Knowing that my fellow Lebanese-Americans are hard at work protecting the health and well-being of citizens of America, Lebanon, and the world fills me with tremendous pride. Getting to share this evening with Lebanese Americans who are contributing not just in public health and healthcare, but so many other areas, is a point of pride as well.
As Prepared for Delivery
Thank you for that introduction, Governor Sununu.
When Governor Sununu and I see each other, it’s more often spent around conference tables discussing the minutiae of state Medicaid policy or the distribution of opioid funding, so I am glad to see him in a more convivial setting this evening.
It is a great honor to receive the Phillip Habib Award for Distinguished Public Service from the American Task Force for Lebanon, and it is a great honor to be here among so many accomplished fellow Lebanese Americans and others dedicated to a common interest in Lebanon.
My grandparents came from Lebanon in the early part of the last century, and my grandfather, with whom I was extremely close, remained throughout his life intensely proud of Lebanon and of his heritage.
In fact, when he came to the United States, he didn’t even know his birthday.
So what did he do? He eventually adopted the birthday of the country he loved and missed so much: He picked Lebanon’s independence day. That is the birthday, God rest his soul, that is inscribed on his tombstone.
He also insisted that his grandchildren learn how to identify ourselves in Arabic from an early age.
So he taught me: Ismee Iskandar Al-Azar. Ana men Amioun fee’il Lubnan. Should we ever find ourselves utterly lost in Beirut, we were well-prepared to find our way back to our village.
My grandfather ended up a long way from Amioun. Next year will mark the 100th anniversary of my grandfather’s arrival in America as an impoverished teenager who spoke no English.
When he arrived at Ellis Island, alone and confused in the receiving hall, the first representative of his new country he met was an individual in a military uniform.
That person was a member of the United States Public Health Service, ready to give him what was known as the six-second physical.
It amazes me to think that, less than a century after my grandfather arrived at Ellis Island, with no discernable prospects other than the political, economic, and religious freedom America offers, his grandson would be in charge of the Public Health Service.
That story is almost insignificant against the incredible number of stories of Lebanese-Americans who have risen to great prominence in business, politics, arts, and science, many of whom are in this room tonight.
I’m not even the first Lebanese-American to serve as Secretary of Health and Human Services and head of the Public Health Service. My “cousin”—aren’t we all cousins in this room?—Secretary Donna Shalala preceded me.
You know, roles such as mine are quite difficult, and one is under almost constant assault and attack. When I was nominated for the job at HHS, family and friends in our village, Amioun, put up banners of support and showered us with well wishes, as did so many in the Lebanese and Lebanese-American community.
I want you to know how very grateful my family and I are for your constant support and friendship. It sustains us.
While Lebanon may be one of the smallest countries in the Middle East, it plays an outsized role in regional politics, diplomacy, and commerce.
As all of you know, the namesake for tonight’s award, Philip Habib, is one of America’s most storied diplomats, and interestingly, he ended up in that role a bit by accident.
As a college student, the story goes, Habib took the three-day Foreign Service exam just for the intellectual challenge of it, which sounds exactly like the kind of thing Lebanese immigrant parents all hope their children end up doing.
I also did not exactly expect to have the diplomatic role I have had in my two tours of duty at HHS, but HHS is such a massive agency that you end up with some unexpected responsibilities.
When I say it’s a massive agency, I mean massive: by ourselves, HHS’s budget would make us the fifth-largest government on the planet, just behind that of France. This is the rare battle that I am happy to lose to the French.
So HHS has responsibility not just for domestic public health but also the health and social-welfare aspects of international affairs.
In fact, when I was Deputy Secretary at HHS in the 2000s, I was on a trip through the Middle East, on my way to Beirut, when violence broke out in Lebanon.
The conflict eventually led to 13,000 Americans being repatriated from Lebanon, the largest repatriation since World War II, and an effort partly led by HHS.
Obviously, the conflict prevented me from going to Lebanon, where our village had so graciously planned a warm reception. I pray that by next year’s dinner, I will be able to report that I have been to Lebanon.
HHS had this role because we sit at the intersection of public health and foreign affairs, fostering relationships with multilateral organizations, foreign governments, and ministries of health, which often end up playing a key role in refugee situations.
We also work with foreign ministries of health and academic institutions to advance biomedical research around the world, and that includes some of Lebanon’s higher education institutions.
In recent years, HHS has collaborated with a number of institutions in Lebanon, especially through grants-making from the National Institutes of Health.
These institutions have included the American University of Beirut, the Lebanese American University, St. George Hospital University Medical Center, and others. NIH works with Lebanese scientists on a range of health issues, including the disease thalassemia, a form of anemia genetically associated with Lebanese people.
I had the great pleasure of meeting with the President of AUB Khuri when he was in Washington, D.C., last year, and I look forward to continued friendship with him and other Lebanese leaders.
In fact, I’m proud that graduates of Lebanese institutions contribute to improving health and preventing disease not just across the Middle East and at the World Health Organization, but even within the walls of HHS.
Alumni of AUB, for instance, hold key leadership positions at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and at the Food and Drug Administration. They contribute to the advancement of public health in the United States and across the whole world.
Knowing that my fellow Lebanese-Americans are hard at work protecting the health and well-being of citizens of America, Lebanon, and the world fills me with tremendous pride.
Getting to share this evening with Lebanese Americans who are contributing not just in public health and healthcare, but so many other areas, is a point of pride as well.
So thank you so much for giving me the chance to share just a bit of the pride we all have in our Lebanese heritage, and thank you again for this great honor.