CHICAGO: Every April since 2017, Arab Americans throughout the US celebrate their heritage and contributions to the nation during “Arab American Heritage Month,” featuring dinners, festivals and cultural presentations.
The national event is similar to heritage months that recognize the achievements of Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans and African Americans.
Arab American Heritage Month does not receive the same national attention as other ethnic groups because Arabs are not included in the US Census and not recognized as a cultural or minority entity, but communities in 36 states will mark the month with educational activities. However, Arab American leaders said that they plan more celebrations this year.
“Chicago has a very large Arab American community and we are proud that our city was one of the magnets that attracted Arab immigration to this country,” said Hassan Nijem, president of the American Arab Chamber of Commerce of Illinois.
“The 1893 World Columbian Exposition in Chicago featured a large exhibition called ‘Cairo Street’ where hundreds of Arabs shared their culture with American visitors. After the exposition ended, many of the Arabs returned to their countries boasting about the opportunities and how American streets were ‘paved in gold.’ America offers great opportunities to immigrants and that sparked a wave of Arab immigration to this country that has not stopped.”
Nijem said that “Chicagoland” has more than 450,000 Americans of Arab heritage representing all 22 Arab countries, although the largest populations are Palestinian, Lebanese and Jordanians.
Ray Hanania’s father’s Palestine immigration document to the US in August 1926
Arab American Heritage Month received a boost last year when State Department spokesman, Ned Price, issued a special proclamation honoring the event, saying: “Arab Americans have contributed in every field and profession, many of them, in fact, serve here at the State Department and throughout the interagency.”
A State Department official told Arab News a similar proclamation will be made this year, including from the White House.
This year, Arab American Heritage Month coincides with Ramadan, which begins on April 1. As a consequence, many heritage month events will be subdued to respect Islamic religious practices. A great number of events will be held during Ramadan iftars.
Many Arabs settled in cities across the country including New York, Washington D.C., Dallas, Orlando, and Dearborn, where Detroit’s auto industry offered employment.
Samer Khalaf, president of the national organization, American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, said that the commemoration of Arab American Heritage Month in April was a major factor in fostering a better understanding of Arab Americans and Arab and Middle Eastern culture.
“Recognizing contributions of Arab Americans goes beyond the recognition of us as a minority. It has deep roots in our existence as a part of the fabric of this country,” Khalaf told Arab News.
“Since the late 1800s, Arab Americans have contributed to the industrial, farming and merchant industries. In more recent decades, we have contributed in politics — both local and federal — in academic spaces, innovation and technology. Simply put, this country would not be what it is without the efforts and successes of Arab Americans.”
Delinda Hanley, editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, which each year showcases Arab American Heritage Month events, told Arab News that the heritage celebrations had a huge impact on young Arab Americans, instilling pride as well as educating the public.
“Arab American students should be so proud of their ancient roots and rich heritage,” Hanley said.
“If teachers spent even one class describing the words, medical breakthroughs, inventions, foods and famous people who are Arab Americans, children would be so proud of their heritage and confident that they, too, could accomplish anything.”
ADC officials said that Americans should know more about Arab American contributions to the nation, pointing out that an Arab woman was the “inspiration” for the design of the Statue of Liberty in New York’s harbor, which has welcomed millions of immigrants since 1886.
French sculptor, Frederic Auguste Bartholdi, originally proposed the statue of a woman with a torch to Egypt and the Ottoman Khedive, but the idea was rejected. Bartholdi later convinced France to gift the “Liberty Enlightening the World” statue, more commonly known as “the Statue of Liberty,” to America.
Nijem said that despite the growing awareness of Arab culture, Arabs still suffered from discrimination and exclusion.
“Last June, Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered city inspectors to close more than 150 Arab-owned grocery stores. She was trying to connect our stores to the city’s rising wave of street gang violence,” Nijem said.
“I think she believed we were an easy target and no one would care. But the community came together and forced her four months later to reverse the closures. Arab Heritage Month reminds everyone we are equal in our rights with all Americans and won’t be victimized.”
Last year, 37 state governors and more than 130 governments issued proclamations honoring Arab American Heritage Month.
A sample of the hundreds of events that will be held during Arab American Heritage Month include:
- On March 30, the American Arab Chamber of Commerce will host a dinner in the Chicago suburb of Hickory Hills, Illinois, featuring Debka entertainment and a Middle Eastern menu.
- On March 31, the Dearborn Historical Museum will host a month-long exhibition focused on Arab immigration.
- US Arab Radio in Detroit will feature a daily celebration of Arab American achievers on its morning broadcasts hosted by Laila Alhusini.
- On April 4, the city of Gaithersburg, Maryland, will host an art exhibition and dinner, and an iftar dinner on April 14.
- On April 22, Penn State Health Office at the University of Pennsylvania will host the Arab American Heritage Festival.
- Crafton Hills College in Yucaipa, California, will host a series of Wednesday events including: A look at Arab world calligraphy on April 4; the art of henna on April 11; the role of Muslim women in American society on April 18 with politician and scholar Dalia Mojahed, and poetry by Amal Kassir; and on April 25, a Dabka folklore performance.
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