Preserving the American Dream: 2009 Ellis Island Medals of Honor recipients turn challenges into opportunities

by Arita Soenarjono

Highest Congressional Non-Military God Medal for Outstanding Immigrants

Highest Congressional Non-Military Gold Medal for Outstanding Immigrants

    He had seen her from afar, yet her message of hope remains clear. By May 9, after over a decade of residing in New York, Syamsi Ali visited Lady Liberty to receive the 2009 Ellis Island Medal of Honor. The first Indonesian-born was among 100 accomplished immigrants saluted for inspiring others to renewing the American Dream.

That Saturday evening on Ellis Island, Syamsi Ali emerged from behind a red carpet military escort, a group that included Latino Pop-Star icon, Wall Street executives and politicians. He wore white two piece suits with black shirt and his favorite kufi, the black one with orange and white embroidery. Deep sense of pride for his country reflected in tears as he glanced overhead, seeing Indonesia’s insignia in red and white along kaleidoscopic displays of American and foreign national flags.

On Deck Freedom Ferry, arriving Ellis Island
“It’s a historic visit for me. I never imagined it,” said Syamsi Ali, senior imam at the Islamic Cultural Center New York (ICCNY). He paused, smiling; his dark trimmed mustache stretched; his dimples indented his cheeks. “So, I thank God for the opportunity. I am proud for my community, proud to be Indonesian.”

As Syamsi Ali took his front row place on stage, the US Air Force Band of Liberty serenaded presentations of US Color Guards and hoisting of the Star Spangled Banner. To his sides were five religious leaders, including Rabbi Alvin Kass, Venerable Lama Wangdak and Reverend Timothy O’Neill.

“This year, we have some remarkable people from every faith that we haven’t had in the past,” said Nasser J. Kazeminy, CEO of the National Ethnic Coalitions Organizations (NECO) and official sponsor of the 23rd Annual Ellis Island Medals of Honor. “I am especially honored; we have an Islamic imam joining us, a remarkable man.” He turned sideways nodding to Syamsi Ali, whom in 2006 the New York Magazine cited “Most Influential Person in Religion.”

First seven religious leaders to be recognized
“This is America at its best,” Chairman Kazeminy continued. “They are immigrants, children of immigrants, who together make America a land like no other.”

Syamsi Ali’s recognition by NECO is a prominent example of how Islam has become more recognized in the US. American Muslims are integral part of society, thriving economically and spending up to $170 billion on consumer products per year, according to global Ad agency JWT.

Yet, success came in a hefty price tag. Terrorism is still front and center, causing many Muslims to continue feeling misunderstood and aggrieved over media stereotypes that link them to extremism. And after September 11, stringent travel restrictions were applied to those coming from the Muslim world, depleting immigration influx into the US.

“We must be able to reach out, to show true face of Islam,” said Syamsi Ali, who also chairs Al-Hikmah, the Indonesian Muslim Community Mosque in Queens. “Because when you talk about Islam, you talk about American fundamental values that respect freedom, religious tolerance, justice and liberty. These rights are protected by the [US] Constitution. So as long as it represents your culture, it is not a threat.”

A revered Qur’an scholar who speaks fluent Arabic and Urdu, Imam Syamsi Ali is himself a visible face of Islam. From synagogues and churches to lecture halls and Yankees stadium, from the White House to Roman Catholic Pope, he relentlessly shares Islamic teachings and compatibility to democracy through successive engagements in interfaith programs.

Imam Syamsi Ali hopes the education will bridge gaps between American diverse communities; to live side by side in harmonious environment – like good neighbors – in order to find a common ground based on mutual respect and understanding. He said building unity refers to the Holy Qur’an that humankind is created from a male and female, and that God made different races and tribes for people to embrace and learn from one another (Surah Al-Hujurat, verse 13).

Venerable Lama Pema Wangdak (director of the Palden Sakya Centers & the Vikramsila Foundation in NY), first Tibetian born to receive the medal

Venerable Lama Pema Wangdak (director of the Palden Sakya Centers & the Vikramsila Foundation in NY), first Tibetian born to receive the medal

“Only when we have that commitment to build peace,” Imam Syamsi Ali said. “We won’t have a peaceful world, and that is what I am trying my best.”

The task is a tall order on part of the 42 year old son of landowners from Bulukumba District of South Sulawesi province, Indonesia, an area known for its traditional wooden schooners called Pinisi. It requires courage and discipline, traits he inherited from adolescent years while mastering martial arts skills of Pencak Silat. He faced challenges from within his own community in a protest over his moderate views on Islam, but has accepted the critiques as opportunity to invite other Muslims to reflect and think systematically on problems and their long term solutions.

“Difficulty is just one of a color in life,” Imam Syamsi Ali said. “That’s why we Muslims say, Alhamdulillah when we’re having troubles, because Allah educates us until we reach the perfectness of our mentality, of our mindset, our patience and perseverance.”

Over a span of 13 years from his 1996 arrival in the US, Imam Syamsi Ali has seen his community multiples. At the time he was assigned to manage the then fledgling Al-Hikmah Mosque. Today it is a vibrant house of worship, fundraising, weekend Arabic school, interfaith workshop, monthly bazaar and wedding venue. At least a thousand have converged during Idul Fitri holiday, making the two level shrine favorite among its community, thanks in part to its women’s volley ball team who clinched first place during the 3rd annual Muslim Olympic Games in New Jersey.

The US doesn’t track population by religion, but estimates over seven million Muslims are in America. As of December 2008, there are 2,300 mosques, Islamic schools and organizations located throughout the 50 states, with major concentration in DC, New York and California. Approximately 65% of Muslim Americans are first generation of immigrants, while 61% born in the 90’s or later. Pakistanis and South Asian descents represent 34% of population, followed by 26% Arabs and 25% African Americans.

“This makes it easier for Muslims to move forward,” said Syamsi Ali, who is also imam at the Jamaica Muslim Center in Queens. “Prejudice will be less. Misunderstanding will be less. Ignorance about Islam will be less. That’s welcoming news.”

Since its inception in 1986 NECO, which is an umbrella of 250 member groups, pays homage to American diversity and pluralism. Medalists are recognized for personal and professional contributions to communities while preserving the richness of their individual cultural heritage. Through shared common compassion and philanthropy, America will hopefully remain prosperous and secure in the land of freedom and opportunity.

But, as recession drags on, will the promise of American Dream survive a broken system?


From economic stand point, the forecast remains gloomy. The US employment climbed from 8.5% to 8.9% in April, leaving nearly 14 million workers jobless. Average Americans are scrambling to make ends meet, from losing properties and retirement funds to filing for bankruptcy and unable to get loans.

“The American Dream is quiet a resilient idea,” said Princeton Sociologist Kathrine Newman on Minnesota Public Radio interview. “It will take 50 years of this kind of recession to convince us that it’s impossible. Americans are pretty optimistic, a can do bunch.”

According to a 2009 MetLife study, the positive attitude is shared by 83% of survey participants. They agree the US remains top nation abundant in opportunities.

“To think that people can come with nothing to this country and succeed or at least have their children or grand children succeeded?” asked Medalist John Podesta, former White House chief of staff under Bill Clinton who headed President Obama’s transitional team.

Between his speeches, the author of “The Power of Progress: How America’s Progressive Can (Once Again) Save Our Economy, Our Climate and Our Country,” slightly leaned forward and kept his smile. He said while in the past, getting riches was too often the goal; people today seek sufficiency in life and are re-evaluating priorities.

Mr. Podesta urges world leaders to combat threats of global warming, “the biggest market failure in history” and views the US as its primary contributor. He argues the efforts will transform traditional fuel-based technologies into low carbon emission productions; hence, create nearly four times as many innovative “green jobs,” infrastructures, skill trainings and research developments. He is “enthusiastic” and applauds President Obama for signing the $787 million stimulus package that includes “major investment” bill, calling it a step closer to producing energy sufficiency and renewable energy.

Nasser J. Kaseminy (chairman of NECO), John Podesta (pres. Center for American Progress)

Nasser J. Kaseminy (chairman of NECO), John Podesta (pres. Center for American Progress)

“Obviously what we’re doing to the planet, high Co2 emission and deforestation, is destroying our atmosphere,” Mr. Podesta said. “We need to lead and get our house in order to put the country back on track and to have a sustainable economy that will work for everyone – working people and the very wealthy one.”

Mr. Podesta grew up in Chicago and is of Italian and Greek descents. He graduated from Knox College class of ’71 and Georgetown University Law Center class of ’76. Currently he serves as CEO of The Center for American Progress in Washington, DC.

For Hamid Biglari, vice chairman of Citigroup with 16 years of experience on strategy issue, the journey to reviving the moribund economy may well be longer but in the end the situation will resolve on its own.

“It’s a question we ask ourselves every day, because in many ways the financial system forms the arteries of the global economy,” he said. “But as long as everyone is pulling together and not engaged in finger pointing or scapegoating, we’ll succeed because we’ve been through this before.”

Mr. Bigalri who earned MS and PhD degrees in Astrophysical Science from Princeton University was “humbled” to be one of 28 Iranian medalists. A “born Muslim,” the 50 year-old Wall Street executive attributes individual faith as “stabilizing influence” to reaching a sense of equanimity in time of turbulence.

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” he said. “It may not be rapid economy, but gradually we’re beginning to realize that it is a different country all together; a different part of economy that requires the level of financial system and capital they deserve.”


The American Dream has many different facets. It is defined as anything you want it to be. Many associate the term with immigrants, who had been historically driven to the US in search of a successful and satisfying life.

Ellis Island Museum

Ellis Island Museum

Between 1892 and 1925, over 12 millions passed Ellis Island while as much as 12,000 docked the shore of the New York Harbor on a busiest day in 1907. The tiny island of 28 acre was a gateway to wealth, freedom and opportunity – a brighter future for generations to come regardless of past circumstances. Today, the site is a major tourist destination and a museum; to some, it’s a reminiscent of the past.

Standing on top deck of Miss Freedom ferry against the backdrop of New York City skyline, Medalist Emilio Estefan gazed at the 306 feet tall copper-clad National Monument. He recalled flying over the Statue of Liberty from Spain as a toddler in the 60’s.

Gloria Estefan ( 1993 Ellis Island Medalist) & Husband Emilio J. Estefan

Gloria Estefan ( 1993 Ellis Island Medalist) & Husband Emilio J. Estefan

“When I first saw her I saw freedom, hope,” said the 56 year-old Cuban-born Grammy Award producer and songwriter. “I hope this will be a role model to the next generation of immigrant. If you work hard, you can get the recognition like tonight,” he added while embracing Gloria Estefan, wife of 21 years and 1993 medalist.


As the Ellis Island Medals of Honor Ceremony wound to an end Chairman Nasser J. Kazeminy, an Iranian who migrated to the US penniless in 1974 and is now CEO of NJK Holding Corporation ($40 million privately owned investment firm in Minneapolis, Minnesota) reminded the audience the make-up of American Dream that “thread the fabric of our country.” He echoed JFK’s 1961 inaugural address “Ask not what your country can do,” and that with hard work, faith and conviction, men can enjoy the challenge of opportunity and freedom every day. “Please, don’t take for granted the privilege of being an American,” he warned.

“Certainly to make a nice living and enjoy a good life are part of [American Dream,]” said Medalist Rabbi Alvin Kass, Chief Chaplin for the New York Police Department. “But the real essence of America is togetherness, loving your family, your neighbors.”

The 73 year-old son of Polish immigrants and former Air Force chaplain is a graduate of Columbia College in New York class of ’57, who is lean and has a kindly face. He has been wearing NYPD uniform for over 43 years. In so far as the current financial crisis, Rabbi Kass is hopeful for a quick turnaround. He also believes there is a blessing in disguise.

Rabbi Alvin Kass, NYPD

Rabbi Alvin Kass, NYPD

“While it creates hardship,” he said, “It gives us time to focus on what the good life is all about: able to say what you want to say; worship God according to tenet of your conscience; create an environment in which everyone recognizes his merits rather than any subjective or extraneous categories – all which will lift the spirit of your mind and heart.”

On the way to a Gala Dinner at the Ellis Island Great Hall’s Registry Room, which until 1954 served as immigration center, the Indonesian Consul General in New York Madame Trie Edi Mulyani appeared ecstatic, smiling endlessly in jubilation. She said watching fellow Indonesian received highest Congressional non-military gold medal award given to immigrants has left her speechless.

Madam Niniek (Trie Edi Mulyani), Consul General of Indonesia, NY

Madam Niniek (Trie Edi Mulyani), Consul General of Indonesia, NY

“Just one word,” said the 53 year old Honorable Mention Guest, who is also first among her peers as woman leading government authority to carry 15 eastern states under her jurisdiction. “I am so proud of him.”


“Because Imam Syamsi represents not only Indonesians in general, but to Indonesia as the world’s largest Muslim populated nation,” she replied.

It was nearly past midnight when Neil Diamond’s “America” song ended. The grand finale firework faded over America’s symbol of freedom, the Statue of Liberty. Yet, the following day was another important day for Imam Syamsi Ali, father of five children and husband to Muthiah Malik.

“I have to wake up early tomorrow for a fundraising,” he said, trying to balance hectic schedule between family, the mosques and fulltime employer at the Indonesian Mission to the UN in New York. He walked to the subway station with Maryam Zakyah, a shy 14 year old daughter who captured the memorable occasion throughout the evening on her Canon camera.

Despite tensions with the Muslim world and a prolonged economic inequality, the American Dream – although changing – is not lost. The definition itself has shifted from consumerism into something intangible, an idea to keep the dreamers believing into thinking forward. Everyone has a fair share to make good of current conditions and that they are in it together, because the rewards far outweighs the sacrifices.

“I am just doing my job,” said Imam Syamsi Ali. “As long as we do it for Allah; Allah will reward us, not necessarily here in this world, but in hereafter.”

Imam Syamsi Ali’ Education:

1. Muhammadiyah Islamic Boarding School (Pesantren): 1986
2. B.A in Tafseer from the International Islamic Univ. Islamabad-Pakistan: 1991
3. MA in Comparative Studies of Religions (International Islamic University) Islamabad-Pakistan: 1994
4. Ph.D in Political Science (Distant Learning) from Southern California Univ.: 2003

Back at the Ellis Island, Imam Syamsi Ali’s name is forever enshrined on the walls along side six former presidents; Boxer Muhammad Ali; Collin Powel, secretary of state under George Bush; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton; Real Estate Developer Donald Trump; Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel and 2000 plus past honorees.

And the American Dream lives on.

From Bulukumba South Sulawesi, Indonesia to Pakistan; from Rhyad to Queens, New York; from the Ritz Carlton Battery Park to Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island

Congratulations Imam Syamsi Ali (Islamic Cultural Center NY, Jamaica Muslim Center and Al-Hikmah Mosque in Astoria, Queens)

… and medalists Emilio Estefan, John Podesta (former White House Chief of Staf and head of Pres. Obama’s transition team), Rabbi Kass (NYPD), Ret. Gen Abazaid (former US Center Command), Hamid Biglari (VP Citigroup)

To see the entire 100 names and past honorees including Mohammad Ali, Yogi Bera, Donald Trump, six former presidents, Hillary Clinton, Elie Wiesel … visit the Ellis Island Museum and stop by Lady Liberty!

special guest of honor Madame Trie Edi Mulyani, who is first female Counsul General of Indonesia in New York

~ by arita on June 9, 2009.

One Response to “Preserving the American Dream: 2009 Ellis Island Medals of Honor recipients turn challenges into opportunities”

  1. […] champion Muhamad Ali, six former US presidents and Nobel Prize winners when receiving the 23rd Ellis Island Medals of Honor Award 2009. Annually, this prestigious non military gold medal pays homage to the America’s cultural […]

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