Definition of Middle Eastern Americans

The term Middle Eastern Americans refers to immigrants and their native-born descendants who trace their ancestry to the Middle East and North Africa. In other words, they come from the 22 countries that form the Arab League, and the non-Arab countries: Iran, Israel, and Turkey. Additionally, there are minority populations (both ethnic and religious) from these nation states who are also Middle Eastern Americans. These include Armenians, Assyrians, Baha’is, Chaldeans, Copts, Druze and Kurds. Middle Eastern Americans, overall, share visible physical characteristics, history in the region as well as in the U.S., religious traditions, including Mizrahi and Sephardic Judaism, Eastern Christianity,  and Islam, along with a rich cultural heritage of common values, sensibilities in art, food, music, epic stories, etc. While the U.S. government does not recognize Middle Eastern Americans as an official minority group, we still need to acknowledge their presence because of their contributions to American society and economy – and, ironically, the relatively high level of discrimination they have endured in this country.

Why Study Middle Eastern Americans

Middle Eastern Americans represent an important component of America’s demographic mosaic. Their immigration spans the “old” wave at the turn of the 20th century and the “new” wave after 1965, corresponding to two periods of mass immigration. They represent the three major monolithic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), which all originated in the Middle East. Although they reside in almost all the fifty states, they tend to concentrate in Washington, D.C., California, Illinois, Michigan, New York, New Jersey and Texas. They are highly educated and proficient in English and generally have been able to integrate quickly into American society. They are also highly entrepreneurial. They have made numerous contributions in American society’s development in practically in every field of endeavor, including business, science, government, and the arts. Yet, since the oil crisis in 1973, the Iran Hostage Crisis (1979-1981) and in particularly after terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Middle Easterners have been targets of societal backlash. In particular Iranians, Arabs, and other Muslims have been scapegoats for attacks targeting U.S. interests; each incident has resulted in harassment, discrimination and hate crimes against these populations. Even the U.S. government has profiled these communities as suspects of terrorism.

Studying Middle Eastern Americans is integral to the K-12 curriculum across the humanities, social science, and language arts disciplines. Both timely and long overdue, it helps students understand Middle Eastern Americans’ internal diversity and recognize their special dilemma in the post-9/11 era.


Handout #1: Who Are Middle Eastern Americans?

John F. Kennedy referred to the United States as “a nation of immigrants.”  Those who study the history of this country know that its strength lies in the contribution of all those who have come here from around the world. We have heard the stories of the Irish fleeing from the potato famine, the Chinese who came to work on the railroad, the Russians who fled persecution, along with many other groups who immigrated to the U.S. at the turn of the 20th century.

What do we know about people who emigrated from the Middle East or are descendants of immigrants from the Middle East?  The 2000 Census estimated that over 2.2 million people of Middle Eastern ancestry lived in the United States. Shouldn’t we know more about their story? When we hear the term “Middle Eastern American” what comes to mind?

Did you know that the latest census figures indicate that several Middle Eastern American groups are more educated and more entrepreneurial than most Americans? Did you know that Heisman trophy winner and former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie is of Middle Eastern descent? Did you know that actor Tony Shalhoub, the star of the television series Monk, is a Middle Eastern American? Immigrants from the Middle East and their descendants have been prominent musicians (Shakira, Cher, Raffi-children’s folk singer), comedians (Maz Jobrani) and actors (Salma Hayek, Eric Bana), sports champions (Andre Agassi), academics and public commentators (Edward Said, Dr. Oz), journalists (Christiane Amanpour, CNN correspondent), business leaders (Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple; Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic Records (whose acts included Ray Charles, Led Zeppelin, and Aretha Franklin); Kirk Kerkorian (owner of MGM and other corporations— considered one of the wealthiest Americans by Forbes magazine)), and politicians (Senators John Sununu and Spencer Abraham; Rahm Emanuel, President Obama’s Chief of Staff). Do you know if your doctor, dentist, pharmacist, teacher, principal or neighbor is from the Middle East?

The immigrants from the Middle East are a very diverse group. The United States Census identifies all persons of Middle Eastern ancestry as “white”, thus denying them official recognition as a separate ethnic group. Within the Middle Eastern category many people identify themselves more in terms of their national origin (Syrian, Lebanese, and Iranian) or ethno-religious origin (Armenian, Assyrian, Baha’i, Druze) rather than in terms of the larger Middle East region.

To better understand immigrants from the Middle East and their descendants, let us focus on Arab Americans, who make up more than half of this population. Arab Americans are defined as those who immigrated from or are descendants of immigrants who came from the predominantly Arabic-speaking nations in Southwest Asia and North Africa. This includes people from the 22 contemporary nations that make up the Arab League: Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Jordan, Palestine (the West Bank and Gaza), Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Oman, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco, Mauritania, Sudan, Somalia, Djibouti and the Comoros Islands.

The first wave of Arab American immigrants came from Ottoman Empire in the 1880s. Immigrants move from one country to another for a variety of reasons. These reasons are divided into two types: “push” factors (things that occur in a nation that make it necessary for people to leave, such as wars or lack of jobs) and “pull” factors (things that exist in the receiving nation that make people want to go there, such as the presence of family members or an abundance of jobs). The vast majority of the early Arab immigrants were Christian. These people were leaving their villages and towns in the Ottoman Empire because of economic and social problems. Many belonged to minority groups experiencing great persecution. For example, Armenians who survived the genocide in 1915 arrived in the U.S. after World War I. While Armenians are not considered Arab Americans, they share many cultural traits with Arab Americans or other Middle Eastern groups, depending on their country of origin (mostly Iran and Turkey).

Early Arabic-speaking immigrants were often labeled “Syrians” or “Syrian Lebanese” because they came from regions of the Ottoman Empire called Ottoman Syria or Mount Lebanon. The vast majority of these early Arab American immigrants were Christians looking for economic opportunities. Single women (widows, unmarried sisters) were a sizable proportion of this group. Many of these immigrants became peddlers and traveled the U.S. selling silk, buttons, jewelry, household items, and religious articles from the Holy Land. Some were able to save enough money to set up their own grocery and hardware stores. There were also many who worked in factories throughout New England, New York, New Jersey and elsewhere. A small number of Muslim Arab immigrants arrived in America to escape the military draft after the Young Turks took over the Ottoman Empire.  Ross, a small town in North Dakota, is said to have been the first Muslim community in America. After Henry Ford offered $5 a day for work in his automobile factories, both Middle Eastern Christian and Muslim immigrants came to Michigan. Yemenis, and much later Iraqis, followed Syrian and Lebanese immigrants to Michigan, especially Dearborn. Many of these immigrants showed great entrepreneurial spirit. They were self-reliant and started their own businesses. Even those who worked in factories saved up their money and later opened their own small stores. Some of these businesses became very large companies. The founders of Haggar and Farrah, leaders in the men’s clothing industry, were of Arab descent.

In 1924, the U.S. Congress passed the National Origins Act. This law set quotas that benefited immigrants from Northern Europe and greatly limited immigration from the Middle East. The next wave of immigrants from the Middle East came after The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished this strict quota system. The new law emphasized family reunification and job skills needed in the U.S. Some “push” factors for Arab immigrants were the nationalistic and populist-socialist policies that spread through nations such as Egypt, Syria, and Iraq in the 1960s. These policies led to the nationalization of industries and discrimination against minority groups. Those who lost businesses or were victims of discrimination sought refuge in the United States. Another major “push” factor for these minorities was war and violent conflict in their homelands. These crises include the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli Wars, the civil war in Lebanon that started in 1975 and lasted almost two decades, the Iranian Revolution (1978-1979) which replaced the Shah with religious clerics, the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), and most recently the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003.

There were also several “pull” factors. In the second half of the 20th century, wealthy Arabs in oil rich nations such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates sent their children to the U.S. to attend college and graduate school because there were so few institutions of higher education at home. Labor migrants from Yemen came to the United States for jobs in the steel industry, agribusiness, and later, opportunities to own small businesses. Many professionals also emigrated to the United States after 1965. They possessed skills that would provide them with a standard of living above that which they had in their own countries. Physicians, engineers, scientist and others were part of this group. The U.S. Department of State has offers a lottery system to increase diversity in the provenance of new immigrants. As a result, Moroccans, Algerians and Tunisians started to come to the U.S. in large numbers for the first time in history.

In the Middle East itself, the majority of Arabs are Sunni Muslims. However, there are a significant number of Christian congregations, tracing their origins to the disciples of Jesus, including Copts (in Egypt), Syrian Orthodox (in Syria, Lebanon, Palestine), Maronites (in Lebanon), along with Chaldeans and Assyrians (in Iraq). In the United States, slightly more than half of Arab Americans are Christians due to selectivity of migration. When these early Arabic-speaking immigrants arrived at U.S. entry points like Ellis Island, they were often labeled Syrians, because they came from administrative regions of the Ottoman Empire called Syria and Mount Lebanon. Ironically, they were also called Turks. In the waning years of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish Sultans were generally blamed for their socioeconomic and political problems.

Having looked at the history of Arab immigration, the question remains: How have the Arab Americans fared in this country?  What has helped them become upwardly mobile? What effect did 9/11 have on their lives?  To find these answers we are going to look at two tables using information provided by the United States Census.

Review Questions:
1. In what ways are Arab immigrants similar to other immigrants to the United States?
2. In what ways do they differ?
3. What are the reasons that the first wave of Arab immigrants came here?
4. How was this first group of immigrants able to succeed and provide a better life for their children?
5. What are the reasons that Arab immigrants came to the U.S. after 1965?

Handout #2: Learning from Census Data

Census data are the result of a survey of all households taken every 10 years by the government of the United States. They might just seem like numbers, but the data can actually tell us a great deal about various ethnic and racial groups that live in this country. Using the information in Tables 1 and 2, answer the following questions regarding the population of people of Middle Eastern ancestry.

Based on Table 1, Middle Easterners are divided into which two principal categories?
1. The largest group of Arab immigrants comes from what country?
2. The smallest group of Arabs immigrants comes from what country?
3. What group has the lowest percentage of foreign-born people?
4. What assumption can one make about a group’s length of time in the United States if it has the lowest percentage of foreign born?
5. What assumption can one make about a group’s length of time in the United States if it has the largest percentage of foreign born?

Using the information in Table 2, answer the following questions:
1. Among foreign-born Middle Easterners, which group has the highest level of education?
2. Among foreign-born Middle Easterners, which group has the lowest level of education?
3. How do these rates compare to that of "All Foreign-Born"?
4. What assumptions can one make about the economic success (occupation and income) of a group with a high level of education? 
5. What assumptions can one make about the economic success (occupation and income) of a group with a low level of education? 
6. Among foreign-born Middle Easterners, which group has the highest self-employment rate (in percentage)? 
7. Among foreign-born Middle Easterners, which group has the lowest self-employment rate (in percentage)? 
8. How do these rates compare to that of “All Foreign-Born”?
9. What are the implications of self-employment for the economic success of Middle Eastern immigrant groups?








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