Posted on January 03, 2000 in Washington Watch
My father’s youngest brother, Wadih, is the last of his generation. He sits today as the patriarch of my extended family, which, at our last reunion, brought together hundreds of Zogbys from across the United States.
Wadih is 91. He has read The New York Times for as long as I can remember. He also reads the Arabic press which he now accesses from the internet. He remains in close contact with Lebanon and the issues of the Arab world. He travels to Lebanon every summer, where he cares for our family home and the burial place of my grandfather. This summer, Wadih took his grandchildren with him. He was eager that his commitment to maintaining the tie to Lebanon be continued in the next generation. In this regard, my Uncle Wadih Zogby is typical of his generation. His life has spanned the century. He came from a small mountain village as an immigrant to America. He lived here through the Depression and the World War. He raised a family, established himself in business and became a good American – while remaining tied to the land of his origin.
It is on the shoulders of ancestors such as these that my generation of Arab Americans has stood. Their record during the last century is one of which we can be proud. They have created our presence in the new world. It is an American presence, bound by heritage and emotional ties to the Arab world.
As Arab Americans, our individual stories may be different in detail – but in their outlines, they form a common story: a story of progress, of personal victory and of community.
One hundred years ago, there was no Arab American community. When, for example, my mother’s parents came to America in 1899, there were less than 25,000 Arabic-speaking immigrants in the United States. They had faced the hardships of passage to come here and once here, they faced hardships born of discrimination. Family names were changed and lost forever because of the actions of U.S. immigration officials. Other families were forcibly separated at entry with some being sent away. There were also problems of language and culture.
But these early Arab Americans were adventurous and industrious, and they were determined to succeed. Many settled in New York City, which became their intellectual and economic hub. But most moved beyond the big city into the small, emerging industrial communities of the northeast and midwest. There, they found work or peddled goods until they were in a position to start their own businesses.
My mother’s family settled in a small town in the coal mining region of northeast Pennsylvania. She was born in 1906; part of that first generation of Arab Americans who were born here, were educated here and became fully assimilated into American life. At the same time, they remained proud of their heritage and faithful to their traditions.
My father’s oldest brother, Habib, was the first of his family to arrive in America. He was 14 years old when he came in 1910. I still marvel at the courage of this young boy who traveled by himself to the United States with the responsibility to create a place here so that the rest of his family could follow. Within the next decade, they did. By the early 1920’s, my grandmother, her five sons and two daughters were all in America.
My father came in 1921, at the age of 23. Because of circumstances beyond his control, he arrived as an illegal immigrant. This was not uncommon for Arab immigrants in this period. The number of Arabs who were allowed entry was limited, and the trip was costly. Nevertheless, driven by their determination to be united with their families and to start a new life in America, hundreds, and possibly even thousands, took great risks to come here. My father lived in fear for almost a decade until he was able to take advantage of an amnesty program and file for citizenship. In the 1930’s he became a proud American but he never forgot the fear.
By 1925, the Arabic-speaking immigrants and their offspring numbered over 200,000. They were an emerging community. They built churches and mosques. They formed social clubs and cultural institutions. They supported each other, created opportunities for more recent arrivals and defended their rights when attacked.
At this point, the community was largely from Syria and Lebanon – although a number from Palestine were also part of the early community.
They were extraordinarily enterprising and generally successful. Nevertheless, like other new immigrants from the Mediterranean region, they faced hardships as well. There was an anti-immigrant backlash in the post-World War I era that sought to exclude “undesirable foreigners” from entry into the United States. Among those targeted were the Mediterranean, Eastern European and Asian immigrants.
But the early Arab immigrant community fought back. They organized local institutions to protect and preserve their heritage. They organized national delegations to petition the U.S. government in defense of their rights as Americans. And they offered help within the community to those who needed assistance.
Most important of all, however, they became exemplary citizens, and by incorporating themselves into the life of their new country, they were best able to secure their rights, promote their concerns and advance.
The period that followed the 1920’s was marked by two events that defined 20th century U.S. history – the Great Depression and World War II. These events had a powerful impact on immigrant Americans. The hardship of the Depression resulted not only in economic difficulty, it also resulted in a closing off immigration for almost 20 years. The impact of this crisis and the nation’s collective response to it, as well as the patriotism bred by the war effort, combined to forge a new American identity.
The example of my uncle, Joseph Mandour, is instructive here. He was an entrepreneur who founded a chain of hotels and the Lebanon National Bank in New York City. He lost everything during the Great Depression. But he never gave up and ultimately regained most of what he lost. In 1932, Uncle Joe ran for office in Pennsylvania. He lost that contest, but in a larger sense, he had won – because he had never stopped fighting. Uncle Joe was determined not only to succeed economically but also to be socially and politically accepted as well.
Then came World War II. Tens of thousands of young Arab Americans fought in that war – as Americans. In the process, they, too, welded together as Americans. They formed support communities, like the Syrian Welfare Association and after the war, returning Arab American soldiers formed veteran associations.
My mother’s nephews fought in Europe. She followed the allied armies’ advance against Hitler, knowing that the lives of her brother’s and sister’s sons were at stake. We still have the scrapbook she kept and a box of the letters they sent to her postmarked from Europe. As a child, I read the letters sent by my cousin Faris as he moved across Europe and into Germany. He was, like thousands of his comrades, a hero to my generation.
During and after the war, the small Arab American community faced new challenges. Upheaval in the Middle East caused them to spring into action. They renewed their connections with the Arab world. In their media and through their small organizations, they debated and argued for the independence of Lebanon and Syria and demanded Arab rights in Palestine.
Immigration that had been virtually stopped during the war years began again after the war. At first, it was a trickle, a few thousand Arabic-speaking immigrants entering each year from 1950 until 1967. It then grew in rather substantial numbers, an average of 15,000 a year in the 1980’s, reaching more than 20,000 a year in the late 1990’s.
By now, the Arab American community has grown to more than three million. The earliest immigrants and their descendants still comprise over one-half of that number.
The post-World War II immigrant wave has been more diverse than the earlier group. There are now substantial numbers of Egyptians, Palestinians, Yemenis, Iraqis and Jordanians to add to the Syrian and Lebanese Arab Americans. In recent years, we have added immigrants from the Maghreb as well.
This complexity has added a depth and richness to the community, and fostered both a broader outlook and a synergism that has brought Arab Americans into a greater awareness of the larger Arab world.
The new immigrants were different in other ways as well. Many of them came with advanced degrees in hand or to attend universities and stayed. Others came with political experience. This too has had an impact on enhancing the overall community.
The more than three million Arab Americans are, according to U.S. Census figures, quite an impressive group. They claim the highest per capita ownership of business of any ethnic group in America. They also have a higher ratio of advanced degrees and membership in the professions than do other ethnic groups.
While their progress is real, so too are the problems. But, today’s Arab Americans like their ancestors in the early part of this century have also organized to fight back. For example, for those recent immigrants who come with economic and social needs, Arab Americans have built strong social service institutions in many communities to provide for those needs. And Arab Americans have organized to fight discrimination and have come together for political strength.
In most areas of American life, Arab Americans have made a significant mark. In a wonderful brochure published by the Arab American Institute, Casey Kasem, the celebrated broadcaster, tells the story of the outstanding Arab Americans in politics, the arts, science, media, fashion … in every aspect of American life.
In this century, the community has grown and has defined itself. It is overcoming difficulties and divisions and has become an established, recognized and respected American constituency. But we should never forget that this progress has only been possible because of the courage and determination of those who came as immigrants during this century. It was they who built for us the foundation and gave us the character we now possess.
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