Hidden Histories: Arab Americans

Photograph shows children of immigrants from Greater Syria, now Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, or Palestine, playing game on a sidewalk in New York City as others watch from the Library of Congress

By Abeer Ramadan-Shinnawi, Program Director, Re-Imagining Migration

Civic Issue/Background:

Arab Americans reflect a diverse community that spans religion, cultural norms, and dialects that have shaped their identities in the United States. Arabs have been migrating to the United States since the mid 1800s. Many of the immigrants who came to the country came for the same reasons as other immigrants before them: fleeing religious persecution, political turmoil, famine or just a new lease on life. In 1909, Arab Americans won a case in court to change their classification on the Census from “asian” to “white”.

Today, many in the Arab American community are trying to reverse the classification of the U.S. Census to provide better access to health care and resources that are unique to the Arab American community. Although the U.S. Census plans to include a category for MENA (Middle Eastern North Africa) in the next census, many in the community still debate if the category would benefit or hinder the Arab American community. 

Connection to the Re-Imagining Migration Learning Arc: 

This lesson connects to the Understanding Migration and Turning to Action sections of the Re-Imagining Migration Learning Arc.

  • In what ways do societal, political, and environmental forces/challenges influence the decision to migrate?
  • How might the environment in the new land help or hinder newcomers’ inclusion?
  • How might newcomers and the receiving community balance their identities, cultural values, and world views as they interact with one another?
  • What can we learn from individuals and groups who have addressed civic issues related migration in the past?

Teaching Objectives and Learning Outcomes:

  • Compare and contrast the experiences of Arab immigrants to other immigrant communities.
  • Analyze primary and secondary sources to discuss bias towards immigrants in the media.
  • Discuss how food can help understand a culture and its communities. 

Resources for the Lesson:

Essential and Guiding Questions

  • How does the Arab immigrant experience compare to other immigrant
    experiences in the United States? 
  • How did their identity shape how the dominant communities reacted?
    How did that influence the Arab American identity?  
  • What can people learn from food and cultural adaptations immigrant
    communities develop when they settle in the United States?
  • How did migration patterns of Arab Americans influence the communities
    they lived in? 

Teaching Ideas:

  • To begin, ask students to read the court case from the Arab Historical Foundation   to understand Arabs are considered racially labeled as “white” on the census. Then ask students to reflect on the following questions:
    • What do we learn about this court case about how communities are perceived? 
    • How do labels impact individuals and groups?  When are labels helpful? When are they harmful? 
    • In what ways was labeling Arabs white helpful? In what ways might it have been harmful? 
  • Jigsaw: To help students learn about the diversity of Arab Americans, divide students into groups of 3. Each group will be assigned to review the information for one of the topics listed. Have students use the Stories learning routine to uncover the complexity of Arab American identities and experiences.
  • Regroup students to original table groups. Have students discuss their notes and perspectives then have students as a group complete a Connect-Extend-Challenge to share what they learned from their reading. 
  • Conclude by asking students:
    • What did they learn from this inquiry?
    • What more would they like to know about?
    • How can they extend their knowledge?