The Burgeoning Arab Community in the American South
By: Holly Johnson / Arab American Contributing Writer
Picture this – the year is 1931. The Empire State Building has been completed after a record 13 months, The Star-Spangled Banner has just become the national anthem, Greta Garbo is dominating the big screen, Nevada has legalized gambling, and the term “American Dream” has been published for the first time. Understandably, each of the events mentioned above made a unique impact on the American landscape and are often touted in textbooks and historical reviews. However, one equally paramount occurrence, less publicized yet remarkably significant, was the start of the Southern Federation of Syrian Lebanese American Clubs.
What is the Southern Federation of Syrian Lebanese American Clubs?
Founded in 1931 as a cultural organization for the promotion of pure Americanism, the club touted heritage, traditional fellowship, civic engagement, and culture as their guiding principles. Also, they have long been hailed as a building block for the eventual assimilation and inclusivity of Arab and American cultures. As Arab immigrants began to settle into Southern American states in the early 1900s, the burgeoning co-culture was unsettling for some who were steadfastly loyal to their centuries-old “southern traditions.” Immigrants who had traveled across the world for better opportunities were often met with curiosity, fear, and even hostility at times, as a deeply rooted fear of change manifested.
As the years progressed, Arab immigrants settled in Southern states such as Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, North and South Carolina, and Alabama. They struggled to fit into a predetermined culture, filled with those who carried their Southern heritage like a proverbial sharpened knife pointedly resting in a sling upon their backs, unwilling to welcome change and diversity into their comforting cocoon. However, because of inspirational organizations such as the Southern Federation of Syrian Lebanese American Clubs, uncertainty grew to acceptance, acceptance grew to respect, and eventually, respect grew to love.
Life was challenging but full of opportunity for immigrants settling into the beautiful albeit humid Southern terrain. In Arab culture, hard work is not shied away from, and an overwhelming desire to keep one’s face in interpersonal situations is common. Therefore, the inability to truly feel not just welcomed into their new communities, but respected, was often difficult to handle, emotionally and financially. However, in a time when one has been stripped of the materialistic and geographic comforts of days gone by, solace can be found by establishing relationships with those who share a sense of identity, experiences, and values.
Organizations such as the Southern Federation of Syrian Lebanese Americans Club did just that, providing a pathway to establishing shared identities and aiding in the formation of countless friendships. Not only did it give newly minted Arab Americans a sense of worth through keeping the traditions of their home culture alive, but it is also helped them adjust to their new surroundings and societal expectations. In time, organizations such as the Syrian Club even helped establish acceptance between immigrants and prideful Southerners.
The Arab community booms
From the 1950s to the 1990s, as numbers of immigrants migrating to the United States continued to rise, the number of Arab Americans living in the Southern United States boomed, particularly in Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee. Often settling in metropolitan areas surrounding major hubs such as Atlanta and Miami, Arab Americans formed communities, built areas of worship, sought higher education, infused culinary masterpieces into mainstream culture. They also pursue life, liberty, and freedom amidst the cascading branches of magnolia trees and balmy river banks of the South.
As the 21st century rolled in, diversity seemed to take root in American society. Despite setbacks and hardships, acceptance has prevailed, and Arab American roots have permanently taken hold in the American South. From the streets of Atlanta, organizations such as the Atlanta Network of Young Arab Americans work to provide young adults a safe space where their heritage can be celebrated, while festivals such as the Atlanta Arab Festival draw thousands of Georgians who wish to learn more about this fascinating culture.
In Miami, restaurants featuring shawarma and kebabs can be found on most street corners and institutes that work to teach the Arabic language to English speakers are encouraged. Meanwhile, on the bustling streets of Nashville, lined with partygoers donning the bluest pair of jeans, diversity in faith is welcomed as mosques continue to spring up among pearly white steeples. Even higher learning institutions have welcomed diversity, as celebrated universities such as Vanderbilt focus on providing multicultural education and acceptance in their curricula.
In keeping with the old adage, southern hospitality is abundant in the modern-day South, continuing the centuries-old tradition of warmth and friendliness. However, a charming mix of accents, identities, and values can easily be found now when walking tree-lined streets, as once stifled cities have become transient hubs. As I sit on my sun-streaked patio writing this article, enjoying the stereotypical glass of sweet tea, I am proud to call the willowy meadows of the diverse South, home.
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