The publics are coming! The publics are here! The corporations are coming! The corporations are here!

A variation on the 1966 film "The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming" speaks to a steady pattern in international relations whose origins could be arguably be dated to the emergence of the nation-state but certainly is vivid today. Global publics are increasingly powerful, and we know that private firms are, too. This piece in The Atlantic - (hat tip to the USC Public Diplomacy Center RSS) is only my most recent reminder of the commercial drive for profit in nascent or re-emerging markets, whether or not governments are ready for it. Where do the meanings of "public" and "governmental" and "private" begin and end? Ever boundary-spanning diplomats have to navigate and mediate between and across the overlapping interests and identities of civil society ethnic groups, co-religionists, unions and political activists (to mention just a few), their budget- and turf-conscious embassy and home ministry colleagues as well kick-start entrepreneurs and corporate giants. How? Public-private partnership -- a proliferating organizational patchwork with which scholars and government actors can barely keep up -- at our peril. In spite of the rise of independence-through-information and de- and self-regulation, these three dimensions of global society are interdependent and people still crave the rule of law and credible institutions. PPPs are coming! PPPs are here!

-Debbie Trent 

Global Relations and Plastic Blocks

This story by Public Radio International 

hits home for me. I need to go back through my files for a photo where, as a Fulbright program manager for the U.S. Information Agency, conducting outreach and recruitment, I used some of my son's Legos to demonstrate how individual fellowships, international visitor exchanges, speaker programs, American studies, and institutional partnerships can be coupled to build strong international relationships among global publics and private firms. As my study and teaching of public diplomacy become more oriented toward cross-sector, participatory peacebuilding, I have continued to use the Lego analogy, most recently this week, working with a community college expand their global humanities programs. The new UN Lego set is on my list for holiday gifts and a donation to my congregation's social justice and education programs!

-Debbie Trent


New theory-building for better development practices!

Kudos to dear friend and colleague, Khaldoun AbouAssi:

New Research on NGO-Donor Relations Wins Prestigious Award

October 1, 2013

Research by a professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University on relations between non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and their donors will be recognized by the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA) with the prestigious Gabriel G. Rudney Memorial Award for Outstanding Dissertation in Nonprofit and Voluntary Action for 2013. Dr. Khaldoun AbouAssi will receive the award at ARNOVA’s annual meeting in November.

“Hands in the Pockets of Mercurial Donors: How Three Theories Explain NGO Responses to Shifting Funding Priorities” demonstrates how volatile relationships between NGOs in developing countries and international donors can affect the missions and behaviors of NGOs. The research focuses on Dr. AbouAssi’s native country of Lebanon.

“I found that NGOs respond to changes in funding in a variety of ways.  I studied the response of four environmental NGOs to shifts in the funding decisions of two common donors,” said AbouAssi.  “The responses from the NGOs to the changing donor priorities ranged from suspending the relationship with the donor, to trying to reach common ground and maintain the relationship, to automatically executing the donor’s interests and adapting to the situation.  I then used quantitative data to show that these responses were influenced by NGO dependence on the donor and the ties NGOs have in local donor networks. Understanding how donors think and how their priorities can affect the important work of NGOs can be a key to increasing NGO effectiveness in critical areas of the developing world,” he added.

The Rudney Award selection committee cited AbouAssi’s dissertation for its attention to theory, contributions to the field of research, and relevance to both nonprofit organizations and the broader environment in which voluntary organizations participate. The committee also noted the research’s innovative approach and challenging field work and that it moved theory forward in a non-Western context.

“We’re delighted to see Dr. AbouAssi’s excellent work recognized with this prestigious award,” said Bush School Dean Ryan Crocker.  “It is yet another indication of the high quality of our faculty and the impact their research has on public policy around the world.”

AbouAssi holds a PhD in public administration from the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse University.  He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in public administration from the American University of Beirut, Lebanon.  He publishes extensively on NGOs and international development issues, and has trained civil servants and NGO executives on citizen participation, fund development, volunteerism, and collaboration.

-Debbie Trent

A Syrian American community that is divided, but hopefully not forever

If you have not already been introduced to the radio program "Marketplace," allow me.
Here's a sample story on which I couldn't resist commenting:

Palestinian youths flash V-signs while they hold Syrian flags during a pro-Syrian demonstration November 18, 2005 in Gaza City, Gaza Strip.
How best to deal with the extremely messy situation in Syria?
That’s the question the U.S. government and the international community are wrestling with right now. But it’s one that Syrian expats have wrestled with in a different, more intimate way for more than two years.
Metro Detroit has one of the nation’s largest and oldest Syrian communities. How have they dealt with the crisis? How are they using the community’s social and economic resources to help? 
A long history, but strong ties
Syrians started migrating to Detroit more than 100 years ago.
But today, many are newer immigrants who still have close ties to Syria.
Recently, about one hundred Syrian-Americans gathered at a tidy park in suburban Detroit. They chanted and held banners depicting scenes of atrocities in Syria, including victims of a chemical weapons attack attributed to President Bashar Al-Assad.  
Ibrahim Alkeilani stood on the fringes of the protest, holding the flag of the Syrian revolution. He said it’s hard to even get ahold of relatives in Syria.  And when you do, conversations take place in a kind of code.
“I call it secret Syrian ways of communication,” said Alkeilani. “We use funny words, and different expressions, basically to evade Syrian monitoring of the telephone lines.”
Even before the uprising against Assad’s government more than two years ago, there were nearly as many Syrians living outside Syria as there were inside.
And right now, those inside Syria rely on family members abroad more than ever.
Wael Hakmeh, a Syrian-American born and raised in the U.S., said it’s not easy to send money to his in-laws there. At this point, ex-pats basically have to find someone to smuggle money directly into the country. And even then, there are dangers to spending U.S. dollars in Syria.
“The Assad regime now is jailing people who use currency other than the Syrian pound,” Hakmeh said, “and they don’t want the continued devaluation of the pound.”
Finding ways to help from afar
Hakmeh is an emergency room physician. There are lots of doctors in Michigan’s Syrian community. Some have even gone back to Syria to provide medical aid.
There are other ways for Syrian-Americans to help out from afar—like frequent fundraisers for humanitarian assistance.
“Consistently, these fundraisers have all raised over a million dollars,” said Lena Masri, a Syrian-American attorney with the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Michigan.
One thing southeast Michigan’s Syrian community doesn’t lack is money. And they’ve raised millions upon millions of dollars in relief funds over the last two years, with the vast majority going to help the refugees in the camps that have sprung up around Syria’s borders.
Masri said what they do lack is manpower -- especially to help refugees who have ended up in the U.S. She’s taken on dozens of refugee cases, for those claiming political asylum and also what’s known as “temporary protected status.”
Masri said the community isn’t seeing a truly overwhelming number of Syrian refugees -- yet. But there are some, and she has personally taken on dozens of cases.
Masri said an informal network of support has popped up to support refugees here. She’s seen applications showing that many receive money, housing and other support from Syrian-Americans.
“They’ve consistently been able to list others who have provided financial support from shelter to utilities to, you know every day expenses,” Masri said. “And these are people who don’t necessarily know each other.”
“A generation of refugees receiving another generation of refugees”
That kind of generosity -- even from strangers -- is something Dr. Adnan Hamad has seen again and again. He works for Arab-American Center for Economic and Social Services in Dearborn.
Over the course of decades, Hamad has seen waves of refugees from the Middle East -- Lebanese, Iraqis, and now increasingly Syrians -- arrive in metro Detroit. He said that absorbing these refugees is almost second nature to Detroit’s large Arab-American community.
“This community is about a generation of immigrants receiving a second generation of immigrants,” Hamad said. “A generation of refugees receiving another influx of refugees.”
These networks of support are impressive, but not all is rosy. The civil conflict in Syria has split Detroit’s Syrian community. There are rebel supporters like the protesters above, but there’s also a pro-Assad faction. The conflict has ended friendships and split families.
But Hamad is confident the larger Arab-American community will pull together to support displaced Syrians.
 “I think the community is going to be more helpful to the Syrian refugees than any other influx of refugees that we have received in the past,” he said.
And Hamad, once a Palestinian refugee himself, has seen a number of families arrive in Michigan traumatized, penniless and friendless. And he says within a few years, many have re-built their lives to the point where they’re the ones contributing the most to the next wave of refugees.

About the author

Sarah Cwiek is a reporter who joined Michigan Radio in October 2009.

Blogging on the intersection of peacebuilding and public diplomacy

Dear Members of the U.S. Congress:

Don't forget to fund a robust international peacebuilding effort! International diplomacy depends on the partnerships we build through non-violent communication from the local to the global levels. This recently published peace is a collaboration with a dear friend and former U.S. Information Agency colleague, Michael Graham.

-Debbie Trent


Celebrating the past and enjoying the present

My dear aunt, Lorna Michaelson, passed away July 20th. She was a concert pianist and music educator

Image courtesy of

but I will continue to honor all Arab American artists, including Aunt Lorna, for their contributions to world-class song and dance. 

-Debbie Trent

An emerging trend in public diplomacy and development?

A nation's soft power has in a recent blog posting in The Guardian (hat tip to USC's CPD) been suggested as a governmental tool and process to alleviate poverty while increasing governmental credibility

Is this a "blip on the screen" of trends in PD and international development, or an emerging trend? It's noteworthy that the blog is supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, too, another major "influencer" and partner in governmental efforts to reduce poverty and disease.

-Debbie Trent

Arab Diaspora Event

I have been following the progress of a fairly recent organization, . They are DC-based but have strong links through the U.S. and the MENA region. On August 18th they are convening a conference to get even more mobilized on socioeconomic development projects for the region. See

Article on peacebuilding in Syria

The article at,1 is by Reese Ehrlich, entitled "Do Lebanon's Taif Accords offer lessons for Syrian peace?" It may be a bit biased toward the Taif Accords, but the comments by the Lebanese interviewed are worth a read, for overall context now, for the hopefully-not-too-distant future when all sides put down their weapons.

The past few days

The news from Egypt is unbearably inhumane for folks who are rooting for security and justice over there as much as for in the U.S. How many more peaceful protesters will die because of social injustice and cultural misunderstanding? How many more innocent bystanders to peaceful demonstrations will be killed, like Andrew Pochter? He is not much younger than my son and grew up near us. He mentored kids in the U.S. His reprinted letter to one of them ( brought me to tears as I processed the jury's verdict in the Zimmerman-Martin trial. 

Arabs and Jews want peace. They want inclusiveness, in the governing of Egypt, their most populous state, and through a Palestinian state. I was reminded of this by young people yesterday at an event held by Middle East peace advocacy organization New Story Leadership (, again, in our neighborhood. 

David Ignatius wrote for the July 12th Washington Post: "the Arab Muslim world must recapture the inclusive spirit [of its first centuries]....Otherwise, the broken political culture will not mend" ( 

Secularists, co-religionists, all citizens, need to share our stories and yearnings for peace, and figure out how to bring enough Egyptians, Gazans, West Bankers, other Arabs around the region, Israelis, and Americans together to tip the balance of the U.S. House and Senate and demand a Palestinian-Israeli peace treaty for two secure states. We -- in the U.S. and across the globe -- cannot bear the loss of life.

With apologies to Clint Eastwood, I have gone ahead and made my day

It's the little things that make life interesting, especially when you spend many of your days job-hunting. Today I was doing background research for a job application and I came upon a lovely passage in an article about experiential pedagogy, taken from a book of conversations between two radical educators, Myles Horton and Paolo Freire. One of Horton's reflections is retold, 
"Recalling an incident when someone criticized [Horton's] workshops at the Highlander Folk School [in Tennessee, which he co-founded], he recalls: 'All you do is sit there and tell stories.' Well, if he'd seen me in the spring planting my garden, he would've said: That guy doesn't know how to garden. I didn't see any vegetables. All I saw was him putting a little seed in the ground. He's a faker as a gardener because he doesn't grow anything...' Well he was doing the same thing about observing the workshop. It was the seeds getting ready to start, and he thought that was the whole process."

The conversations are in the book edited by Brenda Bell, John Gaventa, and John Peters, We Make the Road by WalkingConversations on Education and Social Change, Temple University Press, Philadelphia, 1990. 
Here's a blurry copy of the book cover, courtesy of
Front Cover

The quote is on p. 99. I found the quote in: "Critical Experiential Pedagogy: Sociology and the Crisis in Higher Education," on pp. 146-147, by Brian P. Kapitulik, Hilton Kelly and Dan Clawson, The American Sociologist , Vol. 38, No. 2 (Jun., 2007), pp. 135-158, accessed July 12, 2013, at <>.

Reading this story makes me feel inspired and grateful for people who are patient and willing to spend time planting seeds, faithful that they will grow, or having conversation, believing that dialogue makes a difference.

Diasporic sentimentality and a real public-private partnership

In today's Washington Post an article about affordable housing in the D.C. region listed several projects. One is called "House of Lebanon." The name reflects the initial sponsor, Mount Lebanon Community Development Corporation,  The D.C. government and private firms, and community-based organizations organized the financing for the senior housing project One of the CBOs, Washington Interfaith Network, had a major role in advocating for the public funds and is a sister to the organization I volunteer with in Montgomery County, Maryland, just outside D.C.. The country of Lebanon has possibly nothing to do with the motivation for and naming of this project, but in my inner transnational village, I make a connection, and it's great to read about all these different forces for good created affordable housing for seniors in DC.

Strongest words yet on the situation in Lebanon

...From Paul Salem, perhaps the preeminent Lebanese political analyst today.

"Lebanese Army’s Defeat of Salafists Buys Only Short Respite" in

The final paragraphs:

"Lebanon needs to be governed by cooperation and broad consensus—especially in times of acute sectarian tension. It is far better to have the opposing parties inside the government and publicly responsible for the country’s stability than to have them on the outside pursuing their own agendas without any such accountability.

The regional and international communities, as well as Lebanon’s own leaders, should realize that the latest battle east of Sidon might be one of the last warning signs before Lebanon’s eruption into widespread sectarian fighting. Indeed, the first real sparks of the long 1975–1990 Lebanese civil war took place in Sidon. Rapid action is needed."

Relational public diplomacy in the domestic and transnational public spheres

Dr. Rhonda Zaharna's latest "Culture Post" on the University of Southern California Center on Public Diplomacy blog is spot on. It is copied below, along with my response. The URL is: .

PD News – CPD Blog
JUN 25, 2013Posted by R.S. Zaharna
All posts by R.S. Zaharna

A previous Culture Post explored cultural assumptions about who is the ‘public’ in public diplomacy and suggested an expanded vision of “the public” that includes the domestic, diaspora, and foreign publics. Failure to see a public and the role it plays can leave a nation vulnerable to blind spots in its public diplomacy.

This Culture Post takes a closer look at five critical roles of the domestic public in public diplomacy. Because traditional public diplomacy has focused primarily on foreign publics, the role of the domestic public may have been overlooked rather than absent. In that sense, the roles may not be new. What is new is the perspective to see it.

1. Nation Branding Image & Identity 

Many nations promote their national images by showcasing their people and culture. In Thailand, it may be the people’s smiles. For Australia, it may be their easy-going spirit.

Few campaigns, however, include the domestic public in the initial design or actual implementation of the initiative. Ironically, the domestic public may have the final word on the campaign’s success or failure.

The graveyard of nation branding campaigns is filled with examples of those that died at the hands of the domestic public. The British were less than amused with “Cool Britannia.” “Sparkling Korea” didn’t sparkle for the South Korean public. The failings of “Kosovo, the Young Europeans,” were detailed in an issue of CPD Perspectives by Martin Wählisch and Behar Xharra. The € 5.7 million campaign won top foreign awards for its artistic design. Yet, it failed to engage the domestic public: “It was purely a project of the government.” The mismatch between image and identity sparked counter campaigns from the domestic public.

South Africa is a notable exception in including the public in nation branding efforts. From the outset back in 2002, the government-initiated campaign sought to “build support domestically and internationally for the South African brand” (See,Youde 2009). The Brand South Africa strategy includes a diaspora component (Global South Africans) and a domestic mobilization component to “build and sustain national pride and patriotism.”

“Play Your Part,” for example, is a recent national initiative that “encourages all South Africans to contribute to positive change in the country.”

"Neither Government Nor Business Can Solve South Africa's Challenges Alone. Play Your Part."

2. Positive Partnerships 

Domestic publics have been playing a more prominent “partnership” role in PD initiatives. “Successful foreign policy increasingly requires partnerships,” as Nicholas Cull wrote recently, “Going it alone won’t work.” He noted the addition of “partnership” to the core definition of U.K. public diplomacy.

Potential partners included business, civil society, academics, as well as prominent individuals, such as celebrities who share national public diplomacy goals. The power of partnerships adds a people-to-people dimension that can personalize an initiative as well as help extend reach and credibility.

A creative example of partnership was the British initiative Think UK, China conducted in China from April 2003 to January 2004. The initiative was promoted as a “relationship building campaign” and featured partnerships on multiple levels. For example, more than one hundred Chinese and U.K partner organizations worked together to develop and coordinated thirty in-country events. Those events featured British and Chinese scientists, sculptors and writers teaming up for public concerts, exhibitions, competitions, and discussion forums.

While domestic organizations can provide an entrée into societies where direct government activities may be unwelcomed, the political, media, and development activities of “foreign-funded” non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society have come under increased scrutiny from countries across Asia, Africa, South America, and Eastern Europe. This is a PD area ripe for more research.

3. Our domestic, Their diaspora

Thanks to technology and perhaps changing attitudes about mobility, immigrant and diaspora populations are becoming increasing visible and active in public diplomacy. Immigrant populations play an important bridge-building role as the domestic public of one country and the diaspora of another country.

When the earthquake struck Haiti in early 2010, Canada turned to the Haitian diaspora to help spearhead rebuilding efforts. As the dated picture below shows, these bridging efforts began early.

U.S. public diplomacy has also reached out to the diaspora within its borders through “International Diaspora Engagement Alliance” or IdEA. Among the many roles diasporas play is providing information during crisis situations in other countries.

Diaspora publics are also playing a role in building bridges with publics whom the U.S. public diplomacy is trying to reach.

One can see from the Somali flag (below) why the color and star of the “I am a Star” campaign carries symbolism for Somali-Americans.

4. Adversarial Strategic Stakeholders

However, not all of the roles played by the domestic public are positive. The domestic public may include adversarial strategic stakeholders who actively work against a PD initiative. Stakeholders are individuals or groups who feel they have a stake or interest in the key issue (environment, human rights, etc.) of a PD initiative. Strategic stakeholders have the potential to advance as well as threaten or undermine a PD initiative. It is critical that they be accounted for in the public diplomacy calculus.

Attempts to dismiss or discredit a strategic domestic stakeholder may be counter-productive, especially if the groups have greater perceived credibility than the government. Such attempts may also backfire by inadvertently triggering a defense reaction in the domestic or foreign publics. The most difficult, but perhaps best approach is to identify and anticipate adversarial stakeholders and creatively work them into the initiative – before the initiative is launched.

5. Expand the Policy Bandwidth

A fifth but not final role, has to do with the “P” word: policy. As the lines between domestic and international become increasingly blurred, domestic publics are finding the impact of foreign policy hitting closer to home. Policy debates are no longer neatly divided between domestic and foreign. The domestic public may play an important role in expanding a nation’s policy bandwidth.

Some countries specifically target the domestic public to educate them and bring them into a nation’s foreign policy dialogue.

When Japan joined peace keeping efforts in Iraq, public diplomacy efforts included a third pillar to promote better understanding of the Middle East among the Japanese public. The Japan Foundation held a series of cultural events, including bringing the Iraqi soccer team to Japan.

Nearly a decade ago, Canada sought to engage its domestic public in a “Dialogue on Foreign Policy.” Other countries, including China, Finland, India and Nigeria, have developed policy dialogues specifically on public diplomacy. The effort of these and other countries were documented in a 2012 report "Domestic Public Diplomacy” by theAustralian Institute of International Affairs.

Active PD Participants

The traditional focus on foreign publics as the critical public in public diplomacy may have inadvertently fostered a view of the domestic public as “passive observers” in a nation’s public diplomacy. As is hopefully evident in this Culture Post, the critical roles played by the domestic public suggest that they are active PD participants.

Looking ahead, much more attention is needed to understand the variety of publics and their roles – both positive and negative – in public diplomacy. To that end, I am thinking of the next circle on the PD relational sphere … the role of diaspora publics.
Read Comments (1) | Add Your Own

Debbie Trent on June 26, 2013 @ 5:27 am
This Culture Post strengthens the argument to ground policy more in policy dialogues between government and all domestic publics, including diasporan individuals and diaspora organizations. Global southern (e.g., India, Brazil) and smaller nations (e.g., Israel, Liberia, Armenia, Greece) have long recognized the importance of relationships across their domestic and transnational publics in calculating national interests, shaping national identity and crafting national brand. Global northern countries, especially since the early 2000s, have focused on relationship-building with their diverse domestic publics. The idea, anyway, in this "public diplomacy at home," is to engage these publics inclusively in order to inform foreign, transnational, and domestic policy and to address their concerns and demands. In the U.S., through the International diaspora Engagement Alliance (IdEA) that Professor Zaharna cites, the U.S. Department of State and Agency for International Development have for three years convened the Global Diaspora Forum. The cross-sector socioeconomic and advocacy partnerships that have emerged or been strengthened by this forum are impressive, especially given the modest USG investment. I noticed at the May, 2013 forum that it is also a space for deliberation about political differences. As we study the relational sphere of public diplomacy (and there is a substantial overlap with development, too), we should examine how working through conflicting issues builds relationships at least as much as cooperating on shared interests. We should evaluate how public-private partnerships like IdEA and the Global Diaspora Forum stretch the resources of government. We should explore the capacities of citizen-based civil society mediating institutions to foster the light touch of relational public diplomacy and development. These areas of inquiry support alternatives to violent conflict and deeper public indebtedness.

Transnational identity-making...

The uptick in Syrian migration to the U.S. is an example of transnational identity-making among Americans of Syrian, Lebanese, and other Arab descent. Thanks to Charlotte Alfred and Al-Monitor for this article, the Arab American National Museum, and many individuals who celebrate the culture and history of the region and its history there and in the U.S.!

Arab-Americans Discover
Forefathers in Little Syria

Syrian Quarter in New York City between circa 1910-1915. (photo by Library of Congress)

By: Charlotte Alfred for Al-Monitor Posted on June 11.
When Carl Antoun, a young Lebanese-American, had bugged his grandmother enough times about her past, she directed him to a long-abandoned closet in their basement in New York.

About This Article

Summary :
Since the uprisings, more Syrians are arriving in the United States and finding that they have a long and rich history in New York City.
Author: Charlotte AlfredPosted on: June 11 2013
Categories : Originals  Syria  
“There was this steamer trunk, and on the side of it was written: '1662 Washington St.' I opened it and found hundreds of pictures, documents and postcards, all perfectly preserved,” Antoun recalled.
He had unearthed part of the lost history of Little Syria, the first Arab-American neighborhood established in the 1880s. Located near the site of ground zero in lower Manhattan, the first wave of immigrants from the Ottoman Empire lined Washington Street with new businesses, newspapers, and music and literary studios.
The grandfather of Antoun’s 94-year-old grandmother had arrived in New York from Lebanon in 1890, setting up a business that imported silk, jewelry and dry goods from Latin America through the nearby New York docks.
Antoun, 22, is now part of a movement pushing to put Little Syria back on the map. He co-founded the Save Washington Street campaign, which is lobbying to landmark the cluster of remaining buildings in Little Syria.
After Antoun put much of the contents of his grandmother’s trunk online, former Little Syria residents and their families have started sending him their own mementos from the neighborhood for his collection.
Local scene in Little Syria, New York, circa 1910-1915. Picture courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The Arab American National Museum in Michigan has also pulled together artifacts from former residents, and dug up archive music recordings, documents and press cuttings to create an immersive portrait of the neighborhood. The exhibition was recently shown next to Little Syria itself, and is currently traveling around the United States.
“Most Arab-Americans were as surprised to learn about Little Syria as others were,” said Elizabeth Barrett Sullivan, who curated the exhibition. “People are definitely excited that these stories are finally being told, stories that had been completely forgotten.”
Physically, most of the neighborhood was knocked down by the building of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel in the 1940s and the World Trade Center in the 1960s. Many residents were displaced; others had already moved on to more spacious parts of Brooklyn, Atlantic Avenue and later Bay Ridge.
“Brooklyn was seen as a step up, you could get more bang for your buck,” said community historian Mary Ann DiNapoli, 60, whose grandfather worked on Washington Street as an elevator operator. Other Little Syria residents moved across New York and to other states across the United States.
DiNapoli, of Syrian and Lebanese heritage, rediscovered Little Syria for herself when the church she had attended on Washington Street, St. George Melkite Church, became the first and only official landmark in the neighborhood in 2009.
At a hearing a few weeks before the vote by the Landmarks Preservation Commission, she heard testimonies from former residents, historians and architects, and became enamored with the tales of a close-knit community that was both multiethnic and an Arab cultural hub.
“It’s strange that there are millions of people across the country who are descendants of Little Syria,” said Todd Fine, who set up Save Washington Street with Antoun. “But they might never think about it.”
There are many reasons why the street faded from popular memory. Fine said that when the United States moved to restrict immigration between 1924 and 1965, continuity was lost, and traditions disappeared. Historians describe the first arrivals from the Ottoman Empire as being socially mobile and keen to assimilate. The majority were Christian, easing their integration. Moreover, Fine said, after the creation of Israel, “being visibly Arab became a liability,” further pushing Arab-American heritage into basements.
“The community did less to create a narrative than other ethnic groups,” he said.
For Antoun, this created a visceral gap in his own history. “My Jewish and Italian friends all have places they can say, there’s our area. But people from Lebanon and Syria don’t have anywhere like that,” he said. “There’s been nothing tangible to memorialize this history.”
New Generation

Today, New York’s Arab-American population is estimated to be between 250,000 and 300,000, according to Sarab al-Jijakli, president of the Network of Arab-American Professionals. Recent immigrants from the Levant — Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine — are strongest in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, whereas North Africans tend to head to Astoria, Queens.
“It is important for us as a community to assert that our presence did not start at 9/11, we’ve been contributing to the country for over 100 years,” Jijakli, 37, said.
Fine said that 9/11 was “such a shock that it affected people psychologically on a deep level, hearing psychotic racist stuff on the news had a big effect on young people. And now they tend to want to tell their stories.”
And in a social media age, this is easier than ever.
“Things spread quickly in our generation,” noted Norah Arafeh, a 21-year-old history student who joined the Save Washington Street campaign as outreach director, as she described working Facebook "like crazy" to drum up interest in the initiative.
The campaign itself started when Antoun found YouTube clips of Fine talking about Little Syria, and they started messaging via the video platform. Antoun said their online petition to preserve Washington Street gathered “hundreds of comments of people saying, I’m Lebanese-American. They were learning that they do have a history here for the first time.”
“There is a gap between the fourth and fifth generation and Arab-Americans of the past 30 years,” Jijakli said. “The new community has to rediscover it for themselves. There is an intense curiosity around this.”
Among Antoun’s friends, “the more recent immigrants think [the campaign is] the most interesting thing in the world. They have no idea that they are not new here,” he said.
“The older ones don’t think about it as much, they just don’t know, there’s no footprint, and they never really had a passion for it.”
Arafeh’s father, who came to New York from Syria when he was 17 years old, told her, "I've learned so much about Arab American history through you."
As Arafeh explains it, while her parents’ generation quietly respects their heritage, younger people are “looking to assert our identity, to assert ourselves in a changing world, especially for Muslim Americans … to say we made a contribution to New York.”
That contribution rolls on until today. Sahadi’s Fine Foods, a Brooklyn institution and one of the last historic Arab businesses on Atlantic Avenue, was first started on Washington Street by Lebanese immigrant Abraham Sahadi in 1895.
Abraham’s great-nephew, Charlie Sahadi, 69, currently runs the retail and wholesale company, which now employs 70 people. He sent some of his artifacts to the Little Syria exhibition. “It’s the history that got us here,” he said.
The Sahadis still import about a container of goods a year from Syria via Lebanon — including mint, sumac and other spices particular to the area, despite tightened import procedures since 9/11 and difficulties after the Syrian uprising.
Modern Syria is also causing some problems for the campaign.
Antoun said some members of the Lebanese community — after decades of painful history between the modern countries — said, "we don’t want anything to do with it if it’s called Little Syria.”
“They see the word Syria and they freak out,” he said.
The Syrian designation is historical. At the turn of the 19th century, immigrants from modern-day Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon and Syria — then ruled by the Ottoman Empire — were all labeled Syrians by US immigration officials, and their neighborhood was called the Syrian Quarter.
As various national identities developed, the Arab-American community wrestled with self-identification and America’s race classifications, with the term Lebanese at times used as a rejection of “Arab” identity.
The spiraling violence in Syria today also tends to dominate the attention of Arab-Americans. “This is a life and death situation, which takes focus away from such historical campaign,” Jijakli noted.
But Arafeh is passionate that it is a mistake to overlook history. “Everyone is looking to the future, what will happen with Egypt, Palestine, Syria; no one gives a cop about history. But ultimately we’ll have nothing if we don’t respect our heritage,” she said.
Meanwhile, the timing could not be more relevant than ever for the Syrian population in the United States.
Since the uprisings, more Syrians are arriving in the United States, or getting permission to stay after the government applied Temporary Protected Status to Syrians in 2012, Jijakli observed.
This contrasts with recent decades, when Syrians had more difficulty immigrating to the United States than other nationalities because of poor relations between the countries, he said.
Jijakli’s own family is Syrian, and the Little Syria exhibition had a strong impact on him.
In the background of a photograph of a Washington Street banquet in the 1940s, he noticed the ribbons of the American flag and beside it the Syrian flag of independence.
“It amazed me the relationship these folks had with the mother country, the same as we do today. We have this feeling of being caught between two worlds, and it was all there then,” he recounted. “We’ve only started to scratch the surface of the impact Little Syria had on our community. It opens up immense opportunities to understand ourselves.”
Antoun hopes it could also help others to understand Arab-Americans better. “Maybe if Americans of other backgrounds could see something Arab or Middle Eastern here, they won’t shun it anymore,” he reflected. “They’ll realize that they were here when my Jewish or Irish ancestors were here … they’re people like us.”
Charlotte Alfred is a freelance journalist and former editor at Ma'an News Agency. On Twitter: @charlottealfred

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Sharing Diverse Culinary Traditions for Mutual Understanding-My Kind of Politics!

I admire folks who reach across the table to share their cooking and their cultural diversity.

Thanks, again, to USC's PDiN for this link!

In south Tel Aviv, African migrants help Israelis acquire a taste for their neighbors

Kitchen Talks, a unique cultural exchange dreamed up by two artists/activists, brings together the culinary skills of African migrants with the curiosity and hunger of Israelis.


Dafna Arad

Jun.12, 2013 | 7:49 PM 


Kitchen Talks

During a Kitchen Talks meal, instructors share recipes and their personal stories.

Photo by David Bachar


Dafna Arad


Israel food

David Bachar

Yemane, a cook from Eritrea, teaches participants of Kitchen Talks about his culture's culinary traditions.

Photo by David Bachar

Yael Ravid and Goor Somer

Participants in Kitchen Talks learn quickly to discard the utensils and eat as their instructors do.

Photo by Yael Ravid and Goor Somer

As Israel engages in a tumultuous debate over what to do about African migrants, other conversations, more personal and friendly, are taking place between Israelis and asylum seekers. As part of a social art project called Sihot Mitbah (Kitchen Talks), which takes place every weekend in Tel Aviv, African migrants give cooking workshops to groups of curious Israelis.

The people behind the project are Yael Ravid and Goor Somer, both in their early 30s. For more than a year Ravid, an artistic photographer, has volunteered at the Soup4Lewinsky project, which brings hot, nutritious meals every day to homeless asylum seekers living in Levinski Park. Kitchen Talks is her graduation project for her studies in curating at the Contemporary Cultural Center in Tel Aviv in cooperation with Kibbutzim College. Somer’s first encounter with migrants and meals was held on the last World Refugee Day, in connection with the first Sudanese restaurant in Israel. 

The two have recruited workshop instructors from across the African continent: Claudine of the Ivory Coast, who caters out of her home for events and for the embassy; a Nigerian woman, who runs a restaurant near the Tel Aviv Central Bus Station; Hassan, a well-known cook in the Darfur community, and Yemane, from Eritrea.

“We tell them it’s a project for bringing people together," says Ravid of the participants, who heard of the initiative by word of mouth, spread from a library in South Tel Aviv, kindergartens, restaurants and human-rights groups. The price for the vegetarian workshop in NIS 130, says Ravid, and the cooks are paid for their work. 

"Every recipe taught in the course is translated into the cook’s native language and into Hebrew," says Ravid. "The result is that there are recipes in Tigrinya, Amharic, Arabic, French and Hebrew.”

“As a resident of south Tel Aviv, I live near [the African migrants], but I don’t get to meet them regularly,” Somer says. “I work in a cafe in Jaffa myself, and it’s not always comfortable for me to approach the dishwasher and sit down to talk with him. The environment we live in creates a situation of distance. Some of the workshop participants are already convinced from the political perspective, but others come because they are curious about the cuisine and can learn about it only in south Tel Aviv. Not everyone finds it easy to go there — there’s stigma, fear, pity or disgust. We try to create a setting where people can learn new information and become free of those tensions.”

The unease and unfamiliarity sometimes manifests itself in the preparation of the food. 

“We had one meeting where the meal was supposed to be fish, and we were told that the fish would be baked in the oven for an hour,” says Somer. “All the Israelis, who came with some cooking knowledge, said, ‘What are you talking about? Put a fish in the oven for that long and it will burn. We’ll have dried-out fish!’ I asked them to wait and listen to the instructor. When the fish came out of the oven, it was delicious, not dry at all, with soft flesh and a crunchy skin.”

Last month, many people in south Tel Aviv were dismayed when an inspector from the local district branch of the Health Ministry poured bleach into pots containing a great deal of food, in a Sudanese restaurant in Neve Sha’anan, part of a raid by police and municipal inspectors on illegal businesses owned by African immigrants. 

“After the raid, one of the cooks who worked with us said he was tired of working with Israelis and left the project,” Ravid said. “We tried to tell him that this was an opportunity to meet with people outside the loathsome system of the situation we live in.”

Chopping onions and crying

Last Saturday, the instructor was 26-year-old Yemane from Eritrea, who wore an Angry Birds t-shirt and Sketchers sneakers. The project’s participants met in a member’s apartment and cooked keih tesebhi, a spicy tomato sauce with a hard-boiled egg and three tablespoons of berbere spice mix, and hamli kosta, a dish made of root vegetables and chard. Since the workshop hosts are vegetarians, the food is as well, though Yemane says he enjoys meat.

During the first hour, Yemane walks among the participants, who have been chopping and grating enthusiastically, checking whether they added too much garlic or parsley. All eyes are on him as he demonstrates his technique for cooking carrots or peeling an egg (he strikes it on the countertop and rolls it). The participants chop onions, chat and laugh as their eyes tear up. When it's time to stir the pots, the participants approach slowly and ask delicately about life in Eritrea, the journey to Israel, Yemane's relationship with other migrants, his dreams and his day-to-day life.

Yemane answers patiently in fluent Hebrew, confessing his love for schnitzel and mashed potatoes and talking about his family. He says he came to Israel five years ago before the fences were built and receives a work permit every few months.

“In the first workshops, we sat with individual plates and silverware," said Somer. "We saw that Claudine was picking up the food with her fingers, so we put down the silverware and followed her lead. Yemane served the injera bread at the first meeting on individual plates. By the second meeting, it was clear that there are three people to every loaf of injera, and you eat only with your right hand. That’s how it’s done.

“The first time we tasted egusi in a Nigerian restaurant, I had a hard time with the taste," said Somer. "The second time, when we prepared it together and I got to know the ingredients (beef and melon), I understood what made up this new flavor and I could enjoy it. These are acquired tastes. Not everything is delicious right away.”

The meal is the exhibit

At the project’s seventh meeting, Ravid told the participants how food workshops connect to art. 

“I was searching for a way to do social art that had an ongoing influence, not a finished product or a beginning, a middle and an end," she said. "The model of the art world can be applied to these meetings. The kitchen is the space. The meal is the exhibit. The one-man show belongs to Yemane, at center stage, and the audience participates in the creation. This could be called performance art or display art.”

Asked whether the format is in some way a reaction to the current Israeli culinary climate, which has become rather sophisticated in the past few years, Somer says the response is actually broader than that.

“It’s more of a reaction against what’s happening in society," he says. "The Israeli culinary scene is not all that open. It classifies certain cuisines by their profitability or the possibility of social expression. Haute cuisine in Israel usually means European cuisine, with some openness to the Far East. Palestinian haute cuisine has become recognized only in the past few years. Before that, there were 'Eastern restaurants' that served kebab and salads.

“It’s hard to find good African restaurants in Israel," he says. "One reason is the way people think about the population. The refugees are pushed to the margins like something menacing, dangerous, temporary and shallow. We have thousands of Africans in Tel Aviv. We can be curious about their culture and get to know it. We have an opportunity to treat them like human beings who come with a whole world that includes a fascinating culture.” 

The Industrial Areas Foundation's Diaspora Caucus in the United Kingdom

The Industrial Area Foundation (IAF), founded by Saul Alinsky in the mid-20th century in the U.S., is a citizen leadership development network with affiliate faith- and community-based institutions around the U.S. and abroad. Alinsky built the IAF on the foundation of one-to-one, relational meetings from which citizen leadership, power, and social equity emerge.

In the UK, I have just noticed a "Diaspora Caucus," organized among immigrant communities to improve their quality of life and connections with their non-migrant, fellow residents. See for an introductory video. It has a melodic ending, too.

I wonder if the IAF movement might have resonance in the Middle East? It's inter-faith and about as democratic as a civil society organization can be. I wonder if the American Friends Service Committee, Search for Common Ground, or another organization might be interested in engaging with them? Or the Syrian Rights Observatory in the UK?