2010-05-20 / 15 Minutes

Unifying worlds from a Charlotte home base

BY KITTY CAYO Florida Weekly Correspondent

In an effort to keep Christians and Muslims talking, Samar Dahmash-Jarrah co-hosts a live radio show and presents to groups around the county. In an effort to keep Christians and Muslims talking, Samar Dahmash-Jarrah co-hosts a live radio show and presents to groups around the county. She was born without a country. Over the years, she and her family lived in many nations, searching for a permanent home. Today, Samar Dahmash-Jarrah is an American. The Port Charlotte resident is also a journalist, scholar, speaker and author who takes down walls, builds understanding and squashes cultural stereotypes one word at a time.

Soft-spoken and admittedly shy, she never imagined she would someday be called upon to act as an ambassador for her ancestral people. Instead, the Palestinian-American found herself under the spotlight after what she calls “that black Tuesday morning.”

Since September 2001, she has delivered dozens of speeches, answered hundreds of questions, traveled thousands of miles and compiled tens of thousands of messages into one book, opening hearts one at a time.

COURTESY PHOTOS COURTESY PHOTOS Shortly after 9/11, the practicing Muslim was interviewed by a local newspaper reporter about Arab culture and Islam. Soon, she was fielding dozens of requests to speak at churches, synagogues, women’s groups and civic associations. In the aftermath of the terrorists’ attack on the United States, hate crimes were directed at Arab Americans — including those living in Charlotte County.

Ms. Dahmash-Jarrah was sickened by anxiety, wondering if becoming a public figure could jeopardize her family’s safety. She still looks upon this time as the “golden” years. Golden, because Americans, in their desperate need to make sense of 9/11, were eager to learn about and understand the Arab culture and Islam.

Ms. Dahmash-Jarrah was born in Kuwait in 1963 to a librarian and an engineer. One of four children, she calls her family “lucky” among Palestinians. Her father earned a good income and his family was well provided for. Tragically, he died from acute leukemia at the age of 47. Although his ingenuity as an inventor helped support his family after his death, the next several years were very difficult for the family, as they moved from one nation to another to find a safe and welcoming home base.

In Lebanon, a civil war forced them out after six months. In Saudi Arabia, the family felt restricted by ancient tribal customs. Eventually they settled in Egypt, where Ms. Dahmash-Jarrah attended and graduated from the American University in Cairo.

Post graduation, she thinks it was her command of English that landed her a position writing news for the Jordanian government owned television station. After only working a brief time, her superiors assigned her to a news anchor position, where she caught the attention of producers for the new CNN Television network in Atlanta.

Freelancing as a CNN foreign correspondent, she was noticed by Port Charlotte physician Dr. Mamoon Jarrah, who wanted to meet Ms. Dahmash-Jarrah. A cousin arranged the introduction.

The pair had a trans-Atlantic courtship and married in 1989. At the age of 27, Ms. Dahmash-Jarrah became an American citizen in Southwest Florida — the safe and welcoming home base she had sought for so many years.

She joined a Port Charlotte mosque and taught Islam at The Port Charlotte Cultural Center. Interested in politics and world affairs, she enrolled in the University of South Florida, earning a master’s degree in political science. She volunteered for the Charlotte Homeless Coalition.

In 2004, she came up with the simple idea for a book, “Arab Voices Speak to American Hearts.” She queried American friends throughout the U.S. about what they would like to ask their Arab brethren. The response was overwhelming. She took the questions across the globe, asking Arabs who responded. The self-published book is a compilation of these questions and answers.

Nine years later, she continues to speak to groups interested in the Arab point of view. Requests are less frequent and book sales have slowed, but Ms. Dahmash-Jarrah believes communication is the first step to understanding, and finds ways to keep Christians and Muslims talking. Every Friday, Ms. Dahmash-Jarrah co-hosts a live radio show, “True Talk,” broadcast by WMNF public radio station in Tampa. The show is a forum for discussing global issued that affect the Middle East. She also teaches political science and Middle East relations classes at USF. She has plans for a second book, “American Voices Speak to Arab Hearts,” in which Arabs ask questions of Americans.

And so Ms. Dahmash-Jarrah continues to act as an instrument of peace between two worlds. It’s a path she admits she’s never been totally comfortable taking. But, as she says, it is “not a journey of my design.” ¦

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