Two ladies from Egypt
Two remarkable ladies demonstrate the endless possibilities Americans enjoy. Ms. Dina Onsi Habib Powell is the White House personnel director, who was appointed recently by President Bush to hold the position of Deputy Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy, and Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs. Ms. Laila Ali Hussein is a captain in the United States Navy.
Ms. Powell and Ms. Hussein have a few traits in common: they are young, attractive, brilliant, and both are Egyptian American. Their success stories are meaningful and particularly relevant to Arabs like me for several reasons, the first being their gender. There is no need to elaborate on that issue as we are all painfully aware of the status of women in our Arab societies.
The fact that they have achieved such a level of success at such a young age is a second reason, reminding us of the predicament of millions of young Arabs who can only day—dream about such achievements, while their peers in open societies have access to the highest positions, unhindered by age constrictions. A third reason would be that they both speak Arabic fluently, and are proud of their Arab origin and heritage.
Their religious faith is one more reason: one of them is Christian and the other a Muslim — a typical example of the religious variety in their homeland.
Finally, they both took rapid leaps towards success in the years following the events of September 11, contrary to what is generally believed about the discrimination against Arab Americans subsequent to that time.
Dina Powell's experience is a classical American story of success. She came to the United States when she was four years—old with her Egyptian parents who wanted a better life for their children. According to Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Republican Senator from Texas, she has become a rising Star in the Bush Administration, having the trust of the President as well as that of the administration's senior officials.
The brilliant and charming young lady has easily won people over since she was first appointed in 2003. Being only 29 years old at that time, she was the youngest person ever to direct the presidential personnel office and its 35 employees.
Karl Rove, the White House Political Advisor, described her as 'very competent, an eloquent and confident speaker, and a vibrant personality who has the ability to get the job done.' Others have confirmed his assessment of the gifted young lady, to quote Carlos Gutierrez, the former chief executive of the Kellogg Company who was recruited by Ms. Powell to be Secretary of Commerce: "In a nutshell, Dina Powell is probably one of the most talented people I've ever met in my life.'
There are more than 4,000 jobs to be filled with each new presidency, and Powell shared the burden of this huge task during Bush's second term. Along with her team, she was charged with filling hundreds of jobs: ambassadors, cabinet heads, undersecretaries and commissioners.
As soon as the task was completed, President Bush nominated her for another position in the Public Diplomacy division in the Department of State, a division that has a yearly budget of approximately $ 1.2 billion. Bush's administration holds high hopes that this division's efforts will succeed in mending and improving Washington's relations with the Arab and Islamic World, hence President Bush's decision to nominate two of his closest assistants — Karen Hughes and Dina Powell — to join this division.
Powell has the distinct advantage of speaking Arabic fluently, though it is more than just speaking the language, as President Bush recently commented in a news conference:
'Dina Powell, from my office, an Egyptian American, is also going over, leaving the White House compound to work with Karen, because she believes deeply in the American experience, in American values, and wants to share those values with people around the world."
Dina clearly takes pride in her Egyptian heritage, and ever since she was a child her parents made sure that she would preserve the language, traditions and culture of her homeland. Though her mother — Hoda Soliman — was educated at the American University in Cairo, she only spoke Arabic at home, enjoying the songs of famous Arab singers. In an interview with the Washington Post, Ms. Powell told the reporter that when she was young, she desperately wanted her mom to give her a turkey and cheese sandwich with potato chips like the rest of the kids, and instead she always got vine leaves, hummus and falafel, she continued: 'And now, of course, I appreciate so much what she did."
But how does Ms Powell envisage her new role?
In response to this question, she was reported as saying,
'The message we want to send to our partners in the world is one of freedom and hope, and how we communicate that is critically important. We can be so enthusiastic in our desire to help that we sometimes forget to stop and listen to others, what we need to have is a dialogue and not a one—sided conversation.'
While Dina Powell came to the United States in her early childhood, Ms. Laila Hussein moved to the States much later, as a graduate student after completing her studies at Cairo University. Ms. Hussein was offered a scholarship for doctoral studies and pursued her studies nutrition chemistry at the University of Maryland, becoming a member of the faculty after her graduation. In 1994, she joined the American Navy, and a series of promotions brought her to the rank of 'captain' and a nomination for appointment to the rank of Admiral, an outstanding accomplishment for this Arab and Muslim young lady who is the head of the office of nutrition research and special tests.
Laila's success story is highly significant, not just because of what she was able to accomplish, but also because it sends a meaningful message to the Arab and Islamic World. As I am writing this article, Laila is going to New Orleans with the American troops that are desperately trying to contain the damage inflicted by the terrible natural disaster that has recently hit that area.
Laila's outstanding accomplishments throughout her career in the American Navy won her several awards and medals, the most important being the 'Scientist of the Year Award' in 2004, the 'Outstanding Service Medal Award' in 2003 and the 'Kenneth Spenser Medallion Award from the American Chemical Society (three—year term, 1995, 1998, 1999).'
Laila's academic achievements were also recognized as she was selected as a special member to the Department of Biological Resources Engineering Graduate Faculty, at the University of Maryland, and has supervised two Ph.D. dissertations. A full list of the awards and accomplishments of Ms. Hussein would require a much longer article.
While we rejoice at the success of these young Egyptian ladies, we cannot help but think about the deplorable status of women's right in the Arab societies, and about the millions of frustrated young Arabs of both genders, who struggle to overcome obstacles that restrict and even kill their ambition.
Those positive examples serve to remind us that there is no ceiling on opportunity for young Arab women in the United States, no dream is out of reach, on two conditions: serious commitment to hard work, and a genuine regard for the values and rules of their new society.
I hold great esteem for the immigrants who succeed in forging strong ties with their new country while remaining firmly attached to their roots and heritage. The late Khalil Gibran comes to mind, as well as Dina Powell in our present time, they both related to their new society with an open heart and mind, learning and teaching, giving as well as receiving, and the outcome was a perfect blend of human experience that draws from the best Western and Eastern values and ethics.
Magdi Khalil is the Executive Editor of the Egyptian weekly Watani International, and a columnist for Asharq Al—Awsat newspaper, London.