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Chicago — Arab Americans are playing a greater role in helping to define US policies and programs through their involvement in the White House and the State Department, members of the Arab American affinity group told Arab News Wednesday.

Nadia Farra, special assistant to Deputy Secretary Wendy Sherman covering the Middle East and North Africa, counterterrorism and cyber issues, and Mahmoud El-Hamalawy, press officer at the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs covering North Africa, said their role in the State Department’s Arab American affinity group created in 2014 has helped open the door to greater Arab American engagement.

The Arab Americans in Foreign Affairs Agencies employee affinity group is the department’s only employee-based organization concerned with the promotion, protection and utilization of the cultural, linguistic, personal and professional assets that Arab American foreign affairs professionals commonly share. 

“I think the Biden administration definitely has the most Arab American political appointees. Where we come in is working on that recruitment effort and pushing the department to look at Michigan, talk to schools in California and Texas — those populations with greater Arab Americans,” explained Farra, who serves as the Arab American affinity group president.

“Also, we did two recruitment efforts this year, two Facebook Lives with careers.state.gov, where we talked about security clearances, where we talked about what kind of careers are at the departments. I think that pushing on the recruitment side is where you see more Arab Americans. We have had people like Ambassador Philip Habeeb in the 60s and 70s who have had a huge impact on the department. But I think now not only are we having more Arab Americans, we are having a greater diversity of where those Arab Americans come from. Like you mentioned, the 22 countries. I want to see more diversity of that, just more of that. I’m Syrian American and definitely heard of Syrian Americans who have worked in government before. But I really want to get out there and really empower those who come from the more underrepresented communities.”

Farra entered US government service in 2011 as a third-generation public servant. Her father worked as a physician at a US base in Georgia, and her immigrant grandfather taught Arabic at the Defense Language Institute in Monarch, California.

Farra and El-Hamalawy discussed their roles during an appearance Wednesday on “The Ray Hanania Radio Show,” which is hosted on the US Arab Radio Network and broadcast on live radio in Detroit, Washington, D.C. and Canada. The radio show is rebroadcast in Chicago on Thursdays and streamed on Arab News Facebook and ArabRadio.us.

El-Hamalawy, an Egyptian American who spent 16 years working at an Arab satellite news outlet, said the Arab American affinity group plays “a significant role” in implementing the goals of President Biden’s partnership with Arab Americans.

“The department itself looks at us as a resource, not necessarily on policy per se but to get our perspective on issues on diversity and inclusion” for all of the various groups and for “underrepresented groups like Arab Americans,” El-Hamalwy said.

Farra added, “Arab Americans are a part of that fabric” that the US government “utilizes as a resource.”

El-Hamalawy noted that the group played an important role in President Biden and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken issuing, for the first time, a formal recognition commemorating Arab American Heritage Month last year. And they acknowledged the Arab American role this year, too.

Farra explained that AAIFAA membership is not based on any ethnicity or religion, but rather on a shared affinity for Arab culture. The Arab American affinity group does not just include Americans of Arab heritage but also individuals in federal service who have a shared interest in issues related to the Middle East and who are dedicated to working toward diversity to reflect the region’s population.

“The role of these groups is to kind of advocate…for their membership but to also be advisors to our leadership on…how to reach [our] goal…, which is to make the state department or federal government look more like America. And how to do that within these communities. How to do outreach. How to do recruitment. How to keep retention and just monitor the community’s needs for our membership,” Farra explained.

“It (the Arab American affinity group) is not the oldest by any means, but also we are not the newest. We were started in 2014. What makes us a bit more unique is that we span all foreign affairs agencies. So, we are not just the State Department group. We have members from Treasury. From Energy. So, all over the inner agencies. We have over 500 members. So, we have really grown in the last couple of years.”

El-Hamalawy and Farra said that the door for Arab American engagement in the Biden administration and in public service is more open today than it ever has been. Farra added that Biden recognizes the importance of Arab Americans in helping to confront stereotypes and even contributing to American foreign policy in the Middle East.

“I would say it is the most open it has ever been, and we have some work to do on the way we retain those from underrepresented communities and pulling more from our communities. But I think that the door is absolutely open if you are willing to take the risk…[of] getting into foreign policy and government work. I would say absolutely,” Farra said.

“Something my boss, the deputy secretary, always says is to bring your whole self to work, bring your whole background, bring your whole ties. Because that’s what makes us stronger as a nation…Diversity inclusion isn’t something to do because it is good to do. It is because it makes us stronger and smarter, and I think that is something we just don’t hear enough of. And that diversity includes the Arab American community. And the only other thing I will say is the coalition-building between the other underrepresented groups within the State Department has just really skyrocketed the changes that we have made, so I would really encourage the Arab American community with any initiatives they do to build coalitions with other ethnic groups.”

AAIFAA serves as a resource of relevant ideas and experiences that can be shared among Arab American communities throughout the interagency community. AAIFAA membership is open to all civil and foreign service employees in the department and throughout the interagency community.

El-Hamalawy said that individuals interested in careers in public service at the State Department can visit the website at careers.state.gov.

Listen to the Ray Hanania podcast here.