Arab Conference at Harvard sheds light on refugees, art and influence in the Middle East

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Salma El-Yassir speaks of Palestinian youth and refugee issues in Lebanon and the region at the Arab Conference at Harvard on Friday. (Twitter photo)
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Aerial view of Harvard campus featuring Eliot House Clock Tower along Charles River, Cambridge, Boston. (Shutterstock)
Updated 07 April 2019
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Arab Conference at Harvard sheds light on refugees, art and influence in the Middle East

  • A Harvard conference gathers thought leaders from the Mideast and the diaspora to discuss the region’s pressing issues
  • The conference is intended to empower Arabs in their homeland to continue to work toward a better future

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts: The venue could not have been more “Ivy League” America, but the topics under discussion, and the thought leaders discussing them, could not have been more Arab.

The Arab Conference at Harvard, the largest Arab conference in North America, hosted by one of the most prestigious academic institutions in the world, began on Friday.

“This conference is actually very timely,” Amin Awad, director of the Middle East and North Africa bureau at the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), told Arab News.

Amin Awad. (Supplied)

“It’s very important, and I think we should have more of this, because it illustrates that solutions can be found in discussion around issues of concern to youth today in the Arab world in regards to political, military and security elements … the whole massive movement of people, the phenomenon of these radicalized groups, which is really at the heart of the youth’s future.”

As the three-day “(Re)Imagining Home” conference began, Awad took part in a discussion on Arab refugees with Middle East analyst Ibrahim Al-Assil, Director General of the Institute for Palestine Studies Salma El-Yassir, and the communication and youth development specialist at Education Above All, Hani Shehada.

“Millions of refugees are found in the Middle East in terms of internal displacement, 40 percent of the total number of 70 million displaced globally,” Awad said.

“Those who left home as internally displaced refugees, from Syria let’s say, in 2011 when they were babies, today they are 8 (years old) and don’t have any sense of belonging to any area,” he added. 

“Those who left at 8, today they’re 16. You can imagine moving from 8 to 16 with no education. Or if they left at 12 they’re 20 today. A lot of them lost a big part of their childhood, very important and formative years.”

Shaden Khallaf, a senior policy adviser at the UNHCR, chillingly summarized the refugee situation in terms of debate and discussion: “When it comes to talking about the movement of people, we’ve never been as polarized as we are today.”

Shaden Khalaf. (Supplied)

A discussion on social media and influence, held before a packed room of students, considered how platforms such as Twitter and Instagram had replaced traditional media and allowed individuals to present themselves and their stories to the world.

Speakers Hadia Ghaleb, Karen Wazen, Ahmed Shihab-Eldin and Amy Mowafi urged the audience to “tell your stories.” Shihab-Eldin told students, who crowded around him afterwards: “Change is happening.”

Social media is allowing the Arab story, such as in Palestine and Syria, to come to Americans, who “are hearing more and more from us,” he said. “We’re changing people’s perceptions over time.”

Ghaleb, a marketing expert from Dubai and CEO of Ghaleb Production House, said social media had attracted many Arabs and was changing the traditional methods of marketing, presenting Arab culture in a different, more impactful way.

Amy Mowafi

Mowafi, a communications activist from Egypt and CEO of the MO4 Network, said: “Social media is our greatest weapon to tell our story and change our narrative.”

Leading speakers at the event include American University of Beirut President Fadlo Khuri, and property tycoons Mohamad Hadid and Mohamed Morshedy.

Other panelists include Emirati Middle East art expert Sultan Sooud Al-Qassemi, Mashrou’ Leila frontman Hamed Sinno, BuildPalestine CEO Besan Abu-Joudeh and UN Commissioner Alaa Murabit. 

Adel El-Adawy, a professor at the American University in Cairo, told Arab News: “It’s very interesting times in our region, so to see different people from the Arab community who are living abroad coming together — experts from various fields such as governance, health care and so on — to give their input on what’s going in the region, is fascinating.”

There will be discussions on refugees and human rights, influence and governance, and health care.

Dina Masri (Supplied)

“The theme ‘(Re)Imagining Home’ speaks to every Arab,” the conference co-chair, Dina Masri, told Arab News. “It speaks to the Arab in their homeland trying to imagine a better future, the Arab-American who is working through questions of identity in their new home, and pushes both the Arabs in their homeland and the diaspora to discuss what home means to the millions of displaced Arab refugees in the region,” she said. “The conference is intended to empower Arabs in their homeland to continue to work toward a better future, as well as foster a sense of responsibility to the region in those who are part of the diaspora,” she added.

“We hope that through this conference, our attendees will meet others who are understanding of their identity struggles, and who will push them to do better for our part of the world.”


Turkey says understands NATO concerns over Russian missile deal

Updated 46 min 50 sec ago
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Turkey says understands NATO concerns over Russian missile deal

  • The deal for Russian S-400 missiles riled Washington, prompting US officials to suspend Turkey’s participation in the US-made F-35 jet program
  • Washington says Turkey’s adoption of Russian missile technology alongside US fighter jets would not be compatible within NATO defenses

ISTANBUL: Turkey is “taking into account” NATO concerns over its Russian missile deal, the country’s foreign minister said on Friday, in more conciliatory remarks over a purchase stoking tensions between Washington and Ankara.
The deal for Russian S-400 missiles riled Washington, prompting US officials to suspend Turkey’s participation in the US-made F-35 jet program and warn of more sanctions against its NATO ally.
Washington says Turkey’s adoption of Russian missile technology alongside US fighter jets would not be compatible within NATO defenses, citing security risks.
“We are taking into account NATO’s concerns. It is not right to say Turkey is not considering them,” Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a press conference in Ankara.
His remarks followed a visit by Turkey’s defense minister to Washington and a meeting between US President Donald Trump and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son-in-law at the White House, where they discussed the S-400 deal, local media reported.
“We don’t find credible the concerns that the S-400 system will allow access to the F-35 technology if they are deployed in Turkey,” the minister said.
He said Ankara was still waiting for a US response to Turkey’s proposal to set up a working group between them to work out differences over the Russian deal.
The S-400 purchase is one dispute fueling tensions between the two nations, who are also at odds over US support for Syrian Kurdish militias who Ankara brands a terrorist group and Turkish backing for US foe Venezuela.
This month, after repeated warnings, the United States said Turkey’s decision to buy the S-400 system was incompatible with it remaining part of the emblematic F-35 jet program.
Turkey had planned to buy 100 F-35A fighter jets, with pilots already training in the United States.
With Turkey in recession for the first time in a decade after a currency crisis last year, analysts say Ankara may look to avoid imposition of new US sanctions that would further damage the economy.
Last year, a trade dispute with the US prompted Washington to impose sanctions and tariffs on some Turkish goods, knocking around 30 percent off the value of the local lira currency.
Local Turkish media have reported Turkey may be considering options to ease tensions, such as the non-activation of the S-400 after delivery to Turkey, or the transfer of Russian missiles to a third country.