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Palestinian-American Politician - 2003-08-12


English Feature #7-37721 Broadcast August 11, 2003

An immigrant from Palestine has launched a campaign for the Virginia State Senate, hoping to realize the dream of public service that he’s had since he was a 13-year-old boy working in his father’s grocery store. Today on New American Voices Kamal Nawash talks with Oksana Dragan about growing up a Palestinian in America, and about his reasons for entering politics.

“The American dream, it’s what made America the greatest nation on earth. It’s belief in the power of the individual, individual liberty and trust in the individual. I think the American dream is to provide an opportunity for those that can handle it to be all that you can be.”

Kamal Nawash was nine years old in 1979 when he immigrated to the United States from Jerusalem with his parents and five siblings. The family settled in New Orleans, in the southern state of Louisiana. The only English he knew, Mr. Nawash says, was the first seven letters of the alphabet – A,B,C,D,E,F,G. But since there were no other Arabs in New Orleans at the time, outside the home he was surrounded by English, and learned the language within a year. After that he assimilated quickly, he says, although he continued to enjoy a certain status among his classmates and in the community because of his background.

“Having been born in Bethlehem, that was a big deal down there. I remember every Christmas you’d have all the news coming to talk to me, different people in the churches would take me to lunch, would take me to dinner, so I kind of loved it the first two-three years.”

The Nawash family opened a grocery store in a poor neighborhood in New Orleans, and Kamal helped his father in the store from age nine until he was twenty-four and had graduated from college. His experience as a Palestinian growing up in Louisiana was generally very positive, he says, but there were some rough spots, as well.

“As I got older, every once in a while it would get more difficult. You know, there has been for the last 20 or maybe even 50 years controversy between the Middle Eastern countries or the Arab countries and the United States, and as I grew older and my peers became more aware, so all of a sudden when there’s a war, or when there’s, let’s say, the Iranian hostages, people might not know exactly what that was about, but they know, well, that’s a part of the world where I came from, and perhaps they would look at me a little differently.”

After graduating from college with a degree in business, Kamal Nawash entered law school. He says he thought a legal education would best prepare him “to make a difference”.

“As a Palestinian-American in this country, I knew one of the most important contributions I could make for the people that I came from is being a lawyer in this country. As I grew older I began to realize that the message that the Palestinians were giving out, in terms of their issues, was not good, neither the messengers nor the message. I just didn’t think we had sufficiently sophisticated people, well-trained people. I did want to help the community that I came from, and I wanted to present a more positive image of our community.”

Mr. Nawash feels that he can help bridge the gap between America and the Arab world because he is a part of both, and understands both. On the one hand, he says he considers himself fortunate to have been born in Bethlehem.

“You know, I’m really lucky. I was born in a place where basically civilization began, where Jesus was born, where Judaism was begun, where Islam’s first Mecca was, everything was there and wow, I came from there. I’m really glad I was born there.”

But having grown up in the United States and having spent all his adult life here, Mr. Nawash says that in essential ways he is totally American.

“I don’t like authority. I don’t like authority figures. I question everything. I don’t necessarily accept something as what someone else says to me, no matter who says it, whether it’s a religious person or the law, or whatever. And I think that comes from my American background.”

For two years after completing law school Kamal Nawash was the legal director of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Then he entered private law practice, and at the same time became active in local politics in Northern Virginia, where he lives. The area he seeks to represent is one of the fastest-growing suburbs of Washington, D. C., with a large immigrant population and many of the problems associated with rapid urbanization. In his campaign for the State Senate Mr. Nawash tries to appeal to a broad constituency interested in a variety of pressing local issues, like traffic congestion, the availability of affordable housing, job training for immigrants, the quality of education, tax reform. His campaign literature emphasizes his immigrant origins and points to his journey from immigrant to lawyer to politician as an American success story. Based on his experience, Kamal Nawash agrees that this is a country where anything is possible.

“Anything can be achieved if you believe in it.”

Mr. Nawash’s immediate future will be decided on election day, the first Tuesday in November.

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