Remarks by Administrator Gayle Smith at the Islamic Relief USA Keynote

Thursday, October 13, 2016
Administrator Gayle Smith at the Islamic Relief USA Keynote
Chancey Gannett/ Islamic Relief US​A

[As delivered]

Salaam Alaikum. Mabrouk.

I’ve got to tell you, to be here on the occasion of your first event, makes me extraordinarily happy, and I am truly, truly honored.

I will tell you, I’m also really, really honored to know that you’ve got really good taste. Honoring Mark is a beautiful thing to do. It is so the right thing to do. I am so fortunate that, at the White House, I was able to work with Mark, and called on Mark many times, and he delivered in a heartbeat. I’ve been able over the last year to work even more closely with Mark, and I can tell you he’s a man of great knowledge and faith, but also of humility. So, thank you, Mark.

I’m really proud, and I think you alluded to this, of all that we have done together, and it’s pretty remarkable when you look at the track record. And I think a lot of us have heard from people tonight, I think the message that is the most important at a time when, on the one hand, there is such goodness –  you have just described such fundamental goodness – but that there is also so much extraordinary, ugly hate.

And let me quote someone, Barack Hussein Obama, who said that the “forces that divide us are not as strong as the forces that unite us.”

And we know how strong our partnership is because we’ve seen in the darkest places on the planet that we stand together, side-by-side, working hand-in-hand, to offer whatever light we can – medicine where people are sick, food where people are hungry, and a path to peace where every road seemed violent.

But I think we all know that none of this is easy work. But what I love about this community is – and it’s the humanitarian communities, it’s communities of faith, as you say, it’s people who just join forces – is that we’re not here cause it’s easy. We call on each other, not because things are easy, but because things are hard. We call on you when there are real problems to solve, peace to make, and rifts to heal. When we need moral fiber that is laced with steel, and compassion that knows no limit.

And I will tell you, even sitting here this evening and listening to the speakers, that’s what we’ve heard. Moral fiber that is laced with steel, and compassion that knows no limit. And truly, I can tell you, I go to a lot of these dinners, but this is on is really moving. Don’t tell anybody else I said that, but truly, I’m touched.

And so I’m truly honored to be here tonight to honor what you do around the world, but also what you do in the United States. Watching what you’ve done in Flint, Michigan;  to donate blood after 9/11; in the face of storms like Katrina and Sandy; or in Louisiana just this past August – that’s real and that’s meaningful. And I pledge to you, that in my capacity at USAID, but also as an American citizen, I will leave here tonight pledging to you that I will do best to make sure more Americans know what you’re doing around the country.

Now, we’ve heard about the work that you’ve done in Liberia. We’ve heard about the work in the Central African Republic. And I think that we know that in some of these conflicts – like those, like South Sudan, like Syria – these conflicts are rooted in histories of marginalization and exclusion. And they are, like Syria, the result of political failures.

And I think that we know that we can’t as humanitarian organizations, solve these on our own or even together. That takes political will from leaders and sustained action over time to build institutions that will serve all citizens.

But what I do think we do, as communities of solidarity and faith, is demonstrate the alternative – demonstrate what is possible, and the good that is so very real. And it’s a shame that it so often goes unheralded. And that’s particularly true, I think, and quite honestly and sincerely, for our Muslim partners.

We’re living in a scary time; and I don’t think anybody would deny that.Whether it’s because violent extremism holds vast stretches of territory – from Nigeria to Somalia to Iraq. These sharp-edged conflicts that we see around the world – the Syrias, the South Sudans, the Yemens – are engulfing entire regions in turmoil, spreading unspeakable terror, and endangering innocent civilians. Places that once seemed safe are now subject to random attack.

And all of this scary stuff breeds a lot of distrust. It breeds a lot of fear. So we’ve seen people lash out. Against Muslims. Against Arabs and other ethnic groups. Against refugees.

But I believe that what these voices of fear and distrust, and even hatred, don’t understand – or what they refuse to see – is that the Muslim community – here in the U.S. and around the world – is an essential part of the solution. That Muslims, like others, have played an integral part in spurring decades of progress – they’ve actually made the world a safer, more prosperous place than it has ever been before.

And they probably don’t know that many of those who have been targeted so violently in Aleppo over the past couple weeks and months are heroes. And that those heroes – named after the white helmets they wear as they rush toward the sites of bombings and other attacks – are inspired by a simple belief enshrined in the Quran: to save one life is to save humanity.

These voices don’t understand that when we talk about American generosity and compassion, we are talking about Muslim generosity and compassion. They are one in the same.  

So it’s up to us then, as Americans and as a global community, to lead with open minds, open hearts, and open arms. To welcome partners of all nationalities, ethnicities, and creeds.

Because I learned long ago that whatever your motivation is to do good is good enough. From wherever you choose to draw strength is strong enough.

For me, coming from a relatively sheltered upbringing in Columbus, Ohio, I will admit, this was all foreign to me, and new to me. I didn’t grow up in a very diverse community.

My introduction to Islam came when, as a young adult, I lived in North and East Africa. And that’s where I first saw what it means to be a strong, caring community united by faith. And I, this kind of odd, loud young woman from Columbus, Ohio, was welcomed and embraced.

Now I will tell you, and I offer an apology in advance for this, someone did have to tell me that you’re not supposed to sing along with the call to prayer, which I was doing vociferously in the back seat – I thought it was beautiful.

I learned a lot. And what I saw, and learned, is that Islam is based on the same basic principles you can find at the roots of every other major religion.

Be kind. Do good. Love your neighbor. Care for others.

These are the principles that have guided my career, and I think, the careers of all of us here tonight. They were with me in Ethiopia, when I first began to write about an otherwise unwritten war. They drove me to join an international relief effort for the first time – working with faith-based organizations, by the way – to help the people on the sidelines of a war, and a crippling man-made famine.

Those same principles were behind my decision to join President Obama’s team in 2008. And of course they brought me to USAID, two times.

So as I – I was going to say “so as I stand here tonight” – as I sit here tonight, I genuinely feel at home. I feel like the things that keep us all going are the things that keep us together.

And I think that’s a good thing. Because we need our deeply-held principles and values right now. We need our faith, whatever that may look like. And we really, really need each other.

Because we’re being put to the test. Not just us, but the entire world.

As I said earlier, it’s a scary time in the world right now. And it is. But I also think that the world has never been safer or more prosperous than it is today, and we can’t lose sight of that.

It’s something the President reminded us of this summer when we celebrated the Administration’s successes in global development. He said, “it is worth reminding ourselves of how lucky we are to be living in the most peaceful, most prosperous, most progressive era in human history.”

Now is the time when we decide to keep that era going,  or to give in to the dangerous currents that threaten to hold us back. And I will say, in all sincerity, I don’t know that the choice, in my lifetime, has ever been quite so stark, or quite so critical.

Look at the humanitarian challenges we face around the world. More than 65 million people have been displaced because of conflict and violence. The Islamic Relief Worldwide network is responding valiantly to meet the urgent needs of refugees and displaced persons, as you have for 30 years. But as numbers continue to increase, we all know it’s hard to keep up.

And in too many places, the most sacred principles of civilian protection and humanitarian access are being willfully ignored. Aid workers have always risked their lives for their work, but the dangers are increasing. And in some places, humanitarian workers are even being targeted. This is unconscionable.

So the needs keep growing and growing. And many of these modern crises don’t seem to end. They go on for years, forcing all of us to adjust our understanding of normalcy.

These are challenges that threaten to bring the international humanitarian system and our community of partners to a breaking point, and that’s no small thing.

Now, I don’t bring any of this up to dishearten you, or say let’s have a crashing, depressing end to the evening. I bring it up because you all give me hope, and I really need to enlist your help.

As an American, I am intensely proud of the work of USAID and our partners across the government and what we’ve done to meet these immense global challenges. We’ve taken steps to strengthen the international humanitarian system, and we’ve been loud and forceful in our condemnation of humanitarian violations. And more than that, we’ve made investments in peace, stability, and prosperity that will yield return for decades.

That includes our work to eradicate diseases like HIV/AIDS and malaria; to save the lives of children and their mothers; to educate girls, and to foster opportunity for all; to empower farmers to feed their families and communities; and to connect more homes, schools, and businesses to electric power. All of this work is critical for pushing back against these dangerous currents. And when President Obama leaves office in January – because if you didn’t know, there’s an election. Anyway, with his departing, this is work that needs to continue around the world. And the only way that can happen is if a broad coalition – one that brings together people from all different faiths and ethnicities and from every region of the world, and every part of the country – continues to fight for it. One of the things that people don’t know – you know, when you hear these people saying that foreign aid is not important, “what is all this? We’re doing good around the world, but why do we give assistance to other countries?”– in no country do the people contribute as much as the American people do. Sam Worthington and I go through this every year, where we get their numbers so that we can make the case to the Congress and the American public, that when they say the American public doesn’t like foreign assistance or the USAID budget, and we say, well the American people are giving more than we are.

So I think we’ve got to build on that, and show them that there is a diverse, united coalition behind it.

Now I know everybody in this room will continue to be leading voices in that coalition, and I thank you for that. And I want to thank you for everything you’ve done for our country, and for the world. And I suspect at times, it feels like it goes unnoticed, but I promise you it isn’t. And as I said earlier, I promise you that we will do more to make sure that it isn’t.

So I just want to say, in closing, that it’s an honor for me to be part of an extraordinary event – and again, your first partnership gala – and to be part of a community that President Obama called “a bunch of do-gooders,” when we had our development summit a couple of months ago. And I feel very proud to share with all of you the principles that bind us together.

So let me again thank you for having me here tonight. Say again, congratulations on your first gala, and let everybody get back to it. Because I think as we all know, there are problems to solve, there’s peace to make, and there are rifts to heal. Alf shukran.