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Meeting of the West Side Democrats at Western Cuyahoga Lodge and Cleveland's Arab Immigrant Community Today

IMG_2888Our last event for Tuesday, July 12th, was a meeting of the West Side Democrats that took place at the Western Cuyahoga Lodge #25 on Center Ridge Road in Westlake.

The speaker was Mr. Daniel G. Ortiz with Policy Matters Ohio and the topic of his presentation was "the importance of discussing issues and policy to frame political conversations."

Mr. Ortiz contended that we need to look beyond the "red team" and the "blue team" and recognize each other's humanity and have empathy for the other person and where he/she is coming from.

"I want to be open to relate and to listen," said Mr. Ortiz. He acknowledged, however, that in today's contentious political climate this is getting harder and harder to do. This is really a shame because we have so many issues in common like rising tuition costs and the need to improve our infrastructure and mass transit.

Next week, when the RNC comes to town, Mr. Ortiz urged us to be good hosts and explore ways that both parties could work together.

Mr. Ortiz' presentation gave us something to think about and one person who was there was motivated to share with the rest of us how she recently approached a Muslim woman in order to apologize for the inappropriate way that the media has often portrayed Muslims and how uneducated and sometimes cruel certain members of the native-born public are.

She said that the Muslim woman very much appreciated these kind words.

The Tuesday night meeting sort of set the stage for Wednesday, July 13th, when we went to the Maltz Museum for a conversation titled "Cleveland's Arab Immigrant Community Today" that was presented as a joint effort between the museum and Global Cleveland. It was the first of a trilogy about the different immigrant groups of Cleveland. On August 10th, there will be a similar panel about Cleveland's Pan-Asian Community and on September 14th, Cleveland's Latino Community will be discussed.

On this occasion, the moderator was Mr. Jeffrey Allen, the Maltz Museum's Director of Education and Public IMG_2896 Programs and the panelists were Dr. Ahmad Banna, a practicing cardiologist who immigrated to the United States from Syria and is the president of the Muslim Association of Cleveland East as well as on the Board of Trustees for the Islamic Center of Cleveland; Mr. Pierre Bejjani, President of CAMEO and Managing Director/Executive Editor o f "Profile News" who immigrated here from Lebanon 35 years ago; Ms. Lea Kayali, first generation Palestinian American and grand prize winner of the Maltz Museum's 2015 "Stop the Hate" competition; and Mr. Leen Midani, who immigrated to the United States as a child from Syria and is currently attending CSU as well as translating for recently arrived refugees.

The format consisted of Mr. Allen asking a series of question after which there was a Q and A. These questions prompted the panelists to share their own personal experiences as immigrants and to talk about such things as the history of immigration of people from Arab countries to the United States, labels and misconceptions that people in this country have about Arabs, what motivates people from Arab countries to immigrate to both the U.S. and chose to live in Cleveland, and opportunities available for refugees.

It was said by Dr. Banna that recent immigration to the United States was motivated by the political unrest in Arab countries; he came here because he wanted himself and his family to be safe. During theIMG_2897 course of the evening, we were very impressed by Dr. Banna as he revealed himself to be very knowledgeable about the history of the Middle East and immigration trends. Ms. Midani, who we had met earlier at the City Club a few months ago, recalled that she and her family traveled to the United States from Damascus for what they thought would be a brief visit but the turmoil in Syria which really heated up while they were away kept them from returning home.

Everyone agreed that the media has created stereotypes of Arabs that are unfair,  very misleading and sometimes dangerous. A focal point of discussion was the recent incident in Avon involving the police response to 911 calls (which in hindsight seem paranoid) involving United Arab Emirates businessman Ahmed Al Menhali who, due to his Arab dress and phone manner, was suspected by those who called the police to be a member of ISIS.

It was agreed that the public needs better education about the Arab people living in the U.S. and their culture. Mr. Bejjani said that this was indeed a passion of his which was one of the reasons that he publishes "Profile News"; he wants to demonstrate to the public that Arab immigrants love the United States, pay its taxes, and are eager to make the IMG_2893most of its opportunities.

Of course, each of the panelists had experienced discrimination at one time in their lives but, very much to their credit, no bitterness was expressed. We recalled meeting Ms. Kayali at least two times when she read her essay that won her the "Stop the Hate" award. In the essay she talked about being the only student of Arabic descent at her high school and endured some not-too-nice treatment because of it. She channeled her frustration into the creation of positive energy that worked in her favor when she conferred with school officials about the creation of a course regarding the understanding of Middle East cultures. Ultimately, her efforts paid off and the course was established.

Concerning education, Mr. Bejjani mentioned that the initial reason that he came to Cleveland as a young man was to further his education. In the past, immigrants from all over were drawn to Northeast Ohio was that it was an industrial hub where they could but now two of the main reasons that people are attracted here are our outstanding educational and medical institutions. Ms. Midani said that she loves attending CSU because it is like a rainbow of ethnicities. She said that it is a beautiful mixture of people all working together.

IMG_2890Along these lines, all of the panelists had at some time worked with refugees particularly Ms. Midani, who translates, and Ms. Kayali who teaches ESL, so they talked about how rewarding it was for them to be of assistance because these people come here with virtually nothing but are determined to make a good life for themselves here in the United States.

In fact during the Q and A, we asked what Cleveland could do to be more immigrant friendly. Mr. Bejjani really praised the work of Mr. Joe Cimperman, the relatively new president of Global Cleveland because he has done such a good job bringing the different ethnic groups together. But, then, he acknowledged, and we think he is right, that "there is something wrong with Cleveland, some say not too friendly" compared to other places. "We need to be more open and friendly," he said, "more open-minded and open-hearted." He believed that it was a definite plus that we have such organizations as Global Cleveland,, and ICC-WIN.

Mr. Cimperman, himself, was there and he opened the program by saying that "this conversation is very important. We are the opposite of Dallas. The people here are not from the same place but we are able to sit down and talk with each other about making our community work."


Michael Patterson 

Community Liaison,

Margaret W. Wong & Assoc. Co., LLC

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