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14 Arab Americans Who Made U.S. History as the Firsts

posted on: Oct 20, 2020

By: Ivey Noojin/Arab America Contributing Writer

We often celebrate the life and accomplishments of certain people due to their nationality or ethnicity. For example, the media frequently will state, “this person is the first [insert race here] to…”. This is important because we should recognize when someone within a minority group reaches representation within the country and becomes the first to do so. However, we often forget that minority groups, including the Arab American community, are groundbreaking in their own right, not just because of their race.

This article discusses 15 Arab Americans who were the firsts to do or be something in the United States and even the world. The fact that many of them come from immigrant parents or are immigrants themselves makes their accomplishments even more amazing. The article only lists 15 people, but there are so many more who made history for this country. Feel free to comment on any more additions below.

The Firsts

Marlo Thomas

Thomas was the first actress to play a single and independent woman on TV. She was born in Michigan to a father of Lebanese descent. She began her appearances on television in the 1950s. Barack Obama gave her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2014. She was also awarded the Women in Film Lucy Award in 1996 for her advancement of women in television.

Lucie Salhany

Salhany was the first woman to head a television network as chairman for Fox News from 1993-1994. She was also the first female recipient of the Human Relations Award from the American Jewish Committee and was named the Executive of the Year in 1995. Salhany co-founded Echo Bridge Entertainment in 2003 and currently serves as its managing partner of sales and marketing. She was born in Cleveland and has a Jordanian father and Lebanese-Syrian mother.

James Jabara

Jabara was the first jet ace in the U.S. and the world during the Korean War. He immediately enlisted into the Air Force after high school in 1942. Before being stationed in Korea, he also fought in World War II. Jabari was planning on fighting in Vietnam as well but was killed in a car crash in the United States. He was born in Oklahoma with parents from Lebanon.

Octavia E Nasr

Nasr was CNN’s first senior editor for Arab affairs. She also co-created the network’s strategy for digital international newsgathering. She is currently the founder and CEO of Bridges Media Consulting, which helps organizations synchronize their traditional strategies with digital ones. Nasr earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications. She was born in Lebanon to a Palestinian family.

Zaha Hadid

Hadid was the first woman to design a major American art museum. She also was the first woman to be awarded the Pritzer Architecture Prize, which is a celebration of a career of achievement in art and architecture, and the London Design Museum’s Design of the Year, which judges design in architecture, furniture, fashion, graphics, production, and transportation. She was born in Iraq and got a Bachelor’s degree in mathematics from the American University in Beirut.

Michael DeBakey

DeBakey was the first to successfully repair an abdominal aortic aneurysm, do a coronary bypass operation, and first multiple-organ transplant. He was dubbed “The Texas Tornado.” He also worked for the army from 1942 to 1946 within the surgical consultants’ division and helped establish a medical agency for veterans returning from war. DeBakey earned an undergraduate degree from Tulane University and his medical degree from the Tulane School of Medicine. He was born in Louisiana to Lebanese immigrants as parents.

Helen Thomas

Thomas was the first female officer of the National Press Club and the first female member and president of the White House Correspondent’s Association. She is known for her coverage of U.S. presidents, breaking down barriers for women reporters in the process. Thomas was also the only print journalist to go with Nixon on his historic visit to China. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University in Detroit. She was born in Kentucky to Lebanese parents.

Dr. Najat Khelil

Khelil was the first woman in Texas to earn a Ph.D. in nuclear physics in 1974. She was one of the founders of the Union of Palestinian American Women and later served as its president. She served on the board of directors for United Palestinian Appeal and is a chairperson of the National Arab American Women’s Association as well. Khelil was born in Nablus of the West Bank.

Rosemary Barkett

Barkett was the first woman on the Florida Supreme Court and its first female Chief Justice. Since 2013, she has worked as a judge on the Iran-United States Claims Tribunal. Barkett has received seven honorary degrees, especially for her work as judge on the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit under Bill Clinton. She was born in Mexico to Syrian parents and began her career as a teacher.

Saint Raphael of Brooklyn

Saint Raphael was the first Orthodox bishop to be consecrated in North America in 1904. He was born in Syria in 1860 and was a graduate student at the Theological Academy of Kiev in Russia. The Syrian Orthodox Church in New York invited him to be a pastor in 1895 and soon toured multiple states in the country to spread his message. Raphael is still studied as one of the most influential saints for the Orthodox Church within the Arab American community.

Maysoon Zayid

Zayid was the first person to ever performs stand-up comedy in Jordan and Palestine and is one of the first Muslim comedians in the United States. She also is the co-founder of the New York Arab American Comedy Festival. She became famous for her TEDTalk discussion about her cerebral palsy. Zayid received a bachelor’s degree in acting at Arizona State University. She was born in New Jersey to a Palestinian family.

Hoda Kotb

Kotb is a part of the first all-female co-anchor team, with Savannah Guthrie, on the TODAY’s news network. Previously, she worked as a morning talk show co-host with Kathie Lee Gifford. Kotb received a Bachelor of Arts degree in broadcast journalism from Virginia Tech University. She was born in Oklahoma to Egyptian parents.

Rashida Tlaib

Tlaib was the first Muslim elected to Michigan legislature and she is the first Muslim, an Arab American woman in Congress. As a Democrat, her agenda includes No tax breaks for billionaires, combatting anti-Arab and Muslim sentiment in the U.S., protecting the environment, and ending a fee for drivers’ licenses. She was an undergraduate at Wayne State University, earning a degree in political science. Tlaib then also earned another degree from Thomas M. Cooley Law School. She was born in Detroit from a Palestinian family.

Charlene Mekled Elder

Elder was the first female, Arab American, and Muslim judge serve in the U.S. She was also the first Arab American judge to speak Arabic fluently. She is a Lebanese American. Elder currently is a judge on the 3rd Circuit Court in Michigan. One of her most influential accolades is her helping to initiate the Domestic Violence Prevention Court. She received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Psychology from the University of Michigan-Dearborn and a law degree from Detroit College of Law.

The next time you are participating in a trivia contest, you will know these important people and their lasting impact on the United States. What makes it even better is the fact that they are all Arab Americans. This community truly is making a difference in the country.

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