Watch Helen Thomas’s full speech here.
As the season’s first blizzard raged outside, several hundred people from the Arab community and allies found warmth inside the halls of the Belvedere Chateau at the Arab American Action Network’s 15th Anniversary Banquet and Fundraiser on December 12.
The refuge they experienced was not only physical, but also emotional, spiritual, and political. They came to support the AAAN’s important work, and hear Helen Thomas, Arab American “dean of the White House Press Corps,” address the self-described topic, “Justice for the Arabs.” Thomas spoke of a lifetime devoted to pursuing the presidents she covered—from Eisenhower to Obama—and getting them to answer the difficult questions that no one else would ask. Much of what she kept them honest about was American policy in the Middle East and Arab World. In her speech, she described the way Arab interests and opinions have been unfairly silenced in this country, and how the community has fought back. She also told a number of anecdotes from her career that had the entire room in stitches, including one about the time she was with a gaggle of White House reporters when President Ford stepped on a carnival scale that also told fortunes. In summary, it read, “You are a strong and bold leader.” Thomas, being the irreverent soul she still is today, quipped, “It probably got your weight wrong as well!”
Special guest MC Cliff Kelley, the Governor of Chicago Talk Radio, brought his special brand of humor to the event, and also spoke glowingly of Thomas’ courage and integrity, the kind not often found in any journalist, let alone one who worked in the White House for over 5 decades.
Longtime community activist/organizer, AAAN co-founder, and Southwest Youth Collaborative Executive Director Camilia Odeh was also honored at the event for her years of dedication to the Arab community, as well as the other marginalized communities of color on the southwest side of Chicago and across the U.S. The evening was a moment of acknowledgement of the importance of people working together and supporting each others’ struggles for human rights, freedom, and social and economic justice. A number of guests called it the “best community event I’ve ever attended.”
Thomas, who turned 90 this year, spoke with a clarity and boldness that belied her years. Her presence commanded the room, and she kept everyone enraptured—teens, adults, and even a two-year-old. At the end of the evening, she stayed to sign autographs, and chat and take pictures with dozens of community members and other well wishers. She told Associate Director Rasmea Yousef that, although she had “been to Chicago many times,” the evening was “the most special [she’d] experienced,” and that she was touched by the staff and community and their hospitality and warmth.