Despite hardships, lean times and discrimination, by the time World War I ended, various Arab-American communities were beginning to prosper. Orthodox, Maronite and Mefkite churches had been built - the first mosque, in Cedar Rapids, was not built until 1934 - and publications in English and Arabic were being started.
After World War I, Arabic newspapers flourished and, distributed nationwide, kept immigrants abreast of the news from "back home." At the same time, Kahlil Gibran (See Aramco World , March-April 1983) was at the height of his popularity; he and his group of exile writers - The Golden Link, a literary society organized in Boston - translated and reviewed selections from Arabic classics, as well as writing new works in both English and Arabic. And whole neighborhoods gathered for literary evenings, reading and discussing Arabic poetry and literature far into the night.
By 1930, a second generation of Arab-Americans was growing up, eager to be assimilated and Americanized. They could read and write English, many were high school graduates and some had been to college. By then, they or their parents had entered the ranks of the middle class and in search of a better life, moved out of their "ethnic" neighborhoods into more affluent, ethnically diverse communities. Some gave up speaking and reading Arabic, married outside the community and entered local and national politics.
With the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, a new wave of Arab immigrants arrived in the United States. Because many had been displaced from their centuries - old homeland, they brought with them a new political awareness and a fresh stimulus that awakened a new ethnic consciousness among Arab-Americans. And by the late 1960's, a small Arab-American movement had begun.
That new wave of mainly Palestinian Arabs was followed by yet another - young, educated, multi-lingual. Often well-to-do, literate and highly skilled, their departure caused a "brain drain" in the countries they left - in 1968-71, Egypt alone lost some 7,000 professionals to the United States - but they were to prove invaluable to their adopted country. More recently, many Arab students sent to the United States to study chose to stay after completing their education.
Arab immigrants did not escape prejudice, but since they were relatively few in number, tended to keep a low profile and mind their own business, they attracted less attention. Since then, however, rising oil prices, the Palestinian question and anti-Americanism in the Middle East have fanned American prejudice not only against Arabs, and the Arab world, but also against loyal and patriotic Arab-Americans. Even as the nation flocks to Bedloe's and Ellis Islands to celebrate the immigrant experience, the Arab-American is suddenly the focus of the kind of prejudices that most Americans had long spurned when directed against other groups - stereotyping.
One of the first of the organized responses to Arab stereotyping was the Association of Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG). Formed by Arab-American intellectuals interested in educating America about the Middle East, the group's name itself was an overt attempt to dispel the myth of the uneducated Arab.
Another national group, the National Association of Arab-Americans (NAAA), is a Capitol Hill lobbying group formed in 1972 to "articulate and communicate" their concerns to the government, promote friendship and cooperation between the U.S. and the Arab world, and encourage Arab-American participation in political and economic affairs at national, state and local levels.
In 1980, another politically active group, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), was formed by a former U.S. Senator from North Dakota, James Abourezk. Both the NAAA and the ADC are now deeply entrenched in political lobbying.
In all, there are now 285 Arab-American groups nationwide proudly proclaiming their Arab heritage. Disparate and far-flung as these Arab-American organizations are, their goals are the same: to give Arab-Americans a sense of unity and pride in their common cultural heritage, to oppose stereotyping, defamation and discrimination, to defend their rights, and to restore respect to a people proud of their heritage and proud of the contributions they have made in America.
"Often, Arab-Americans are discriminated against and not given recognition as an influential community," publisher Joseph Haiek says. "Many of us blame hostile media, popular bigotry, or political intrigues. These are not solely responsible. Historically, we chose to keep a low profile, but until we reach out and initiate a working relationship with the rest of America, our community's interests will continue to be discounted and ignored."
"We must wholeheartedly acknowledge our own historical heritage before we can expect others to recognize our cultural identity," Haiek maintains.
Arab-American organizations meet regularly and several of them hold annual meetings that have now become a combination of heritage festival, political convention and family reunion.
At NAAA and ADC conventions in Washington, D.C., for example, Arab-Americans from all backgrounds and all walks of life met to renew old acquaintances, recognize their achievements, reward their successes, talk, eat, laugh, dance the dabke, reminisce, listen to speeches and discuss politics.
They set up media-monitoring groups, launch campaigns, compile mailing lists, establish local and national networks, listen to speeches by some of the nation's top-ranking politicians, and attend workshops and seminars on how to petition, protest, organize, get out the vote and help elect - or defeat - a candidate.
The NAAA, at its fourteenth annual convention in Washington, D.C., in June, this year, focused conference activities on training the 600 attendees to be politically well-informed, active, and organized. The theme, "Campaign '86: Politics and Peace," was a statement of the link between NAAA's aspirations for a just peace in the Middle East, and the realities of getting things done in the American political system.
Started in 1972, NAAA is the largest lobby in the United States looking out for Arab-American interests. Today it has 10,000 members throughout the U.S. organized into chapters and action groups.
The 1986 conference included a Grassroots Workshop providing an in-depth course in political organizing as it applies to NAAA chapter structure. Chapter officials and Washington professionals lectured about principles of fundraising, chapter building, and communications. A Political Action Workshop dealt with the importance of working with elected representatives in Washington as a "grassroots lobbyist," as well as with election campaigns and other political activities. Panel members included political professionals and NAAA staffers.
After receiving briefings on the most important issues to be addressed and the best way to approach the legislators, 75-100 NAAA members visited their elected representatives in Congress during NAAA's Fourth Annual Arab-American Day on Capitol Hill. The day-long program included a Hill luncheon at which Senator Robert Dole (D-KS) and Representative David Obey (D-WI) addressed the group on ways to be more effective in conducting political activities. Representative Mary Rose Oakar (D-OH), herself an Arab-American, was Master of Ceremonies.
Arab-Americans are involved in other ways too. When, for example, architects and engineers announced that the Statue of Liberty needed a repair job, the NAAA inaugurated an effort which raised over $50,000 towards the restoration.
TV's Casey Kasem was honorary chairman of the NAAA campaign, and other top Arab-American entertainers, whose names are household words across the country, also took part: film and TV actor Michael Ansara; comedian Jimmy Goson; actor Vic Tayback, co-star of the long-running TV comedy series Alice; and award-winning Amadeus film actor F. Murray Abraham.
To help raise the money, a Liberty Event book was devised and Arab-American families were asked to place an ad honoring their immigrant parents or grandparents. "This not only helped with the reconstruction of our history," says Jeff Boshar, one of the organizers, "but recognizes the bravery of our ancestors."
Also, as an additional contribution to this Year of the Immigrant, Arab-Americans were encouraged to go in search of their Arab heritage. Newsletters and flyers distributed nationwide and appeals from the Arab-American Historical Foundation gave instructions on how to record the oral histories of early Arab immigrants, how to find willing participants - grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents, cousins - and how to elicit and record their personal recollections. The Foundation also explained how to find and preserve family letters, documents and photographs, and how to approach and search the records of state and national archives.
"There will be no permanent records unless memories are recorded and shared," says Dr. Evelyn Abdullah Menconi, of the William Abdullah Memorial Library in West Roxbury. "We must reach out and find people who can bring the past alive for us."
One person doing this is Salwa Shatila Kader. She used to live in Beirut, where her wealthy family gave land for a camp for Palestinian refugees. Now living in New Jersey with her husband and three sons she took her youngest son, Tarick, aged four, to the 1985 convention of the ADC in Washington, D.C.
"I brought Tarick here," she said, "because I want him to know his roots. To know about his ancestors, and to be proud of them and their culture."
Each year, national conventions such as this draw Arab-Americans for the same reasons. At the last ADC convention, for example, there were 1,800 registered participants and more then 2,000 attended. They viewed an art show by Arab painters and sculptors, films by Arab filmmakers and a play by an Arab playwright, and, in the Old World tradition of the Arabs, they listened to poems, songs, and stories by Arab poets, musicians and story tellers.
Honored at the same convention were Arab-American media pioneers Michael Haider, Wahid Boctor, Joseph Haiek, Edmund La Hage and Warren David; humanitarians Dr. Amal Shamma of Lebanon, former U.S. Senator Pete McCloskey, filmmaker Moustapha Akkad, and Candy Lightner, founder of Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), now a nationwide organization.
Queen Noor of Jordan, born an Arab-American and now married to King Hussein, received an award and commented: "I'm deeply moved to receive this award for the efforts I've made in our shared goal to counter stereotyping of Arabs."
The award for the most outstanding Arab of the day, however, went to Prince Sultan ibn Salman ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz Al Sa'ud of Saudi Arabia, the first Arab and Muslim astronaut, for the "courage and achievement which he displayed... while journeying into space aboard the American space ship Discovery." Said ADC Director Omar Kadr when presenting the award: "You are an inspiration to young Arabs studying science and engineering who now know they, too, may reach for the stars."
Today, Arab-Americans, more than ever before, are taking their place in the mainstream of American life. They are no longer America's least vocal ethnic minority. As role models, young Arab-Americans now have an Arab who is an astronaut, a Syrian-American who is a queen and male and female Americans from all over the Arab world who excel as politicians, lawyers, journalists, writers, artists, actors, playwrights, entertainers, businessmen, athletes and prominent physicians and surgeons.
"When I'm here," says Salwa Kader, hugging her son Tarick, "I feel the power of the Arab-American community. I feel good." Her large eyes grow proud as she looks at her son. "And I want him to feel that too."