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Arab-American Convention Delegate - 2004-07-16


Approximately 5,000 delegates from all over the United States and its territories have arrived in Boston, Massachusetts, for the opening of the Democratic Party’s National Convention. Among the delegates gathered to formally name the party’s candidate for U.S. President is Arab-American Marwan Burgan, a delegate from Fairfax County in northern Virginia near Washington, D.C. Today on New American Voices Mr. Burgan talks about his hopes for the convention, and about his political journey in America.

Although this is his first time as an elected delegate, Marwan Burgan has been to two previous Democratic National Conventions as an observer, so he knows what to expect.

“The energy there is going to be just incredible. I mean: to have all those delegates there who share the same goals and beliefs, and be able to listen (to) and see John Kerry, Teresa Heinz Kerry, and John Edwards, Elizabeth Edwards, and all the other Democratic officials from all over the U.S.… To me, this time I feel that I’m part of the process of nominating the next President of the United States. As a new American it has a special meaning for me, because I believe in working within the system and being part of the political process.”

For Mr. Burgan – a tall, soft-spoken man – participating in this Democratic Convention is the culmination of many years of political activism. He came to the United States from Jordan in 1975 to study psychology and sociology. But from the first, he had a deep interest in the fundamental principles of American democracy.

“I always wanted to come to America because, I guess, America has a special meaning for people. Whether it is in the popular culture, but also in what America stands for, in terms of the Constitution. The civil rights, liberties and human rights that are available to people here, to citizens and also to people who are not even citizens, who are here as visitors and students.”

This interest in politics led Mr. Burgan to accept a low-paying job as an intern with a Congressman in Washington. He worked his way up to eventually become the Congressman’s administrative assistant and head of his Washington office. While working on Capitol Hill, Marwan Burgan became involved in Democratic Party politics on the local level. Initially, he says, it was not easy for him, as an Arab, to be accepted.

“In the beginning, yes, people were not used to having Arab-Americans to work within the local level in terms of the political partisan parties. You know, I have the accent, my looks are different, and so unfortunately there’s always those prejudices that some people would share. I was very lucky in the Democratic Party, by the way. Some people opened their arms to me and made me feel at home, and that is partially why I chose the Democratic Party.”

Although Mr. Burgan continues to be very active in Democratic politics on the local level, he says this activity has to be limited to evenings and weekends. This is because his current paying job is as the chief aide to Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross in Northern Virginia – a county position that requires him to be strictly non-partisan.

“Since we are paid for by the taxpayers, and most of that funding comes in from the real estate tax that homeowners pay, we serve Democrats, Republicans, Independents, and also people who exercise their right not to vote. And so I cannot use the office, its resources or my time for partisan political events. It’s part of the ethics regulations present in America.”

One purpose of Marwan Burgan’s after-hours political activity is trying to encourage Arab-Americans like himself to become more engaged in the political process. He believes that by participating in mainstream politics they can counteract some of the damage their image and status in America have suffered in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11 three years ago.

“I don’t believe in the politics of demonstrations that are outside the political system. Off the bat, that’s an admission of being marginalized. Most Arab-Americans don’t understand the system, how easy it is to get involved, and the benefits of working within it. The political arena is not someplace where you can just demand. You have to earn the respect of elected officials and their trust. You do that by consistent participation, for people to trust you and trust your word, and then be able to look at you as a human being, rather than as “the other” who just comes in angry asking for things.”

Thanks to his own years-long involvement in Democratic politics, Mr. Burgan was elected a delegate to the convention at a caucus (closed meeting) of Virginia’s Democratic Party activists. Virginia has sent about 65 delegates to the convention in Boston. Mr. Burgan says their only preparation was some conference telephone calls, during which they talked mostly about what they expected from the convention.

“I believe that it will ensure that the delegates will come back and win their states. I think we’re going to hear incredible speeches from John Kerry, Senator Edwards and other Democratic leaders about how they’re going to bring back America and set it on the right course so that we can have a better economy, we can stop the war in the Middle East, and also ensure that the tax cuts that the super-rich have gotten in America will instead be reinvested in education, jobs, and, hopefully, health care.”

Marwan Burgan, an Arab-American delegate at this week’s Democratic National Convention in Boston. The Republican National Convention will be held in New York City five weeks from now. At that time, you can be sure we’ll talk with a new American who is a Republican candidate.

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