On the last day of March, President Joe Biden issued a statement proclaiming April National Arab American Heritage Month. This month marks the seventh annual Arab American Heritage Month since the Arab America Foundation began the initiative in 2017.
“This month, we join together to celebrate the immeasurable contributions of Arab Americans to our nation and recommit ourselves to the timeless work of making sure that all people have the opportunity to achieve the American dream. I call upon all Americans to learn more about the history, culture, and achievements of Arab Americans and to observe this month with appropriate programs and activities,” Biden said in the statement.
Nearly 3.7 million Americans have roots in an Arab country
According to the Arab American Institute, nearly 3.7 million Americans have roots in an Arab country, with most hailing from Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Iraq.
Abed Awad, who serves on the board of directors of the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, told The Media Line that the celebration of Arab American Heritage Month marks a significant step forward in cementing the community’s place in US society.
“This celebration means a lot to us as Americans of Arab roots,” Awad said. “It represents an acknowledgment of our identity and our contributions to building American society in all its fields, from economy, culture, [and] music, to food, which is an integral part of the American fabric.”
With the recognition of Arab American Heritage Month, “my great culture and heritage that became one of the greatest civilizations in history are finally being recognized,” Awad said.
For Seham Kassim, a first-generation Arab American and a nursing student at MidAmerica Nazarene University in Kansas, being Arab American is a constantly evolving identity.
Born in the US to Palestinian parents, Seham says she grew up in a home that had respect for Arab traditions but was able to embrace America at the same time.
"Each side has taught me various values that I am very proud to hold. My Palestinian roots, I hold near and dear to my heart as most of it was unraveled to me by my family. While I rarely go back and visit the homeland, my family – specifically my grandma – ensured my childhood was saturated with Arab traditions,” Seham said. She pointed to the Arabic language, Arab foods and music, and a sense of hospitality as aspects of Arab culture that shaped her upbringing.
While I rarely go back and visit the homeland, my family – specifically my grandma – ensured my childhood was saturated with Arab traditions.”Seham Kassim
While most of her Arab identity stemmed from her family, Seham said that her identity as an American was mostly shaped by her peers.
“My American side deeply stems from not only the way of life here but also what my peers have instilled in me. I have learned to cherish a private way of life,” she said. “It has instilled a system of discipline within me, filled with rewards with each new success I reach. I guess my American side of me resonates deeply with new opportunities.”
Growing up Arab in a suburb of Kansas City was not easy, Seham said. According to the Kansas City Area Development Council, about 17,000 Arab Americans live in the Kansas City metropolitan area, making the Arab American community about 1% of the total population.
Seham struggled to feel that she belonged and struggled to integrate the different parts of her identity.
“I felt this pressure of always being forced to identify with one side more so than the other,” she said. “I felt like I was leading two separate lives with my Arab side representing my home and my American side representing my school or work. What made it harder was trying to find a sense of that Arab culture in America.”
For Abear Awad, whose parents immigrated to the US from a Palestinian village in the 1950s, being Arab American is a source of pride.
“It expresses who I am – the importance of my culture, which can be traced to how I was raised and how I was motivated to be the best Arab-American version of myself,” she said.
Awad said that she was glad to see America celebrating Arab American Heritage Month. As Arab Americans, she said, “we made, and continue to make, substantial contributions to our society, country, and nation. From medicine, arts, food, [and] law to business and everything in between, Arab Americans have left their mark on America. To have a month to recognize and celebrate our contributions to making America better is amazing.”
Famous Arab Americans
Some of the most famous Arab Americans include Danny Thomas, a philanthropist who founded the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, scientist Farouk El-Baz, who worked with NASA to plan the Apollo 11 moon landing, and best-selling poet Kahlil Gibran.
Younger generations may be more familiar with Lebanese American designer Reem Acra and Egyptian American actor Rami Malek.
Arab Americans have made significant contributions to the fields of science and economics. Palestinian American Nujoud Merancy is one of the lead astronauts working on NASA’s 2024 Artemis mission to the moon. Political activist Ralph Nader, who is Lebanese American, founded several organizations, including the Public Interest Research Group, to help improve product safety and consumer rights.
More Arab Americans are also taking to politics, with seven Arab Americans currently serving in the House of Representatives as well as numerous others serving in state and local positions.
“Anti-Arab strains in American history are well known. From Hollywood movies depicting the Arab sheik as a villain in the 1930s to [depicting Arabs as] a terrorist since then, Arabs have faced racism and discrimination.”Abed Awad
While the visibility of the Arab American community has increased, Arab Americans still face many challenges, including discrimination. Since the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, many Arab Americans have faced profiling and surveillance from law enforcement agencies, sometimes resulting in harassment, detention, and deportation.
Arab Americans are also sometimes viewed as a monolithic group, without accounting for the numerous countries of origin, religious backgrounds, and histories that make up the Arab American community.
“Arab Americans have faced many challenges,” Abed Awad said. “Anti-Arab strains in American history are well known. From Hollywood movies depicting the Arab sheik as a villain in the 1930s to [depicting Arabs as] a terrorist since then, Arabs have faced racism and discrimination.”
“I experienced this racism and prejudice in my life at college and in my professional career. I had an attorney once tell me to go back to Saudi Arabia. I reported him to the ethics committee. Arab Americans are very successful at fighting back against discrimination,” he said.