King Mohammed VI Receives Prestigious Ellis Island Medal of Honor; Recalling a Special Event in American History – Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel (ret.)



Immigrants Landing at Ellis Island circa 1900

Ambassador Edward M. Gabriel (ret.)
May 23, 2019

On May 11, King Mohammed VI of Morocco was awarded the 2019 Ellis Island International Medal of Honor for his professional, personal, and philanthropic contributions that benefit our global community. He joins a group of distinguished world leaders who have been honored at yearly ceremonies since 2005, including  Prince Albert of Monaco in 2018, and Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Peace laureate in 2017.

King Mohammed was recognized especially for his humanitarian approach to the issue of migration. Speaking at the 5th Summit of the African Union in Abidjan, he said, “Having been a migrant-emitting, transit and destination country, Morocco has developed an introspective approach to the migration issue, which it perceives in an inclusive, positive light. We realize the challenges posed by migration, but we are also aware of its positive aspects. There are plenty of them.”

Since 1986, the Ellis Island Medals of Honor have been given yearly to Americans who embody the spirit of America in their salute to tolerance, brotherhood, diversity, and patriotism. “American honorees may be native-born or naturalized, but most importantly, they are individuals who have made it their mission to share their wealth of knowledge, indomitable courage, boundless compassion, unique talents, and selfless generosity with those less fortunate.”

Among the Americans awarded the Medal of Honor are former US Presidents, industry icons, famous entertainers and sports figures, and other noteworthy personalities “who have distinguished themselves within their own ethnic groups, and exemplify the values of the American way of life, including freedom, liberty, and compassion as part of their life’s work.”  Vice-President Joe Biden, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, Coretta Scott King, John Sculley, Muhammad Ali, Lee Iacocca, and Rosa Parks are among these outstanding Americans.

In 2018, I was awarded the Medal of Honor along with a group of distinguished honorees including Franco Harris, famous football fullback for the Pittsburgh Steelers.  In fact, as we approached the stage, with great pride, emotion and patriotism, I turned my 5’9” frame around to Franco, looked up at him and said, “Don’t worry Franco, I’ll clear the line out for you.” He looked down at me, with his imposing figure of a star running back, and responded, “You’re a little small for that aren’t you?”

Receiving this award is an honor and is emotional for any American whose background is connected to Ellis Island.  Standing in the Great Hall of the Immigration building, surrounded by dramatic photos from the early 1900s, where about 12 million people passed through and were processed from 1892-1954, can only remind one of the long and tiring journey it must have been for these people who were mostly of little means. It was especially moving for me as my father came through Ellis Island from Lebanon in 1910.

The foresightedness of our early leaders to understand the importance of a unique American value – opening our doors to freedom-seeking people from all over the world, regardless of race or creed – was a defining chapter in our history. Ellis Island stands as a magnificent reminder and symbol that America is and has always been the safe haven in the world, where the oppressed and freedom-loving people are welcome.

Upon leaving the Medal of Honor ceremony at Ellis Island, honorees pass the Statue of Liberty, with fireworks draping her figure and are reminded of her words, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

What a tribute to our country and what a tribute to Morocco and King Mohammed VI, who has shown during his twenty years on the throne, his compassion, care for the migration of African people and his drive to bring equality to all his citizens, regardless of gender, economic status, or personal beliefs.

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