Posted by Jacob Saliba on February 16, 2016 in Blog
As Americans inappropriately fear the mass migration of Syrian refugees from their homelands, we, as Arab Americans, must remind our fellow citizenry not just how peaceful we are, but the ways we have contributed to the countries in which we live. The American dream has been so good to many of us and the stories of successful Arab Americans are endless. But what about elsewhere? Are there other places we can point to that affirmatively prove the fear mongers wrong?
Look no further than south of the border. Latin America has the largest Arab population outside of the Middle East. Latin America is home to anywhere from 17 to 30 million people of Arab descent, that’s more than any other diaspora region in the world. While we all know of Shakira, Salma Hayek and the likes, did you know Carlos Slim Helú, the wealthiest man in the world is of Mexican Lebanese nationality? How about the eight presidents, countless parliamentarians and mayors of Arab heritage.
Since the late 19th century, Arabs have been flocking to the region in great waves. Many speculate that originally a mistake, many migrants believed their tickets to the “New World” were going to America. Surprised when they arrived in Spanish and Portuguese port towns, they made the best of their situation. Making the adjustment more manageable, the similar climate, topography and cultural undertones seemed to allow immigrants to integrate at a more rapid pace. Whatever happened, the number of immigrants only grew and their success seemed to follow.
From the early onset, communities, mostly from Lebanon, Palestine and Syria, dominated the private sector. Starting with the cotton industry, they rapidly moved to bigger and better professions. Today, they are now known for their large influence in telecommunications, textiles, media outlets, construction and many more. They take on professions like doctors, lawyers, engineers and clergymen. As a result, their successes have earned them an immense amount of favor and support amongst their Latin American communities, enabling them to start social organizations, participate in politics, and culturally influence the states they reside in.
These political organizations, social clubs, religious institutions, and schools given way to generations of giving back to their greater communities. Through building hospitals, constructing soccer stadiums and donating to regional causes, the Arab communities have gained recognition as not only one of the wealthiest or politically active groups, but also one of the most giving.
One of the major contributors to Arabs’ prosperity in Latin America is their large population across the region. In Brazil alone, there are more Lebanese Brazilians (7 million) than in Lebanon itself. Chile is home to the largest Palestinian community outside of the Middle East at a staggering half million. And, while a considerable majority are Christian, several million Arabs in the region are Muslims. In fact, the biggest mosque on either American continent is not in New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, but actually in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Some of these Arab influences are deeper than many natives even notice. In modern culture, countries like Brazil have adopted kibbeh, tabbouleh, hummus and sfiha and made them as Brazilian as pizza and spaghetti are American. In Chile, more people tuned into the season finale of a Turkish soap opera, adored around the Arabic speaking world, than for their World Cup Finale.
These dynamic examples of Arab participation in Latin America stretching from spheres of business and culture to politics and civil service have created a hub, with whom we should work. In areas of policy, we can work together to partner on issues like tackling anti-Arab and anti-Muslim discrimination and building healthy relations with the Middle East. Culturally, we can learn more about our past, and connect with others in the future. We can bridge networks with millions of Latino Americans who have fond memories of Arabs from their home country. In some states, like California, hundreds of thousands of Arabs can connect with 280,000 more just below the border in Baja California. We can exchange fusion recipes such as tacos árabes or Middle Eastern egg rolls. Given these points, connecting with the diaspora in Latin America will only further our causes, creating a more fruitful conglomerate of Arabs in the New World.
No one can deny Arabs in Latin America are a symbol of pride and inspiration, proving no matter how far or hostile a country may be, the resilience, brilliance and innovative nature of Arabs in the diaspora continue to prosper wherever we establish our roots. Whether it’s thousands in the Dominican Republic, or 10 million in Brazil, the Arab presence serves as a true example of the peaceful, tolerant and hardworking nature of our people.