President Barack Obama late on Thursday night celebrated Ramadan at the White House, welcoming about 130 guests to his fifth annual Iftar dinner in the candle-lit State Dining Room. The traditional fast-breaking meal begins after sundown, and the President arrived to applause at 8:50 PM. (Above, the President greeting guests)
Offering Ramadan greetings to the world's 1.5 billion Muslims, President Obama during brief remarks paid tribute to Muslim American business entrepreneurs, technology innovators and pioneers in medicine, saying that throughout America's history, "Islam has contributed to the character of our country."
Clad in a dark suit, the President opened with "Ramadan Kareem" as he welcomed his guests, who included National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, six lamakers, including Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn), the first Muslim American ever elected to Congress, forty-four members of the foreign Diplomatic Corps, local elected officials, and faith and community leaders.
They sat at thirteen candle-lit tables for ten, covered with steel-blue damask tablecloths and lush floral arrangements of yellow, green and blue as President Obama quoted the Koran.
"As the Koran teaches, whoever does an atom's weight of good will see its results," President Obama said. "Muslim Americans and their good works have helped to build our nation, and we've seen the results."
"Every day, Muslim Americans are helping to shape the way that we think and the way that we work and the way that we do business," President Obama said.
"We’ve seen those results in generations of Muslim immigrants--farmers and factory workers, helping to lay the railroads and build our cities. Muslim innovators who helped build some of our highest skyscrapers and who helped to unlock the secrets of our universe."
Daring and determination...
Newly returned from a trip earlier on Thursday to Jacksonville, Florida to promote job creation and his vision for a stronger middle class, the President saluted three Muslim American entrepreneurs: Shazi Visram, founder and CEO of Manhattan-based Happy Family Organic Superfoods; Aunim Hossain, CEO of Maryland-based Tista Games, which creates product for Facebook, and Iya Khalil, co-founder of GNS Healthcare, a biotech research and data analytics company in Massachusetts.
"That’s the spirit that we celebrate tonight--the dreamers, the creators whose ideas are pioneering new industries, creating new jobs and unleashing new opportunities for all of us," the President said.
The 36-year old Visram makes organic baby food, and in May sold her multi-million-dollar company, started in her apartment, to food giant Groupe Danone. She was born in Toronto to parents who were immigrants from Pakistan and Tanzania, the President explained, and the company, now seven years old, this year had almost $100 million in revenues, with "58 full-time employees, 75 part-time working moms."
The President noted that her "affordable, organic foods for children...makes Michelle very happy."
"So no wonder she’s been called a 'Rockstar of the New Economy,'" President Obama said, adding that the company is an activist in "global efforts to end child hunger," and donates a portion of revenue from each product sold.
"So Shazi is not only just an outstanding businesswoman, but also a leader that all of us can emulate," President Obama said.
He added that all three entrepreneurs were successful thanks to "daring and determination."
"You brought your dream to life. And that’s what we Americans have been doing for more than two centuries," President Obama said. "That’s what we do every day--we work a little harder; we aim a little higher; and we keep striving to create more opportunity for our children and future generations."
President Thomas Jefferson hosted the first known Iftar at the White House more than 200 years ago, and President Obama has annually hosted his own dinner since 2009.
Tina Tchen, Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, who did not attend the dinner, was also among the guests, which included three Members of Congress from Michigan, newly reeling from the bankruptcy of Detroit: Agriculture Committee Chair Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D); Rep. John Dingell (D), the longest-serving Member of Congress; and Rep. Dan Kildee (D). Rep. André Carson (D-Ind), the second Muslim American elected to Congress and Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) rounded out the list of invited lawmakers announced by the White House.
President Obama concluded his remarks simply. "God bless you all. May you and your families have a blessed Ramadan."
Observant Muslims fast from sunup to sundown during Ramadan, and the President got laughter as he added "and with that, I know people are hungry--let’s eat."
The White House did not release the menu for the dinner, as has been the case for the three previous years. But past celebrations have featured traditional Muslim foods, including Dates and Spiced Marcona Almonds offered to guests as fast-breaking starters. In 2009, the menu included Kitchen Garden green salad and Organic chicken with potato-and-leek puree and late-summer peas.
Earlier on Thursday, President Obama met with President Truong Tan Sang of Vietnam at the White House before traveling to Jacksonville. He returned to the White House shortly after 5:00 PM.
On Friday morning, the President will travel to Camp David. "The President and First Lady invited members of the President's cabinet and their families to spend the day at Camp David on Friday," the White House said. In the evening, the President will return from Camp David to the White House.
*The transcript of the President's remarks.
*The White House guest list.
*Top photo by Lawrence Jackson/White House; others by pool/Carolyn Kaster/AP. White House video.