Diplomatic Pouch / July 13, 2009
By Larry Luxner
Helene Cooper became White House correspondent for the New York Times. Emanuel Ax achieved fame as an award-winning pianist. Dr. David Ho established a prominent AIDS research institute. Vincent Mai started a highly successful private-equity firm. And Madeleine Kunin became governor of Vermont.
All five arrived in the United States as immigrants — and on June 2, all were honored at the National Press Club for "having lived the American Dream and having made this country a better place for each of us."
Their accomplishments were cheered by 450 people attending the Sixth Annual National Leadership Awards, a dinner co-sponsored by the Merage Foundation for the American Dream and the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
The 2009 awards ceremony was held against the backdrop of a national debate on immigration reform, noted presenter Jack Rosenthal, the Pulitzer Prize-winning former editor and now president of the New York Times Foundation.
"Tonight, we honor contributions made by immigrants from three continents," said Rosenthal, himself the son of immigrants (his father was from Germany, his mother from Lithuania).
"The harsher we are in creating legal obstacles for immigrants, the more they'll retreat behind ethnic walls," he said, praising President Obama's decision to make reform of the nation's immigration laws a priority of his administration. "And the more we welcome them, the more they'll become Americans and contribute to society."
The Merage Foundation was estabished in 2004 by Paul and Lilly Merage. Paul Merage, who came to the United States from Iran at the age of 16, is the former CEO and co-founder of Chef America Inc., inventors of Hot Pockets microwaveable snacks.
"For our family of 'wandering Jews,' the American dream always had a special significance," Merage said. "We started out in Russia, then to escape the pogroms we went to Baku [capital of today's Azerbaijan], ironically a Muslim country but much kinder to the Jews. From there we went to Iran, and then to France, only to be chased by the Nazis back to Iran, and finally to the United States. It is actually an amazing feat to have four generations of the Merage family here tonight."
Merage, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes magazine at $550 million, praised what he calls the "fundamental values" of American society.
"We talk about freedom of expression, liberty and justice for all. But for us, there are not mere words. They are magnificant pillars of strength. Our family was fortunate to achieve its American dream, and Lilly and I felt it was important to set up this foundation so that others could achieve theirs."
He added: "The honorees tonight are truly outstanding citizens. They have improved the lives of all of us Americans through the brilliance of their minds, the passion of their professions and a commitment to American ideals."
The 2009 winners are:
* Helene Cooper. Born in Liberia, she's been a reporter since 1987, and a New York Times staffer since 2004. Currently the newspaper's White House correspondent, she's won a number of prestigious journalism awards and was recently recognized by the National Association of Black Journalists for her story about Liberia's civil war.
Cooper, who has also worked for the Providence Journal-Bulletin and the Wall Street Journal,is the author of "The House at Sugar Beach: In Search of a Lost African Childhood," a memoir about growing up in Liberia.
* Emanuel Ax. Born in Poland, Ax moved to Cnada as a young boy and captured public attention in 1974 when he won the first Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Competition in Tel Aviv. Recent appearances include performances with the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the London Philharmonic and the Tonhalle Orchestra.
Ax has been an exclusive Sony Classical recording artist since 1987, and has made a series of Grammy-winning recordings with cellist Yo-Yo Ma of the Beethoven and Brahms sonatas for cello and piano.
* Dr. David Ho. Born in Taiwan, Ho emigrated to the United States at the age of 12. Ho is the founding scientific director and CEO of the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in Los Angeles, where he's been at the forefront of AIDS research for 27 years.
Ho has published over 350 papers; in 1996 he was named Time magazine's Man of the Year, and five years later won a Presidential Medal. Ho was an early champion of anti-retroviral therapy, which has resulted in a dramatic reduction of AIDS-associated deaths in developed countries since 1996.
* Vincent Mai. Born in South Africa, he obtained his education at the University of Cape Town and is chairman and retired CEO of AEA Investors, one of the oldest private-equity firms in the United States. As chairman of the board of Sesame Workshop, Mai helps produce children's educational TV programs aired in over 100 countries. He's also founding chairman of the International Center for Transitional Justice, which advises 25 nations on policies that promote the smooth transition from dictatorship to democracy.
* Madeleine May Kunin. Born in Switzerland, Kunin fled to the United States as a child to escape the Holocaust, and went on to become governor of Vermont. From 1996 to 1999, she served as U.S. ambassador to Switzerland, where she dealt with — among other things — the question of Jewish-owned World War II assets and Nazi-looted gold.
After leaving politics, Kunin formed the Institute for Sustainable Communities, an NGO that partners with local organizations in the United States and around the world to create stronger democratic communities.
Past honorees include former U.S. national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, author Edwidge Danticat, former New York Times editor Max Frankel and architect Cesar Pelli.
In addition to the National Leadership Awards, each year the foundation selects outstanding graduating seniors from 22 partner universities to be American Dream Fellows. The fellows receive a $20,000 stipend over two years to help them pursue their particular dream; this year's crop of winners includes students who immigrated to the United States from countries as diverse as Colombia, France, Ukraine and the Philippines.
Cuban-born Carlos Gutiérrez, secretary of commerce under President George W. Bush, spoke on behalf of the Woodrow Wilson Center, where he serves on the board of trustees.
"I came to this country at a young age," he said. "My family left Havana in 1960, fleeing communism, and I am eternally grateful for the freedom and opportunity I have found in the United States. The U.S. has benefitted enormously from immigrants throughout our history."
Both Gutiérrez and Merage spoke about the rapid demographic changes now taking place in the United States ó†changes for which both men the United States is woefully unprepared.
Merage pointed out that in 2007, there were 45.7 million Hispanics in this country, up by 1.4 million from the year before. Hispanics now comprise 15 percent of the population, but over 20 percent of school-age children in this country — and nine out of 10 of them are born in the United States. Many of them are have difficulty reading and writing basic English.
"Like it or not, these children will be part of our future," said Merage. "Even if our borders were magically erased tomorrow, millions upon millions of American-born children from immigrant families will need help in order to join mainstream society.
"Time is short and the task before us is enormous. Failure cannot be an option; the costs would simply be too high," he said. "That's urgently needed is a national dialogue on how to prepare these kids to lead constructive and economically viable lives."