Since 1999, the Washington-based Arab American Institute Foundation has honored groups and individuals working to foster cross-cultural understanding with an award named for the poet and philosopher Khalil Gibran. The Lebanese-American is perhaps best known for his 1923 collection of poems titled The Prophet. But he is also remembered for his love of humanity, his passion for equality and his skill at fusing East and West. The winners of this year's Gibran Awards, as in the past, embody the poet's ideals.
Michael Kaiser, president of the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, received the individual achievement award for organizing "Arabesque: Arts of the Arab World," the festival celebrating Arab arts and culture.
"To be honest, Americans know very little about Arab people," Kaiser said. "We only read about politics and oil, and we do not read about people in these countries, and that is really what we wanted to communicate in the Arabesque festival."
The festival was the culmination of a four-year effort to bring Arab artists and their talents to the American stage and demonstrate shared values.
U.S. Congressman Keith Ellison, a Muslim, presented the Gibran Award for international commitment to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) for its humanitarian efforts, especially in the Gaza Strip. For 60 years, UNRWA has provided education, health care and emergency aid to more than 4.6 million refugees in the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
"I hope that we can draw both inspiration and courage from their message and share their commitment to restore dignity to the Palestinian people and fulfill the hopes of all who seek justice and peace in the Middle East," Ellison said.
Karen Abu Zayed, UNRWA commissioner-general, accepted the award.
"I am proud to say that the passion for service, most recently demonstrated during the conflict in Gaza, has been a hallmark of UNRWA for 60 years," she said. "As long as our services are required, that passion will continue to be part of who we are."
The Gibran Awards also honored the Marshall Legacy Institute. Its current focus is on teaching people to clear landmines using trained dogs.
Former national security advisor Anthony Lake chairs the institute. He accepted the award for institutional excellence.
"There is no normal life if you are living in a village surrounded by mines, so by getting rid of the mines, people in the villages can finally live in peace in a way they could not otherwise, which is why I am so excited about this program, and that is why I believe in the spirit of Gibran."
The institute has donated more than 100 dogs for landmine clearance around the world. In Sarajevo, after the conflict in Bosnia, they cleared thousands of mines.
Since 2004, a public service award has been presented in memory of Najeeb Halaby, father of Queen Noor of Jordan. Queen Noor presented it this year to Dr. Elias A. Zerhouni, a leader in radiology research. He was director of the National Institutes of Health from 2002 until 2008.
"I am very committed to the notion of global health and to the notion of equal health around the world, not only for a few," Zerhouni says.
President Obama sent senior White House advisor Valerie Jarrett, with a message for Arab Americans.
"We are going to build an America that has an equal place for Arab-Americans and for all of those who live their lives with the blessings of freedom while fulfilling their obligations to this nation that we all love," she said.
Her words reflected Gibran's when he wrote, "Here I am, a youth, a young tree whose roots were plucked from the hills of Lebanon, yet I am deeply rooted here. And I will be fruitful."