When Mohammad Bader arrived at LaGuardia Airport from East Jerusalem in 1986, he had nothing more than $500 and two suitcases — and found himself immediately threatened with being sent back.
He’d come to the United States to train and work as part of a cultural exchange program, but the airport agent didn’t believe him, eventually relenting. Bader not only stayed, but stayed for good due to war back home. Today, he directs the Department of County Human Services, leading the safety net for thousands of the County’s most vulnerable residents.
Bader reflected on his journey while speaking alongside a panel of Arab American leaders Thursday, April 27, as the Board proclaimed April 2023 Arab American Heritage Month in Multnomah County.
“We are a small group,” Bader said. “But we are very mighty.”
Nationally, Arab American Heritage Month is meant to celebrate and honor the rich contributions of Arab Americans and highlight Arab American culture. It’s also an opportunity to raise awareness about discrimination, dispel stereotypes and empower Arab American communities.
In July 2021, then-Oregon Gov. Kate Brown signed House Bill 2914, declaring April as Arab American Heritage Month in Oregon, too. Oregon joins Illinois as the only two states that formally recognize the honor.
“Today is a great chance to speak about the value of so many important contributions by Arab Americans throughout our staff at Multnomah County and throughout our community,” Chair Jessica Vega Pederson said. “This year’s celebration falls partly across Ramadan, a time many Arab American families are focused on faith and community.”
The event also featured testimony from Judge Rima Ghandour, who was 18 when she immigrated to the United States after living in Lebanon, Iraq, Oman and Yemen. She arrived right after Sept. 11, 2002, and experienced fear, hatred and discrimination that affected her for years afterward.
Now she’s the first Arab American woman to serve as a judge in Multnomah County, and only the third in the nation. And when the federal government instituted a travel ban for people from seven majority-Muslim countries, she stepped up to provide free legal transportation for those affected.
“Thank you for being in that role and standing up and being the leader we so desperately need,” Commissioner Sharon Meieran said, “and paving the way for more Arab American judges.”
The Arab American Heritage proclamation is so important, Ghandour said, because it celebrates Arab American identity and culture. It also highlights the many positive contributions made by Arab Americans, both locally and across the nation.
“It lets us know that we will not be punished or discriminated against because we are Arab Americans,” Ghandour said. “It lets us know that what we bring, who we are, is appreciated and applauded.”
Bader and Ghandour joined a panel of four Arab American Multnomah County employees who also testified, representing Palestine, Iraq, Armenia and Morocco. They spoke about their shared experience as Arab Americans and mutual love of Middle Eastern food, music and culture.
Nabil Zaghloul, the program manager for Bienestar de la Familia, has worked for Multnomah County for 29 years. He thanked Multnomah County for supporting him as an Arab American employee and leader. “I’m grateful for the opportunity that Multnomah County has given me, and just working in the field with the community.”
Layan Ammouri, the policy director for Commissioner Lori Stegmann, has focused much of her work on community resilience. She also played a significant role in the County’s outreach efforts for the 2020 United States Census. An Arab American, herself, she also partnered with Arab American community groups to improve participation in the Census.
“I’ve been able to use my background and my passion for cross-cultural communication in working with a multitude of different community organizations,” she said.
“Thank you so much for sharing a little of your individual cultures,” Commissioner Stegmann said. “That is how we learn. That is how we grow. That is how we embrace one another.”
Ahmed Alzubidi, a Health Department employee who immigrated to from Iraq, encouraged commissioners to continue raising awareness about the contributions of Arab Americans.
“We really, really need your support to keep motivating the community to feel welcome and to feel they belong,” Alzubidi said. He mentioned that he knows some Arab Americans who have been in the United States for more than 30 years and still struggle feeling welcomed.
After the reading of the proclamation, Board members expressed their appreciation and gratitude to the speakers for sharing their stories.
“Every one of you exemplifies what leadership and community looks like,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said.
“Thank you for your leadership,” Commissioner Diane Rosenbaum said, “and for your work for the County and everything that you do for us.”