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The Illinois Arab American Community

The State of Illinois is home to a large and diverse Arab American community, boasting one of the largest populations of Arab Americans in the United States. Arab Americans in Illinois are represented by many different nationalities with different waves of immigration dating back to the 1880s. Arab migration to the United States and Illinois increased between 1890 and 1921, until overseas migration to the United States was halted by immigration quotas.

Diversity in the Arab-American Population

There are 22 Arab countries, including Palestine, which are members of the Arab League and share a common history, language and culture-the immigrants who migrated to America are from a select group of Arab countries.



Lebanese immigration to Chicago can be seen in two large waves. The first wave of immigration to Chicago lasted from the 1880s to World War I. These immigrants were mainly peasants, artisans, and entrepreneurs and in 1913, the community consisted of 3,000 with the residential core of the Syrian-Lebanese community located between 12th and 15th Streets and California and Kedzie Avenues.

The second large wave of Lebanese immigration consisted of those escaping political and economic turmoil beginning with the Lebanese civil war. Lebanese immigration to Chicago rose dramatically and while the first wave of immigrants had been mainly Roman Catholic, the immigration of Lebanese during the civil war stretched over a variety of religious affiliations. The later immigration also consisted of a large population of students coming to Chicago in search of professional degrees.


Palestinians began migrating to Chicago in the late nineteenth century. Early Palestinian immigration consisted of mainly young men living in all-male boardinghouses near 18th and Michigan or behind the growing number of retail shops owned by Palestinians. Though Palestinians only represented 1% of the city’s population, by the 1970s nearly 20 percent of small retail stores were owned by Palestinians. The majority of Chicago Palestinians come from Beitunia and Ramallah, two adjacent cities. The 1980s found significant populations of Palestinian families moving to the southwest suburbs including Burbank, Oak Lawn, Hickory Hills, Bridgeview, Alsip, and Palos Hills. Palestinians were the main contributors to a large mosque built in the 1970s in suburban Bridgeview.

Since the late 1960s, Palestinian migration to Chicago has increased as largely extended families from the West Bank sought refuge from the Israeli military occupation since 1967. As Israeli laws denied residency and return rights to all Palestinians living outside the West Bank in 1967, as well as those out of the area for more than three years, a refugee identity was born among Palestinians in Chicago. Estimates state that the population of Palestinians grew to 85,000 by 1995 and that Palestinians from about 60 percent of Chicago’s Arab population.


Egyptians constituted just over 10,000 of the 150,000 Arab Americans living in Chicago with their immigration beginning during the mid 1950s. The initial wave of Egyptian immigration to Chicago consisted of urban, Christian professionals. In the 1960s, a small number of Egyptian students came to Chicago for graduate studies in engineering and other fields, choosing to stay in Chicago after finishing their studies. Egyptian immigration stayed low until the June 1967 war, as jobs became scarcer in Egypt, Christian and Muslim immigrants came to Chicago to seek employment. Since the early 1970s, Egyptian immigration has remained steady as Egyptians continue to pursue graduate education and employment opportunities in Chicago.



Arab Americans are not officially recognized as a federal minority group and because of this, reporting numbers are almost never exact. Reports of the population of Arab Americans in Chicago range from 50,000 to 160,000 based on Ancestry Reported Census 2000 and Zogby International Estimates. However estimates have gone as high as 220,000 according to the Arab-American Institute and 170,000 in the city of Chicago itself.

Arab Americans in Illinois

  • According to the U.S. Census, the Illinois Arab American community grew by more than 41% between 2000 and 2008-tripled since 1980.
  • The Chicago area is home to one of the largest Palestinian communities in the country and a community of Assyrians, Jordanians as well as an older Lebanese and Syrian population.
  • 42 of the 57 counties contain Arab Americans with more than ¾ residing in Cook and Dupage counties.

Arab American Origins

  • The Arab World includes 22 countries stretching from North Africa in the west to the Arabian Gulf in the east.
  • Arabs are ethnically, religiously and politically diverse but descend from a common linguistic and cultural heritage.
  • Not all Arabs are Muslim.
  • Not all Muslims are Arab.
  • Arab Americans began arriving to the United States during the late 19th century and early 20th century.

Arab American Population

  • Today there are over 3.5 million Arab Americans in the U.S.
  • About one of every three Arab Americans lives in one of the nation’s six largest metropolitan areas.
  • About 90 percent live in urban areas.
  • 66 percent of Arab Americans live in 10 states.
  • 33 percent live in California, Michigan and New York/New Jersey.
  • The cities with largest Arab American populations are Los Angeles, Detroit, New York, Chicago and Washington, D.C.

U.S. Arab American Population

Nationality Group Population Estimates
Lebanese/Syrian 1,600,000
Palestinian/Jordanian 180,000
Egyptian 360,000
Iraqi 160,000
Moroccan 100,000
Other 600,000
Total 3,000,000

Selected References:

  • Cainkar, Louise. “Palestinians.” Encyclopedia of Chicago.
  • “Detailed State Profiles.” The Arab American Institute.
  • Greene, Daniel. “Egyptians.” Encyclopedia of Chicago.
  • Gualtieri, Sarah. “Lebanese.” Encyclopedia of Chicago.
  • Hanania, Ray. “Introduction to Chicago’s Arab American Community.”American Arab Networking: Journalism, News Media, Radio, TV Networking, Print, Peace Activism.