Image Gallery

<< Back:Abbas Letter | Home | Next:Mr. Shami >>

Your Excellencies, the ambassador, Undersecretary Nicholas Burns, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen; I am truly honored to be recognized by the American Task Force on Palestine for my government service. But in truth no recognition was necessary beyond the privilege that I had to serve in the U.S. Foreign Service for 31 years, including as the Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and subsequently Syria.

I am highly honored to have been introduced by my good friend Senator Wyche Fowler, my Ambassador in Saudi Arabia, a mentor who taught me so much about life and about U.S. Politics.

I certainly want to thank my wife Jeanne who willingly followed me to some difficult environments and supported my career throughout. If you can believe it or not right after we were married I took her to Baghdad, I guess that was our honeymoon.

Dr. Ziad Asali and his dedicated staff are making significant sacrifices to promote what everyone here understands what is needed: a two-state solution based on justice, mutual security, and peaceful coexistence. As Ambassador Safiyeh noted, the Secretary of State this week is to be lauded for publicly stating that the creation of an independent, viable Palestinian state is in the best interest of the United States of America.

I have believed for many years that the best means, indeed the only means, of achieving this outcome is though serious negotiations and non-violent tactics on the part of the Palestinians, of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the US Civil Rights Movement and in case you think that is too far-fetched a member of my Board of Directors of Amideast, Dr. Mary King, has just come out with a book that documents what happened during the First Intifada and how much that was a nonviolent uprising.

Some of you may wonder about my connection to Palestine so let me tell you a little bit about my family. My grandfather George Kattouf immigrated to the United States from the walled city of Acre or Akha in 1903. My maternal grandfather Salim Bahou came in 1905 from the very same city, as did one of my grandmothers. Recently I visited the tomb of my great-grandfather, the Reverend Hamna Kattouf, in Acre just across Denali Way from the old Orthodox Church where he was for a long time the parish priest in the 19th century. This trip allowed me to reflect on how fortunate my family was to have avoided the catastrophes that befell so many, including members of our extended family. I was also deeply touched by my ability to physically connect with places that were an integral part of my ancestor’s daily lives. Something that so many Palestinians cannot do.

I want to thank my mother Victoria, who is here tonight, I haven’t even had a chance to see her because I arrived late, what else? But it was I think my mother who set me on a course that was to lead to a diplomatic career. She got me interested.

I also owe a debt of gratitude to her brother, my late uncle Victor Bahou, who was not only the first in our family to earn a university degree but also went on to earn a PhD, become a tenured university professor, a democratic county chairman, and he held the type of job that Deana Powell held at the White House. He held that in the administration of Hugh Carey in New York State. Here was a Palestinian American of all states making high-level appointments to state government in New York; he later went on to head the Civil Service Commission.

My grandfather George Kattouf, like his father before him, was ordained as an orthodox priest in New York City in 1907, and he went on to organize predominantly Lebanese and Syrian Christian communities in places such as Wilkes-Berra, Pennsylvania, Charleston, West Virginia, Akron, Ohio and Altuna, Pennsylvania, my hometown. He was a natural leader and a good fundraiser who built new churches wherever he went. It worked to his advantage that he was of Palestinian background because most of the immigrants were from Lebanon and Syria, although at that time they didn’t really know if they were from Palestine, Lebanon, or Syria because it was still part of the Ottoman Empire, Sykes Picot had to tell us exactly where we were from. But being from a different city than most of his parishioners he was in a good position to mediate their disputes, and being Arabs you can bet there were many. When the church in Wilkes-Barre celebrated its 90th anniversary I was moved to learn that 13 young men from that small parish gave their lives for this country during World War II. Along with a love for this country it’s also very apparent to me that the Palestinian immigrants communicated a reverence for education, a goal that was too often out of their reach.

Two of my grandparents were illiterate and never learned English despite living in this country for a number of years. Among my twelve first cousins and three siblings who are all, now my twelve first cousins are not here tonight but my three siblings are, are graduates of MIT, Cornell, the University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, and NYU, we number among us three tenured professors in fields such as physics and linguistics. We also count among us an optometrist, a neurosurgeon, and a patent lawyer, and that’s just one cousin. I keep asking, “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Two of my first cousin’s children already have PhD’s in mathematics and computer science. My brother Tom Kattouf and my sister Sylvia Hanna, who are here tonight, have dedicated their lives to working with children with disabilities, including speech and hearing impediments, retardation and autism.

Sylvia is also an accomplished actress who wowed our family reunion recently with her one-woman performance of a play dealing with an elderly Jewish immigrant woman reflecting back on her long life. By the way, she was very convincing.

My brother Tom is the director of Special Education Programs in the Altuna area school district, but he is also a fourth-degree black belt in karate and a champion power lifter in the state of Pennsylvania. If General Zinni is here tonight he’d like to challenge you to power lifting.

I went into a career field that had a much higher profile than did they, but it was Sylvia and Tom who have labored professionally and quietly to make a difference within their communities, and I salute them for it.

My brother Greg, who is also here tonight, has been a leader for his entire adult life in the Association for Retarded Children. He has been a spokesperson and an activist on behalf of himself and his many, many friends. The point I’m trying to make is not that my family is special, although I’m damn proud of them, but rather that they typify what this country stands for. It has allowed them and others descended from Levantine immigrants to become well educated, contributing members of this society and we are grateful.

I also want to mention a part of my family that stayed in the Middle East because I do find their story extraordinary. There are three brothers in Nazareth who currently bear the surname Kattouf, they’re my second cousins. Their father and mother were so called internal refugees who found safe-haven in Nazareth in 1948 after having to leave Haifa. Their father restarted his business as a goldsmith, his sons obtained engineering and science degrees from Technion, Tel Aviv, and Hebrew Universities. They expanded their late father’s business into diamond jewelry and other precious gems. Today they own four jewelry shops, several commercial buildings, and are constructing a factory in the industrial zone of Nazareth-Illit. Now if you go to there and buy jewelry from them tell them I sent you, and I’ll get a discount when I see them. But this factory, more seriously, is going to employ 80 Israeli Arabs and Israeli Jews. But until this day they have not been approved for membership in the Israeli Diamond Exchange based in Ramat Gan. Palestinian-Jewish reconciliation, whether in Israel or between Israel and the nascent state of Palestine, is still unfortunately a dream unrealized.

All of us have to work to make it a reality. I realize I’m going to exceed the time and Rafi’s going to bring the hook out. But I have to say something about my current employer. For the last four years I have been fortunate to be the President and CEO of Amideast, an organization with a long, and well established presence across the Middle East and North Africa. We have 23 offices in 13 countries but nothing, nothing, makes me prouder than the robust portfolio of programs that we are undertaking in occupied Palestine. Amideast first opened its doors in Palestine 50 years ago. We have offices in Gaza, Ramallah, and Nablus, where we offer the gambit of Amideast services: English language teaching, professional skills training and educational advising and testing.

I am particularly pleased that we enable individuals to access scholarship opportunities, like the prestigious Fulbright Program for study in the U.S. That is one of the best programs that the US Government ever did. God bless William Fulbright. We offer our constituents many programs and services that benefit students and professionals alike.

This past summer we were especially pleased to offer Camp Discovery for 225 refugee youths in Ramallah, Nablus and Gaza and Undersecretary for Public Affairs, Karen Hughes, visited these children and interacted with them in a splendid way.

I’m not going to take but another minute Rafi, but we had a project earlier in Palestine in the 70’s and 80’s that helped 350 faculty members get PhD Degrees or Masters Degrees from US institutions of higher learning, and they are today the backbone of Palestinian academia. This project inspired us to try a reprise of this and went to USAID: Tel Aviv and Mr. George Soros, Open Society Institute, and as strange as these bedfellows might seem they both agreed to go along and today we have the Palestinian Faculty Development Program, PFDP for short. USAID put up $12 million,

Mr. Soros put up $6 million, and this program was launched in 2005 and is allowing professors to do research in their field to get PhD’s, to get Master’s Degrees, and a new generation will replace those who got their PhD’s in the 70’s and may now be retiring. We’re also proud that USAID just awarded us a $9 million contract to do a model school network in the West Bank. We are going to be introducing best practices, and by best practices I mean practices that have been introduced elsewhere in the Arab world and have worked effectively, not just those imported from the United States.

So again I want to thank the ATFP, I want to thank my colleagues at Amideast, I want to thank my family. I’ve been a very fortunate man, thank you.

<< Back:Abbas Letter | Home | Next:Mr. Shami >>


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017