Written by Said Kabalan
ARAB AMERICANS – The Encyclopedia of Cleveland History
ARAB AMERICANS. Cleveland’s Arab population, although among the smaller ethnic groups, has a clear identity and historical development since Arabs began arriving here in the 19th century. In 1995 there were approx. 35,000 Americans of Arab descent in Greater Cleveland. The term Arab requires clarification. As with most peoples, language is the defining factor; an Arab-American is one whose ancestral tongue is Arabic. But unlike many nationalities, whose members trace their origins to a single country or province, Arab immigrants have come from a large region of western Asia and northern Africa comprising 22 countries. Most Arab immigrants to Cleveland, however, like those to the rest of the U.S., came from Greater Syria. The Arab world, although predominantly Muslim, has a significant Christian minority, and most of the earlier Arab immigrants were Christian, learning about the U.S. from American Protestant missionaries in the 19th century. However, adherents of the various branches of Islam, including the Druze, also came. It was ca. 1875 when Arab immigrants began entering the U.S. in significant numbers. Most made a living peddling dry goods; many subsequently became storekeepers, importers, and manufacturers. This initial wave of immigration lasted until the Quota Acts of 1921-24 drastically restricted the entry of many nationalities, including Arabs, into the country.
Rather than being driven from the Old World by oppression and starvation, Arabs were drawn to America by economic opportunity; many originally planned to return home after making their fortunes. The political destabilization in the Near East with the approach of World War I, and some dissatisfaction with the hegemony of the Turkish Ottoman Empire, provided additional but secondary incentives for going abroad. The first Arab immigrant to arrive in Cleveland, about 100 years ago, is said to have been a peddler from the East Coast. The city annual report first recorded Arab immigrants in Cleveland in 1895, listing 12 individuals. That source indicates that between 1895-1907, 241 Arab immigrants came to Cleveland, the majority men who worked as peddlers, factory laborers, or in construction. Many, after saving enough money, established small businesses, particularly grocery stores, fruit stands, restaurants, dry goods stores, and contracting firms. Increasingly, they brought wives, children, and other family members to the U.S., especially around World War I. The U.S. census of 1910 listed 497 individuals under the category “Turkey in Asia” (Asian subjects of the Ottoman Empire, most of whom were Arab); in 1920, the number was 1,320. Nearly all of these immigrants came from Syria, especially from that part which today is the separate country of Lebanon. In Cleveland they initially settled in the Haymarket district and across the CENTRAL VIADUCT in TREMONT. However, as they and their descendants prospered, they moved to various areas of Cleveland and its suburbs. The U.S. Census, figures for individuals from Syria and Palestine were 1,180 in 1930 and 1,068 in 1940, probably indicating movement out of Cleveland proper rather than a decrease in the area’s Arab population. Partially because of this quick dispersal into the American mainstream, characteristic of Arab immigration to the U.S., and partially because of the relatively small number of people involved compared to such groups as the ITALIANS, POLES, andHUNGARIANS, no real Arab neighborhood developed in Cleveland.
The second large wave of Arab immigrants came to Cleveland after the founding of Israel in 1948 and consisted primarily of displaced Palestinian Arabs. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank of the Jordan River, the Jawlon Hts. of Syria, and the Sinai Peninsula of Egypt after the Six Day War of 1967, ensured that the immigration would continue. Intercommunal strife and, after 1975, civil war in Lebanon spurred a new Lebanese migration as well. In addition, a number of students from Arab countries enrolled at Cleveland universities, becoming at least temporary members of the Arab community. By 1960 Cleveland’s Arab population had increased to 1,841, with most individuals coming from Lebanon, Egypt, the occupied west bank of Palestine, and Syria. The figure for 1970 was 832, reflecting the general decline in Cleveland’s population during the period. However, by 1990 over 900 Arab immigrants lived in Cleveland, bearing witness to a new influx from the Middle East. Many of the new arrivals chose to live on the city’s west side, and by the mid-1990s a number of small food shops and restaurants serving the Arab community were located along Lorain Ave., west of W. 117th St. Estimates for the total number of Arab-Americans (including individuals of American birth and mixed parentage) residing in Greater Cleveland during the 1970s and 1980s varied from 15,000 to 35,000. This more recent wave of Arab immigration differed from the earlier one. First, the motivation was often political rather than economic, with at least some of the immigrants planning to return home when conditions permitted. Second, these later immigrants were on the average better-educated; many came with the education and experience to enter academia and the professions, or with sufficient funds to start small businesses. Third, the religious background of the new immigrants was more varied, with more Muslims, as well as Coptic Christians from Egypt.
Religious institutions provided the primary medium of self-identification for the Cleveland Arab community, lacking as it did a specific neighborhood or great numbers, and tending as it did toward assimilation. The Syrian Christian groups established their own churches early on, in 1906 founding ST. ELIAS CHURCH (Byzantine Catholic), initially serving all Arabic-speaking Cleveland Christians; then establishing ST. MARON (Maronite Catholic), whose parish, was created in 1915. The other important Syrian rite, the Antiochian Orthodox, did not officially found its church, ST. GEORGE ANTIOCHIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH, until 1926, although the Arab Orthodox community had conducted services in several locations, including GRAYS ARMORY, for several years. In 1928 the congregation purchased and opened a church at 2587 W. 14th St. in Cleveland. The Druze community in Cleveland has no organized place of worship; however, its religious society, Al-Bakorat Ud-Durziet, was founded in 1916 to provide spiritual and material aid to the Druze community, and its membership embraces all persons of the Druze faith in the Cleveland area. The ISLAMIC CENTER OF CLEVELAND of Cleveland was founded in 1967 to serve the area’s Muslims, many of whom were of Palestinian origin. In 1995 the center built a new mosque in PARMA. The latest of the Arab community’s religious groups was the Coptic Christian church. With Egyptians having migrated to Cleveland in significant numbers only after the middle of the 20th century, it was not until 1971 that a Coptic church, St. Mark Coptic Orthodox, was officially established, and not until 1975 that its first full-time pastor (Fr. Mikhail E. Mikhail) was appointed. St. Mark, located in Parma, serves the Coptic Christians not only of Cleveland but of Ohio and the surrounding region as well.
The Cleveland Arab community has also founded social, political, and other clubs, although relatively few compared to other ethnic groups of similar size. Among the earliest organizations, dating from the 1930s or before, were the AITANEET BROTHERHOOD ASSN., the Zahle Club, the Syrian Boys Club, the Syrian American Club, and the LEBANESE-SYRIAN JUNIOR WOMEN’S LEAGUE. Clubs whose memberships had roots in a certain village or city, such as the Aitaneet Brotherhood, were founded by immigrants with strong ties to the homeland; thus, the more recent American Ramallah Club, a Palestinian organization. Other social and cultural clubs included the ARAB SOCIAL CLUB, Arabian Nights, and the Union of Arab Women; service organizations include the Stars of Lebanon Christian Society and local chapters of the American Lebanese-Syrian Associated Charities and the United Holy Land Fund. The most noteworthy development of the post-1965 period was the growth of political and educational organizations in response to events in the Near East and their coverage in the American news media and policies of the U.S. government, both widely perceived as anti-Arab. In the late 1960s, the Middle East Relief Committee began raising donations to aid Palestinian refugees, and subsequently, as the Cleveland Middle East Foundation, involved itself, apolitically, in welfare and educational activities both at home and overseas. The Cleveland Council on Arab-American Relations was founded as a political organization in the early 1970s, changing, its name to the Greater Cleveland Assn. of Arab-Americans in 1973; it became closely associated with the Natl. Assn. of Arab-Americans, established to give Arab-Americans a national political voice. In Dec. 1991 AACCESS-OHIO (the Arab American Community Center for Economic & Social Services in Ohio) was established to provide a variety of services to the Arab American community and to promote a better understanding of Arab culture by the general community.
Typically, Arab immigrants to the U.S. have tended to assimilate easily into the American mainstream. What ethnic self-awareness there was tended to be fragmented. The Arab-Israeli conflict, and its repercussions in the U.S., have perhaps done more to forge a heightened sense of common identity among Arab-Americans than anything else. Whether overseas rivalries within the Arab bloc and internal sectarian conflicts, especially in Lebanon, will be reflected here in new divisiveness within the Arab community, or whether the centripetal force of a common linguistic and cultural heritage will be strong enough to withstand such tendencies, remains a question for the future, which the size and composition of future Arab immigration to Cleveland will undoubtedly help determine.
Macron, Mary Haddad. Arab Americans and their Communities of Cleveland (1979).
Last Modified: 10 Jul 1997 02:03:47 PM