Commencement Address: Ricardo Karam

AUIS Sixth Annual Commencement
Commencement Address
Ricardo R. Karam 
May 24, 2017

Thank you Dr. Barham Saleh, thank you trustees, thank you soon-to-be graduates (graduating class of 2016), family members, hard workings teachers, mentors and loyal friends, the whole family of the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani.

It is a huge, huge honour and a great pleasure to be with you today.

First of all, I want to offer you my sincerest congratulations. I know you’ve all been through a lot just to get to this point. Many sleepless nights and sacrifices that you wouldn’t want to repeat.  And now you and your families are looking at the future and thinking about what’s next. It’s not easy, I know… but still, it’s exciting. 

I fondly recall my graduation day, an overwhelming one to say the least. With my cap and gown, I could hardly look at my friends. Anxiety was predominant. So I totally feel with you. Graduation day is a roller coaster of emotions for grads and their families alike. It’s a moment of celebration, achievement, hope for the future, and reflection on the past.

We make our life. We write our story. And the adventure ahead of us is the journey to fulfil our own purpose and potential. What lies behind us and what lies before us are small matters compared to what lies within us.

Well, in the great tradition of Graduation Commencement speeches, AUIS asked me to say a few words about myself. And that is tough!

You are not going to believe me if I tell you that you are perhaps one of scariest audiences I’ve ever faced!  As a media personality who is constantly in the public eye, you might be surprised to learn I’m not used to talking about myself. In fact all of my work, energy and airtime goes into asking questions and getting other people to talk about themselves. We talk about their deepest motivations, their failures and achievements, their successes and disappointments (in reality there are usually far more failures and disappointments), and what gets them up in the morning. 

I would love to go back in time and ask a few guests from my talk shows what advice they would give you. What would the successful Iraqis from my show Irakioune say to you? What would Refat Chadirji and Zaha Hadid have said if they were standing here today? What would Ghassan Atiyyah, Maath Alousi, Walid Kadduri, Azzam Alwash or Shwan Taha say? We could even speak to Danielle Mitterrand who was so influential in shaping Kurdistan. Here is what Zaha told me. She said “the key to everything is education”. And that Education doesn’t stop when you finish classes: in her view the path to success comes from learning the hard lessons of life.  But, equally importantly, and I must stress this: Don’t count your lessons. Count your blessings.  

Indeed, education is not preparation for life; education is life itself. Your education is a dress rehearsal for a life that is yours to lead. Martin Luther King once said: “Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”

Before I go on, let me tell you more about where I’m coming from, who I am, and what drives my path and choices.  I am a believer and I believe in the fact that I am going to make it.  I always depended on myself so I had to make it.  Maybe the tough start I had in life helped me get where I am today. And it’s why I’m standing here with you.

Like some of you, I lost my father (before I was born) and I learnt to live without him.

I used to look at the sky in the night, trying to spot my father among the stars until I lost hope. 

If this is you, or you have faced great personal tragedy and loss, have courage in yourself for you know the true value of life. And remember that healing does not mean the damage never existed. It means the damage no longer controls our lives.  Don’t let this loss define your own sense of possibility and your future. You have a very precious future. 

My own story begins few years before the war in Lebanon which came to break all the innocence and peaceful years. All my childhood and teen years, I lived the war. Actually, when the war in Lebanon started I was five years old. Everything was about destruction. We witnessed terrible things. We moved houses many times. Each time we moved I lost all my toys, albums, books and … friends. I still carry each and every memory within me. Everything was stolen.  But I had a dream even though I didn’t know what that dream was.

I was so fond of music. I used to spend all my pocket money buying LPs (there were no CDs at that time). 

Then, during University it was still the war. Lebanon was divided: 17 communities, armies from all over, check points, kidnapping, bombs, assassinations…just like here.

It is in that environment that I learnt and I matured.

We used to cross from the East to the West of Beirut to go to the American University.  I remember the fear: every day we were so scared to make this journey. But making this journey made me who I am. For my first degree, I graduated in Chemical Engineering (it’s hard to believe that, isn’t it?) but what I took with me from AUB was the wider value of education: discipline, curiosity, a strong work ethic, an open mind and an openness to others. AUB taught me tolerance, compassion, the importance of dialogue and freedom to say, to do, to act and to give back to community.

Those values shaped who I am today.  It is because of these values we share that I feel so at home with you now. This style of education is the backbone of the region. The American Universities in the Middle East have launched some of our greatest talent. It’s this education that has enabled me to engage with a wide cross section of society from billionaires to the poorest and some of the most disadvantaged people across the world. In fact I engage with individuals in all four corners of the globe. And in Lebanon, like you have here, we have always had many different refugees coming from the outside who we have had to learn to live with. I hope you are as proud of your democratic roots as I am. 

When I graduated from AUB in 1991 – I later did a master’s in business administration – the war in Lebanon had just finished. We knew nothing about what a country should be. We just wanted a normal life like the ones we used to see in the movies. We were starting from scratch.  And at that time I had nothing. But I was rich in curiosity and ambition. I started exploring: attending conferences, exhibitions, and going to concerts. I bought books and started reading a lot. I had to reinvent myself.

I started teaching myself about politics and reading all the different newspapers every day. There was so much to do. And I did it, alone.

“Never underestimate the power of thought; it is the greatest path to discovery”.

I wanted to be different; it has always been my motto. My first job in the media was being a broadcaster on a French radio station. I was 18 years old. I was so persistent and determined that I finally got this job. With my French crooner accent, I have invaded the homes of men and women in Lebanon and I loved it. I loved talking live to people, igniting virtual friendships, sharing the happiness, the sadness, the loneliness, the successes or even the failures of the listeners. 

My voice became afterwards a trademark for advertising on TVCs and I adored doing them.

Unexpectedly, I had an offer to work on TV and to present a weekly show. Me? TV? There was nothing either compelling or appealing on traditional and public TV. But I was cornered and I said yes.

The beginnings were ridiculous. I had to work a lot on myself. I loved the contact with people and did I practically everything you can do in TV. I worked on sets with props, I learnt to edit, I got involved with sound and lighting, production and I have been behind and in front of the camera. 

My journey in TV was not an easy one. Many people attempted to stop me from climbing the ladder. From secret service to politicians, from critics to colleagues, even the heads of the TV channels were against me. Jealousy is a major opponent to anyone’s success.  

However, I never looked on that.  Nelson Mandela once said, “May your choices reflect your hopes, not your fears.” I followed his advice.

During my 25 years on TV, I have been able to host the movers and shakers, and the world’s thinkers and doers on my own TV shows. My TV shows have always been independent. I’ve had to stand tall. This is very tough in a climate where most TV stations are fuelled by political money and big business.  I have done this by working very hard to develop exceptionally high quality content.  In an environment where quality is vanishing, I had to combat stereotypes and impose in-depth programs. 

Today, I sit on major global panels; I give conferences and talks all over the world to empower people, to stimulate the youth, to motivate them to go onward and never give up whatever the obstacles are. 

My mission in life is to make the future generations proud and hopeful for their future.  In my TV work the underlying agenda of the shows is always to reject negativity and inspire hope among viewers.

Consider the past several decades of news coming out of this part of the world: war, strife, sectarianism, tribalism and extremism. This constant negative news stream stifles hopes and encourages nihilism, which is why offering a counter-narrative is so important. 

The idea for TAKREEM came from my TV shows. I have done shows with some of the world’s biggest names – Luciano Pavarotti, Bill Gates, the Dalai Lama, Paolo Celho, Andre Agassi….as well as remarkable middle eastern personalities.  The public discovered with me the real personalities of Zaha Hadid, Carlos Ghosn, Nicolas Hayek, Tom Barrak and many more.

But I’ve always wanted to spot talent and feature unsung heroes who are not known to the public. Through my work in the media I have a unique opportunity to shine a spotlight on individuals who are doing great things. TAKREEM was a vehicle to do this at a socially driven level. One of our main missions is to fight negative stereotypes and show people we are capable of great things.  We launched TAKREEM 8 years ago and today it’s more important than ever to promote role models – and give young people something to aspire to.

We do this through an Awards platform. We honour individuals and organisations that are setting the highest standards in Medical and Scientific research, women and men pursuing excellence in Education, in Humanitarian work, as Leaders in the Corporate world, as pioneers in the Arts and as budding entrepreneurs. We have 9 different Award categories which we give out every year at a different city.  Last year, the Award Ceremony was held in Egypt. This year we shall be in Jordan. And one day, I would love to celebrate those successes in your beautiful country. We want to recognise and promote great work; and give people the respect and appreciation they deserve. We show local, regional and international audiences the extraordinary talent, vision and quality of output in every different sector of our world.

We do this in order to turn negatives into positives.

Distinguished guests, we need to be our own role models.  At some point in my life I had a choice. I made a decision to remain in my country and perhaps give up some opportunities for the purpose of bringing knowledge, economic growth, and social change back to the communities of the Arab world where I come from.  

What I want to tell you is that you do not need to go abroad to succeed. There are exceptional opportunities here where there is a lot to do. While you create your own future, you have the opportunity to shape the future of Iraq, Kurdistan and the region. Here you can make an impact you would never be able to in the West or elsewhere. With your education you have all the right tools at your disposal. And in whatever you choose to do, wherever you do it, you can make a positive difference simply by living your values. 

The values embraced by your University, your future Alma Mater – good citizenship, personal integrity and the ability to communicate and listen to others – together have a wider ripple effect than you can possibly imagine. We are all interconnected. How you live, how you behave, how you treat others has a direct influence in shaping the communities around you and the quality of life you are able to experience for yourself.  Life is all about relationships and friendships.  So watch out how you use those selfies and pics of your friends here today! 

Soon to be graduates, I would like to invite you to reflect on some tips and never forget them:

"Graduation is not the end; it’s the beginning." —Senator Orrin Hatch

"The beautiful thing about learning is that no one can take it away from you.” —B.B. King

"Follow your passion, stay true to yourself, never follow someone else's path unless you're in the woods and you're lost and you see a path. Then by all means you should follow that." Ellen de Generes.

"Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can." —Arthur Ashe

"To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream, not only plan, but also believe." —Anatole France

My final message to you is: be the change you want to see. Dream. Believe. Act … and have fun with it. I wish you all a lot of fun. MABROOK!