PATERSON – Last year was a tough one politically for local Arab-Americans.

War raged between Israel and Lebanon. The war in Iraq dragged on. In Passaic County, state Democratic heavyweights forced a promising Lebanese-American freeholder candidate to drop out of the race in the wake of a controversy over comments he made four years earlier.

“Last year, [Arab-Americans here] were not really feeling they could make a difference, said Maram Abdelhamid of the Washington, D.C.-based Arab American Institute.

More than 65 people crowded into the Al Basha restaurant in South Paterson on Sunday to network, break bread and mobilize the Arab-American community to get involved in the political process. Organizers hope the meet-and-greet brunch will be the first of a monthly series that will travel throughout the state to energize New Jersey’s Arab community.

Hesham Mahmoud, co-chairman of the state’s Arab American Republican Caucus, said there has been a growing sense that Arabs and Muslims in America need to become more politically involved, particularly in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“Prior to 9/11, when we had voter registration, we could go and spend hours ­ we’d have a hard time finding five, 10 people,” said Mahmoud, who is active in the Arab American Institute. “After 9/11, it’s effortless.”

The crowd at the brunch reflected a cross section of Arabs in America: women and men; Muslims and Christians; immigrants from Egypt, Morocco, Palestine and Algeria and lifelong Americans.

Lena Soukieh, an 18-year-old high school senior from Bogota, attended the brunch with a friend.

“We can make a difference,” she said. “I would like to see more Arabs involved in politics, and to change the views Americans have of Arabs.”

Mehdi Eliefifi, whose New Jersey Outreach Group helped sponsor the event, said the time has come for Arab-Americans to focus not only on their own families and neighborhoods, but to turn to the public arena to ensure their voices are heard.

“This community has been around since the 1800s,” he said. “We are part of the American mosaic. We contribute like everyone else. This is the time to get involved.”


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