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Arab Immigrants’ “Smooth Landing” in the U.S.--Followed by a Rough Political Patch in Trump’s America

posted on: Aug 21, 2019

“ …Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Huddled Masses to Breathe Free…“

–From Emma Lazarus 1906 poem engraved on the Statue of Liberty

By John Mason/Arab America Contributing Writer 

Here we look at the wide variety of contributions Arab Americans have made to many aspects of American society over two centuries and more: a physician making revolutionary improvements to treatment of the human heart; a statesman creating a peace agreement among Ireland’s battling religious communities; scientists making advances in space exploration; actors and musicians inventing great musical and theatrical performances; and university leaders and teachers contributing to academic excellence. Against this, we have a U.S. president who bans Muslim immigration to our country and induces an Israeli president to block a visit to his country and the occupied Palestinian territories by two Muslim U.S. House Representatives. How to manage these conflicting forces is something Arab Americans must face.

Arabs–Highly Successful Immigrants to the U.S.

Arabs in significant numbers began to come to the U.S. in the 1850s. They initially came from what is known as “greater Syria,” including Lebanon and other former territories of the Ottoman Empire. The immigration pattern during that same period fit well with other movements from Europe. Most of them settled in four top cities, which are Los Angeles, Detroit, New York, and Washington, D.C. Arab immigrants represent many Arab countries and speak several Arabic dialects. They were mostly Christians during the first waves and were attracted to America by economic opportunity. In more recent times, many Muslims have journeyed here, pushed out of their countries because of civil war, oppression, and the absence of work.

Immigration patterns for Arabs show that they came to the U.S. in large numbers from the 1870s to the 1920s. A federal act of 1924 almost ended the flow of people from the Middle East. Immigrants during this period came from Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine—countries that comprised the Ottoman Empire. They were mostly Christians. Many of them worked in the silk industry which they brought with them, in and around New York City, including their own factories in West Hoboken and Paterson, New Jersey. Many were attracted by manufacturing cities such as Pittsburgh, Detroit and Michigan City. Since many more Arab men than women immigrated, they tended to marry women of non-Arab background.

Because of the Great Depression between the two world wars and a series of restrictive immigration acts, Arab moves to the U.S. declined significantly during 1920-1940. The first Arab-Israeli war in 1948, the result of the formation of the Israeli state on lands where Palestinians had lived for centuries, resulted in the mass displacement of those Palestinians. Official U.S. immigration records show that 80,000 Arabs came here during 1948-1966, despite the displacement of more than ¾ million Palestinians from their homeland. Many of them migrated to nearby countries of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon or Syria before immigrating to the States.

Arabs make up a very small proportion of the total U.S. population, just over 1%. While definitions of “Arab” vary depending on whether one defines oneself as “Arab American,” “Arab,” or “Other Arab,” their total U.S. population varies between 1.5-2 million.

Arab American Contributions to the Fabric of our Nation

 It’s almost a question of where to start? Arab Americans have made so many important contributions to American life that we have to present only the most important ones and the people who made them. Given their small number in the population, the Arab contribution to all sectors of American life only becomes that much more important. 

Casey Kasem, radio legend famous for Casey’s Top 40 popular music hits, came upon the idea of publishing a list of who’s who in Arab America. Recently deceased, he was of Lebanese background. Arab American Institute published the list, which is exhaustive. It covers Arab Americans who’ve made a difference in medicine and science, politics, entertainment, business, military, art, and literature, among other fields.

We will list (partial list) a few names from each major arena of American life. The Arab ancestry of each individual is provided in parentheses; all are American citizens. Some of the contributions may be dated. And, dear Reader, forgive the length of some of these lists—they are a testament to the talent of this very small pool of people who immigrated to America from one or another part of the Arab World.

Medicine and Science

Dr. Michael DeBakey, a Lebanese American, invented the heart pump

Michael E. DeBakey, pioneering Lebanese-American cardiovascular surgeon and researcher, invented the heart pump, 1963 Lasker Award laureate (Lebanese)

Farouk El-Baz Egyptian-American space scientist who worked with NASA to assist in the planning of scientific exploration of the Moon (Egyptian)

Engineering/Computer Science

Elias Zerhouni, former director of the National Institutes of Health (Algerian)

Hany Farid, Professor of computer science at Dartmouth College, a pioneer in Digital forensics (Egyptian)


Dr. Edward Said, Palestinian American, founder of post-colonial academic studies

Fouad Ajami, Professor of International Relations (Lebanese)

Samih Farsoun, a sociology professor at the American University (Lebanese)

Laura Nader, cultural anthropologist (Lebanese)

Edward Said, Palestinian-American literary theorist and former professor at Columbia University (Palestinian)

Lila Abu-Lughod, professor of Anthropology and Women’s and Gender Studies at Columbia University (Palestinian)

Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University (Palestinian).

University Presidents

Northeastern president Joseph Aoun

Mitch Daniels, President of Purdue University (Syrian)

Donna Shalala, Former President of the University of Miami (Lebanese)

Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University (Lebanese)


Steve Jobs, Syrian American, founder of Apple

Mohamed A. El-Erian, CEO, and co-CIO of PIMCO (Egyptian)

Najeeb Halaby, former head of Federal Aviation Administration and CEO of Pan-American Airlines, and father of Queen Noor of Jordan, deceased (Syrian)

Steve Jobs, head of Apple, deceased (Syrian)

Arts and Entertainment

Former NPR radio host Diane Rehm

William Peter Blatty, Academy Award-winning screenwriter, and writer (Lebanese)

Casey Kasem, radio personality and voice actor, co-founder of American Top 40 franchise (Lebanese)

Diane Rehm, former host and executive producer of The Diane Rehm Show on National Public Radio, (Syrian-Lebanese)


Rami Malek, Egyptian America, Oscar winner for ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’

Tony Shalhoub, three-time Emmy Award-winning television actor on Monk, The Band’s Visit (Lebanese) —F. Murray Abraham, Academy Award-winning actor for his role in Amadeus, (Syrian)

Danny Thomas, Emmy Award-winning actor, founder of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital (Lebanese)

Rami Malek, Emmy Award and Academy Award-winning actor for Bohemian Rhapsody (Egyptian)

Kristy McNichol, two-time Emmy Award-winning actress, (Lebanese)

Jamie Farr, character actor, MASH TV show, (Lebanese}

Rose Abdoo, comedian, actress (Lebanese)


Dean Obeidallah, stand-up comedian, writer, (Palestinian)

Aron Kader, stand-up comedian, (Palestinian)

Fashion Designer

Joseph Abboud, menswear fashion designer and author (Lebanese)


Pop vocalist Shakira

Paul Anka legendary singer/songwriter (Syrian-Lebanese)

Frank Zappa, musician, part Lebanese father (Lebanese)

Shakira, singer, songwriter, dancer, record producer, choreographer, and model (Lebanese)

Tiffany, born Tiffany Renee Darwish, singer (Lebanese)

Tiny Tim (born Herbert Khoury), musician (Lebanese)

Soraya, singer/songwriter (Lebanese)

Emilio Estefan, Cuban-born, manager, and producer of wife Gloria Estefan (Lebanese)

Paula Abdul, singer, musician, writer, actress, and television personality (Syrian)


Khalil Gibran, writer, poet, and member of the New York Pen League; the third-best-selling poet of all time (Lebanese)

William Peter Blatty, American writer best known for his 1971 horror novel The Exorcist (Lebanese)

Edward Said, literary theorist, thinker, and the founder of the academic field of postcolonial studies (Palestinian)

Media and Journalism

Helen Thomas reporter, columnist, and White House correspondent (Lebanese)

Hala Gorani journalist and anchor of CNN’s International Desk; Levantine Cultural Center (Syrian)

Anthony Shadid, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, foreign correspondent (Lebanese)

Hoda Kotb broadcast journalist and TV host on Dateline NBC and the Today Show (Egyptian)

Jim Avila, a correspondent for ABC News “20/20” (Lebanese)

Fawaz Gerges, ABC analyst and regular guest on “Oprah’s Anti-war series” (Lebanese)


Sen. George Mitchell, Lebanese American-Senate Leader Peace Broker for the Irish Problem

James Abourezk, U.S. Senator (D-South Dakota) (1973–1979) (Lebanese)

Spencer Abraham, U.S. Secretary of Energy (2001–2005) and U.S. Senator (R-Mich.) Secretary of Energy under Bush (1995–2001) (Lebanese)

Philip Charles Habib, Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs and Special Envoy to Ronald Reagan (Lebanese)

Lisa Halaby (a.k.a. Queen Noor), Queen-consort of Jordan and wife of King Hussein of Jordan (Syrian)

Darrell Issa, U.S. Congressman (R-California) (2001–) (Lebanese)

Ray LaHood, U.S. Congressman (R-Illinois) (1995–2009), U.S. Secretary of Transportation (2009–2013) (Lebanese and Jordanian)

George J. Mitchell, U.S. Senator (D-Maine) (1980–1995) the United States of America special envoy to the Middle East under the Obama administration, U.S. senator from Maine, Senate Majority Leader (Lebanese)

Ralph Nader, politician and consumer advocate, author, lecturer, and attorney, candidate for US Presidency (Lebanese)

Ilhan Omar, American politician serving as the U.S. Representative from Minnesota (Somalia/Yemen)

–Rashida Harbi Tlaib, American politician and lawyer serving as the U.S. Representative for Michigan’s 13th congressional district since 2019 (Palestine)

Dina Powell, current U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategy (Egyptian)

Donna Shalala, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (1993–2001) (Lebanese)

John E. Sununu, U.S. Senator (R-New Hampshire) (2003–2009) (Lebanese and Palestinian)

John H. Sununu, Governor of New Hampshire (R) (1983–1989) and Chief of Staff to George H.W. Bush (Lebanese and Palestinian)

James Zogby, founder, and president of the Arab American Institute (Lebanese)

These Arab Americans in total represent a huge contribution to the economic, cultural, political and artistic life of the country. Given the relatively small proportion of Arabs in the overall U.S. population (just over 1%), as we’ve noted, these women and men have made and continue to make an invaluable imprint on the society. If anything, given this long list of Arab American notables, at least savor the pride of having so many “kinsmen and kinswomen” of Arab descent who have done so much for their country.

…And then came the Muslim Ban

Executive Order 13769, titled “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States,” also known as the Muslim ban or travel ban, was an executive order by United States President Donald Trump.

As if to upset the fine record of Arab immigration to the U.S. over two-plus centuries, the June 26, 2017 ruling by the Supreme Court to uphold President Trump’s ban on Muslim travel from six majority-Muslim countries to the U.S. is troubling not only for Muslims in the U.S. and those abroad, but also for Americans of whatever stripe. While not expressing any views on the “merits of the ban,” the Supreme Court in effect abrogated the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment of the Constitution. This clause prohibits the government from making any law “respecting an establishment of religion.” It not only forbids the government from establishing an official religion but also prohibits government actions that unduly favor one religion over another. So much for Supreme Court judgment!

This ban was engineered by the Trump administration to castigate all Muslims by stereotyping them as terrorists. Muslims, whether those residing here or trying to immigrate here, are lumped by Trump and his shrinking voting base into categories such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. To believe that the pure lust for political power and reelection is manipulated so as to blot out an entire people and their religion seems somehow beyond belief.

The practical effects of the ban are upsetting to Muslims here and overseas. First, they are insulted by an American president who openly discriminates against their faith and who puts in place policies that support such bigotry. It results in separating Muslims living in the U.S. and their family members overseas. It means that citizens and green card holders are separated indefinitely from their kinsmen and women.

…And after the U.S. government Muslim ban comes an Israel Muslim ban

U.S. Rep, Rashida Tlaib, Palestinian American–object of an Israeli ban on Muslims

Though Trump’s manipulation of Netanyahu (Bibi) as the Israeli Prime Minister runs for another term in an explosive political environment, Bibi agreed to block the visit of two U.S. House of Representative Muslim members, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar on an official Congressional visit. Tlaib’s Palestinian background in this context has rattled all political arenas because she eventually turned down Netanyahu’s offer to let her visit her grandmother in the West Bank on humanitarian grounds. Rashida canceled plans to return to Palestine at Netanyahu’s invitation, especially knowing that Trump had twisted Bibi’s arm to keep the Muslim representatives out of Israel and, thus, from the occupied Palestinian West Bank.

Trump’s game and Bibi’s agreement to ban the Muslim representatives from Israel and to visit Rashida’s aging grandmother have backfired, turning into a #MyPalestinianSitty hashtag. Sitty is colloquial for grandmother in Arabic. This has become a movement of sorts to reduce the debates over racism and anti-Semitism to focus on the important place of women, whether mothers, ‘sitties’ or grandmothers in recalling the importance of the role of women in reinforcing society’s values. Tlaib responded to Bibi’s invitation, saying, “Visiting my grandmother under these oppressive conditions meant to humiliate me would break my grandmother’s heart.”

We’ve come from an expansive list of important Arab Americans who’ve contributed significantly to American society over a century and more, to #MyPalestinianSitty. The juxtaposition of the proud contributions to America by a people from all over the Middle East and North Africa, collectively known as Arabs, with the pettiness of a national leader who even tries to divide these proud people from one another, is nothing short of appalling.  


(References: Haik Joseph (1974–1975). The American Arabic speaking community almanac. Los Angeles, Calif.: News Circle; Race and Arab Americans before and after 9/11: from invisible citizens to visible subjects. Jamal, Amaney A., 1970-, Naber, Nadine Christine. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press; Jump up to: Arab American Institute. 2014. Archived (PDF) from the original on 2014. Retrieved March 3, 2018; Jump up to Orfalea, Gregory (2006). Arab Americans: a history. Northampton, Mass.: Olive Branch Press; Amrit Cheng, Communications Strategist, American Civil Liberties Union; “Trump’s Travel Ban Is Upheld by Supreme Court,” New York Times, Adam Liptak and Michael D. Shear, June 26, 2018; CNN, Eliott McLaughlin, #MyPalestinianSitty, August 18, 2019.)


John Mason, an anthropologist specializing in Arab culture and its diverse populations, is the author of recently-published LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, 2017, New Academia Publishing.