The Michigan Arab American Community
The Greater Detroit area is home to one of the largest, oldest and most diverse Arab American communities in the United States.
Why Did They Come to Michigan?
The first Arab Americans to immigrate to Detroit were the Syrian/Lebanese in the late I880’s. The early wave of Syrian/Lebanese sold goods door-to-door as peddlers and sought jobs in the auto factories when Henry Ford, the pioneering automobile entrepreneur offered $5.00 a day. A story has been told and passed for generations that a Yemeni sailor met Henry Ford in the early 1900’s. That early encounter began a chain migration of Yemenis to Detroit.
- The earliest wave dates from 1890 to 1912. As with the national pattern, the earliest Arab migrants to the Detroit area were Syrian/Lebanese Christians. The first Arab immigrants to Detroit were Syrian/Lebanese men seeking employment. Many of them settled and worked on the east side in close proximity to the Jefferson Avenue auto plant.
- The first Muslims settled in Highland Park near the Ford Motor company Model T plant where many of them worked. The first Palestinians arrived between 1908 and 1913 and were Muslim.
- Chaldeans first came to Detroit between 1910 and 1912, before the establishment of modern Iraq as a state.
- Although some Yemenis arrived in the Detroit area as early as 1900, they established a real presence in the Detroit area between 1920-25.
Diversity in the Michigan 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 and the Greater Detroit area are from a select group of Arab countries.
The earliest Arab immigrants to Detroit were Syrian/Lebanese Christians from the Mount Lebanon area. The later Lebanese immigrants were Shi’a from villages in the South of Lebanon. The majority of the later Lebanese immigrants come from the villages of Bint Jebail and Tibnin, others from Deir Mimas etc.
Many Chaldeans do not self-identify as Arab Americans but their story as a minority population in the Arab world is very similar to other Arab Americans. Almost all of the Chaldeans that immigrated to the Greater Detroit area came from the village of Tel Kaif and some 16 nearby villages in the mountains of northern Iraq. They are speakers of modern Aramaic (the language spoken by Jesus) and the majority belongs to the eastern rite Catholic Chaldean church.
Among the most recent arrivals to Michigan’s Arab-American population are sizable numbers of Iraqi refugees. The majority of these refugees are Shi’a from the South and Kurds and others from Northern Iraq. They were expelled from Iraq and many of them found themselves in refugee camps in Turkey and in Saudi Arabia. The United States allowed approximately 3000 new Iraqi immigrants to the US following the first Gulf War, however today it is increasingly difficult for Iraqis to immigrate.
The majority of Palestinian Americans in Metropolitan Detroit are from villages and small towns in the West bank. Sizable numbers of Palestinian Americans in Detroit are Christian. The largest concentration of Palestinian-Americans in the area is in Livonia. The first Palestinians in the Greater Detroit area arrived in the early 1890’s, but the bulk came after the Arab-Israeli wars of 1948 and 1967.
The largest concentration of Yemeni in the Greater Detroit area is in the Southend of Dearborn, with another smaller concentration in Hamtramck. Some Yemenis have worked in the Ford Rouge plant and related automobile industry since the early 1900’s. But they did not start settling permanently until the mid 1960’s. After 1967, Yemenis began bringing their families, and the Yemeni Southend community was established as a result.
Because Arab Americans are not officially recognized as a federal minority group, it is hard to determine the exact number of Arab Americans in Michigan. The estimates range from 409,000 to 490,000 based on information from the Michigan Health Department and the Zogby International polls respectively. In the Greater Detroit area, estimates range from 300,000 to 350,000. While the latest Zogby polls rank Michigan’s Arab-American population as second largest in the US, after California, Michigan’s Arab-American community in Southeast Michigan still has the greatest local concentration (California’s Arab-American population is much more spread out). The Greater Detroit area hosts a diverse population of Arab Americans. Arab Americans are believed to be the third largest ethnic population in the state of Michigan.
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|
Arab Americans in Michigan
- According to the U.S. Census, the Michigan Arab American community grew by more than 65% between 1990 and 2000-more than double since 1980.
- 66% of the community identifies having either Lebanese or Iraqi/Chaldean heritage along with sizable numbers of Palestinian/Jordanian and Yemeni Americans.
- More than 80% of Arab Americans reside in Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.
- 1/3 of the city of Dearborn claims Arab heritage.
Michigan Arab American Nationality Groups
|Nationality Group||Population Estimates|
|(Outside greater Detroit)||25,000|
Arab American Religion
- The Arab American community is religiously diverse.
- Almost every major religion is represented in the Arab American community.
- Christians: Maronite Catholic, Melkite Catholic, Syrian Catholic, Chaldean Catholic, Roman Catholic, Antiochian Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Coptic Orthodox, Protestant
- Muslims: Sunni, Shia and Druze
Arab American Education
- Arab Americans with at least a high school diploma number 85%
- More than 4 out of 10 Arab Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher.
- 17% of Arab Americans have a post-graduate degree which is nearly twice the American average (9%).
- Of the school age population, 13% are in pre-school, 58% are in elementary or high school, 22% are enrolled in college and 7% are in graduate school.
Arab American Income
- Median income for Arab American households in 1999 was $47,000 compared with $42,000 for all households in the U.S.
- Approximately 30% have an annual household income of more than $75,000 compared to 22% of all households in the U.S.
- Mean income for Arab American households measures at 8% higher than the national average of $56,644.
- Arab American incomes are 22% higher than the U.S. national average.
Rosina Hassoun, Ph.D. contributed to this section.
See “Arab Americans in Michigan 2005”
East Lansing: Michigan State University Press 2005
(part of the “Discovering the People of Michigan” series)
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