said that while it is important for Arab and Muslim Americans to support the programs and meet the guidelines established to protect this country, the government officials also need to do a better job to "know what they are talking about."
Shora said the problem is that while people are trying to do what they are being asked to do, its the agencies who are dropping the ball. "But the applicants and the immigrants and the Green Card holders and those with Visas ARE the ones who are suffering and they have nothing to do with the challenges of the War on Terrorism. It confuses the whole system. The war against terrorism should not be converted into a war against immigrants. Our country is and always has been a nation of immigrants."
Al-Qatami acknowledged that the media plays a significant role in confusing the process and promoting inaccurate information that, in the end, undermines the overall goals of the country.
"Worse, it has a tremendously negative impact on the image of what America is doing among the people of the Middle East themselves. They see and hear about these problems day-to-day. But instead of addressing the problems, they respond with public relations," Al-Qatami said.
"The Arab American community is not a new community. We have had people immigrate to this country from the mid-19th Century. But after September 11, it was almost as if Americans and government agencies and public officials knew nothing about us at all. We were immediately alienated and treated like suspects rather than as an integral part of the United States because of these policies and because of the lack of basic information. it was an extended knee-jerk reaction. If we just saw this happen for a short period of time, after September 11, I might say it is natural and an exception. But three years later, it is still happening," Shora said.
Al-Qatami said that many in the Arab World and Arab community see and hear about these problems. But instead of correcting the problems by offering training to their staff, the United States has launched a PR Campaign to make America look better.
"I think public relations is important but if they wanted to improve the image of the United States in the Arab World, for example, and to counter the negative images or feelings, they should correct the problems they have with their policies and programs and show that we, as Americans, understand the Arab World and the Muslim World," Al-Qatami said.
"They are not going to do that with the millions being spent on Radio Sawwa, al-Hurra TV or Hi Magazine," Al-Qatami said referring to three public relations initiatives launched in the Middle East by the U.S. Government.
"When they see real stories about how Arabs and Muslims being mistreated, they are left with a negative image that not even the best public relations campaign can correct. Sometimes, the best campaign is to just correct the problems."
Shora said there have been some positive changes. He cited efforts by the Department of Homeland Security over the past six months to adjust programs and clarify information. "They saw the negative impact that these programs were having and they are adjusting and changing and that is important to note. Yet, many of the problems still continue and no one is changing them or improving them. That's discouraging."
The political exploitation of America's tragedy by individuals with other agendas is just as troubling, they said.
Wisconsin Congressman F. James Sensenbrenner has introduced legislation that requires that drivers licenses not be renewed unless an immigrant can show proof of LAWFUL immigration status.
"What it does wrongly is puts an undue burden on every state to enforce federal immigration law. If you can't show proof of your immigration status, you can't get a driver's license. They want a driver's license to expire when an immigration status expires. It has a direct And negative impact on our community and instead of improving security it makes it worse," Shora said.
More troubling, he said, is that Sensenbrenner has added a provision that is politically motivated and has nothing to do with addressing American security issues.
"The bill includes brief language that essentially says that if you are a member, spokesman or representative for the Palestine Liberation Organization, you are by default considered to be engaging in terrorism and therefore cannot enter the United States. These provisions distort the whole issue of security and considers anyone involved with the Palestinian issue to be a terrorist. The bill refers to the State Department to identify which groups are terrorist organizations, but the PLO is not on the State Department's list. Essentially, Sensenbrenner is trying to dictate the foreign policy of the United States. If this bill is adopted, it means that anyone who is with the PLO can't enter the United States. That includes Mahmoud Abbas who was just elected the new president of Palestine. He is the chairman of the PLO. Unfortunately, This kind of problem is too common in our congress."
Shora and Al-Qatami both agree that in addition to supporting ADC, and becoming members, Arab and Muslim Americans can also help by becoming actively engaged in their own communities where they live, such as being involved in the local school board, the PTA, or participating in meetings with their local government and elected officials, senator, legislator.
Kareem W. Shora, JD, LLM is Director of Legal Policy with the American-Arab Anti Discrimination Committee (ADC). He has been with ADC as Legal Advisor since 2000 before being named Director of Legal Policy in 2004. Founded in 1980, ADC is the largest membership organization in the United States dedicated to protecting the civil rights of Arab Americans.
Shora, who is fluent in Arabic, is a recipient of the “2003 American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) Human Rights Award.” He has been published by the National Law Journal, TRIAL Magazine, the Georgetown University Law Center's Journal on Poverty Law and Public Policy, the Harvard University JFK School of Government Asian American Policy Review, the American Bar Association (ABA) Air and Space Lawyer, and the Yeshiva University Cardozo Public Law, Policy and Ethics Journal. Shora was a featured speaker at three panels during the 2002 American Bar Association (ABA) National Meeting in Washington, DC, and testified during the United Nations Commission on Human Rights 59th Annual Meeting in Geneva, Switzerland, in April, 2003.
He has spoken at the National Lawyers' Guild Annual Conference, the US Department of State International Visitor Program, the FBI Conference on Countering Terrorism by Integration of Practice and Theory, the ABA Air and Space Law Forum, the ABA Equal Justice Conference, the American University Washington College of Law, the Georgetown University Law Center, Yale University School of Law, Brown University, Harvard University JFK School of Government, and Whittier Law School's 19th Annual Symposium on International Law among others. Shora is also ADC's representative on several committees with the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR) and a Steering Committee member of the Detention Watch Network.
A frequent guest on Al-Jazeera, Shora has spoken about civil rights, civil liberties and immigration policy with many national and international media outlets including the Wall Street Journal, Voice of America, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Associated Press, the Chicago Tribune, the Sacramento Bee, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the LA Times, the San Diego Union Tribune, National Public Radio (All Things Considered and Morning Edition), Pacifica Radio Network, Reuters, the Associated Press, C-SPAN, CNN, the Cairo Times, Al-Arabia, Egypt TV, Rolling Stone Magazine, CBS News, and ABC News among others.
Shora also co-authored the LCCR’s report on racial profiling entitled Wrong Then, Wrong Now: Racial Profiling Before and After September 11, and the ADC 1998-2000 Report on Hate Crimes and Discrimination Against Arab Americans and Report on Hate Crimes and Discrimination Against Arab Americans: The Post September 11 Backlash - September 11, 2001 to October 11, 2002 (Part of the Congressional Record).
Shora, who was born in Damascus, Syria, holds a Doctor of Jurisprudence (JD) degree from the West Virginia University (WVU) College of Law and the LL.M. specialty in International Legal Studies from the American University Washington College of Law. Shora has served as a legal associate with the WV Office of the Attorney General, the WVU Immigration Law Clinical Program, and the Columbia Energy Corporate Law Department.
Press Release from ADC
ADC Welcomes Laila Al-Qatami as Communications Director
Laila Al-Qatami is the Communications Director for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).
Al-Qatami joined the ADC staff in October 2000 as ADC’s Media and Publications Officer. Her work has evolved significantly and now involves daily interaction with major domestic and international media outlets. She has provided commentary for NPR, Pacifica, BBC, CBS, Reuters, ABC, MSNBC, AlterNet, CNET, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian, the Associated Press, and many other news sources.
She has also appeared on the leading Arabic language television stations Al-Jazeera,
Mary Rose Oakar
ADC is a grassroots civil rights organization which welcomes people of all backgrounds, faiths and ethnicities as members.
The ADC was founded in Washington, DC by U.S. Senator Jim Abourezk in 1980.Chapters exist throughout the United States.
What ADC Does:
(from their web page)
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