As Arab Americans of Jordanian and Syrian descent and children of immigrants, we have been fortunate to straddle different cultures from an early age. Our childhood summers of visiting Amman and Damascus, learning more about our heritage, and savoring flavors of home cooked maqlouba have influenced how we think and shaped our intersectional identities. These experiences have broadened our global perspectives, giving us a different lens to observe U.S. foreign policy decisions. While we celebrated our identities in countries we saw as our second home, we also felt marginalized in our American communities. Experiencing Islamophobia in the aftermath of September 11 and watching U.S. media misrepresent reality in the Middle East reinforced the importance of countering misinformed narratives of the region and of Arabs through improved policy formulation and representation. The culmination of these experiences called us to public service.
For decades, associations and stereotypes tied to the Arab American identity fostered a misrepresentation of our reality. Whether it has been conflating ethnic identity with religion, seeing Arab Americans as a monolithic identity, or reinforcing narratives that alienate Arab American voices as only biased to the Middle East, these stigmas engender further divides. They have resulted in being met with distrust and suspicion for harboring specific agendas when working on U.S. policies in the Middle East and North Africa. This has also been compounded by pigeonholing Arab Americans into spaces focused on countering violent extremism that emerged following the “War on Terror”, with the often-biased reporting of news from the Middle East. This prejudice can only be overcome through the full inclusion and empowerment of Arab Americans in all facets of government work. Our identities are not a hindrance to our work. Our identities are pathways to bridge silos and divides that have been created over the years.
Our fluency in our Arab heritage and in the Arabic language has cultivated a unique connection across continents and cultures. We have a keen understanding of the American nuances that we need to navigate while serving as a bridge between the Middle East region that is too often misunderstood. Our task of sharing our stories and meeting with communities can enhance collaborative connections when connections are made over shared language, religious practice, and cultural experiences.
While advancing U.S. foreign policy at the State Department and USAID, we have an opportunity to reshape our own narratives. We have been able to dispel negative and maligned misconceptions directed against Arab Americans and broader stereotypes about the Middle East and North Africa region both abroad and domestically. We share a piece of home with our partners and contacts and display a sense of cultural richness and respect with us. It is through this shared language that we are better able to connect with our foreign counterparts and civil society to advance U.S. foreign policy. These connections have allowed us to share lessons from our own lived experiences in the United States to strengthen our relationships abroad.
As we strive to represent America’s diversity to the world, we are motivated by the work that has been accomplished and the work that remains to cement that fact that Arab Americans are an essential fabric of American society. We are proud to bring our full selves to the workplace every day as Arab American diplomats without the preconceived notions of what it means to be American. The lived experiences we bring to the State Department and USAID help showcase Arab American values of hospitality, generosity, and empathy – whether when advocating for better protection of asylum seekers or supporting displaced and host communities build resilience to the ongoing crises that continue to affect millions of people across the Middle East. We highlight our common shared values that we bring to the table everyday given our lived experiences and the lenses we carry by connecting over our cultures and upbringing to find agreement around policies rather than disagreement.
We hope our presence will encourage other Arab Americans to consider a career in foreign affairs agencies at the State Department, USAID, or elsewhere where their diverse backgrounds and fresh perspectives will be welcomed and celebrated. There is a need for fuller inclusion of Arab Americans in American society to better foster spaces for a wide range of ideas and perspectives for creative solutions to challenging and ever-growing problems in international affairs. More Arab American representation will lead to more thorough decision-making processes and nuanced perspectives that make the United States, our national security, and our communities stronger.
About the Authors: Leyth Swidan is a Foreign Service Officer with the Department of State. He is currently based in Copenhagen and previously served in Kuwait.
Rahaf Safi is a Foreign Service Officer with the U.S. Agency for International Development Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance.