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Arab-American Homeland Security chief in Massachusetts

Story Highlights

• Kayyem is only Arab-American to be chief of state's homeland department
• She is of Lebanese descent
• Kayyem grew up in California, educated at Harvard
• Position is new to Massachusetts
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BOSTON, Massachusetts (CNN) -- On the popular television show "24," there always seems to be a mole at the Counter Terrorist Unit. This season, fans are suspicious of a new female character with a Middle Eastern background named Nadia Yassir.

Yassir complains to her co-worker that she is hamstrung in fighting terrorists -- in this case Arabs who have detonated a suitcase nuke near Los Angeles, California -- because of restrictions placed on Arab-American employees. He lets her use his log-on to get around the computer access issues.

In the past on the show, it has been unwise to stick out one's neck for a co-worker. Viewers are left wondering if Yassir is one of the good or bad guys.

The show is fiction.

In real life, Juliette Kayyem (pronounced KIGH-em) says she relates well to Yassir's tricky position. On January 22, Kayyem, a 37-year-old Lebanese-American, became the Homeland Security chief for Massachusetts. She is the only American with Middle Eastern roots to head a state's homeland branch.

"The truth is I've been in national security for over a decade now, well before September 11," she told CNN recently. "I spent most of my legal career in the [intelligence] field, and it's been a little surprising the reaction."

She says many Arab-Americans are looking for people to help other Americans understand that they love this country too.

"I want to be that bridge," Kayyem said. "Arab-Americans are in all parts of our society helping to protect America, love America and are part of America and America's security." (Kayyem works to fight against stereotypes of Arabs Video)

Many people were pleased by her selection, including Arab-American groups.

"If anyone were putting together a set of universally acknowledged and respected national authorities on the question of counterterrorism, she would be among the names that would crop up at the national level," Hussein Ibish, executive director of the Washington-based Foundation for Arab-American Leadership, told the Boston Globe.

Kayyem's mother was born in Lebanon and moved to the United States, where she married a first-generation Lebanese-American. Kayyem once wrote in an op-ed in the Globe that Lebanon "remained in the background, a nation torn apart by civil war, long gone from their consciousness."

Kayyem grew up in California and went to Harvard for her undergraduate and law degrees, spending a year in between as a journalist in South Africa. After leaving law school at Harvard in 1995, she took a job with the U.S. Department of Justice.

She got her first big break in security work in 1999 when she was appointed to the National Commission on Terror, a 10-person group formed by Congress after two U.S. embassies in Africa were bombed.

She told the Globe it was an interesting position because other commissioners saw her as a representative for Arabs, but Muslims were cautious because she is a Christian born in the United States and her husband is Jewish.

Before taking the homeland security post under Gov. Deval Patrick, a former boss at the Justice Department, Kayyem worked at the Harvard School of Government. She lectured on terrorism and national security and also taught law classes.

Her role with the state is a newly created a job that is broadly defined. She said she would work on traditional areas of need -- better communications and better equipment for first responders -- as well as shoring up plans for mass evacuations in case of an attack on Boston or a nuclear plant in Plymouth.

"The goal of this position is to integrate all the state efforts to ensure that there's a unified and coherent and consistent plan for the security of Massachusetts," she said.

"So it's really looking at what everyone's doing, where the money is going, where our priorities should be, where the vulnerabilities are -- and then going from there."


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Juliette Kayyem, a 37-year-old Lebanese-American, will be Homeland Security chief for Massachusetts.

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