Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May-June 2009, page 79

In Memoriam

Marwan Burgan (1955-2009)

By Jamal Najjab

Marwan Burgan (Courtesy American Arab Institute).

ON MARCH 5, Marwan Burgan returned to the Georgetown University Hospital Emergency Room in Washington, DC. Being admitted to hospitals had become somewhat of a routine for Marwan, following his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer two years ago. This trip was different, though.

Chemotherapy had taken its toll, causing his lungs to collapse. Soon he was lying in the ICU; friends were allowed to stand over him, one by one, for a very short time. We all hoped he’d have more time to accomplish his many goals. For most of his adult life, Marwan was on what one truly could call a crusade to ensure that Arab Americans take their rightful place and enjoy full participation in this country’s political process, and that the Palestinian people finally realize justice.

The day before he died, he compared the excellent medical care he received in this country to the fate of Palestinians in the occupied territory suffering from cancer. “I’m sure if I lived in Gaza or the West Bank I’d be dead by now,” he told the audience gathered at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC to listen to a video-streamed report from London about Palestinian health care published in The Lancet (see p. 57). Marwan took the opportunity to compliment Radia Daoussi and Brian Hennessey, the DC co-moderators of the Lancet press conference. “We never acknowledge people who work tirelessly, selflessly to get things done,” he said. In a way, he was talking about himself.

Marwan was born in Amman, Jordan in 1954 to a Christian family—his father was Jordanian, his mother Palestinian. He would tell anyone who would listen, especially when American Jews were in the crowd, that his mother was “spirited away” from her hometown of Nazareth to Amman in 1948—playing on the words Theodor Herzl wrote in his diary concerning the fate of the Palestinians. The stories his mother told of her Nakba experience would play a major role in shaping her oldest son.

When he arrived in America in the 1970s, he came as a Palestinian. In 1985, after earning his master’s in sociology from American University, Marwan decided to try his hand at politics. He approached Rep. Mervyn M. Dymally (D-CA), whom he knew was sympathetic to the Palestinian cause and whose father was Muslim, for a job as an intern. Marwan first was hired as a foreign policy legislative assistant, then became Dymally’s legislative director. By the time Dymally retired in 1993, as the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Marwan was administrative assistant (chief of staff) in Dymally’s Washington, DC office. While on the Hill, Marwan assisted in passing bills that dealt with important issues such as combating hate crimes and increasing assistance to the world’s refugees.

Later, Marwan worked on democratic reform in both Bosnia and the West Bank. He often told the story, with tears in his eyes, of an old woman he had met in Palestine who begged him to go back to America and tell the story of the plight of her people—his people. He knew in his heart that if he truly was going to make a difference he had to remember the old axiom that “all politics is local.” So in 2000 he took a job in Northern Virginia with Mason District Supervisor Penny Gross and used his position as a springboard to activate the Arab-American community in the area, as well as to educate his neighbors about what was happening in the Middle East.

Through his continued work, he became vice-chair of the Fairfax County Democratic Committee for Voter Registration, a member of the Outreach Committee of the Democratic Party of Virginia, a delegate to the 2004 Democratic National Convention, and coordinated Arab-American outreach for presidential candidate Barack Obama. In his determination to educate the public about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Marwan always promoted dialogue with the Jewish community of greater Washington, participating in as many Peace Café events as possible.

After doctors discovered his cancer, Marwan refused to accept defeat, moving forward with even more urgency. He established the Project for American Civic Engagement, PACE, an organization to place minorities, especially Arab Americans, as scholarship interns in the offices of elected officials on Capitol Hill. Seeing these young people working to make this country a better place for everyone must have reminded Marwan of his own days on the Hill.

Marwan was laid to rest in Amman, Jordan, where his journey began. Four years earlier, his partner of 16 years, Brenda Pillors, had died in his arms late one night. Luckily for Marwan, he didn’t have to suffer the loss of Brenda or the agony of his cancer alone. He had close friends and family who were on call for him.

Marwan is survived by his mother and his two brothers, Basel in Jordan and Samer in Northern Virginia. He left this world still a Palestinian, but also an American, and all of us are richer for that.

To watch Marwan’s stirring words at the Palestine Center visit: <http://www.kabobfest.com/2009/03/marwan-burgan-1954-2009.html>.

To help continue his legacy, readers can send a tax-deductible donation to Project for American Civic Engagement, PACE, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, at P.O. Box 8002, Falls Church, VA 22041-8002. 

Jamal Najjab is a free-lance writer in Washington, DC. Despite their bickering, he and Marwan Burgan were friends for more than 20 years.

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