Building the Arab American Bridge

James Zogby’s Column

It was 80 years ago this summer that my father, then 25 years old, left Lebanon to come to the United States. He was only able to return once, in 1955, before he passed away in 1961.

It was 10 years later, in 1971, at the age of 25, that I retraced his journey back to the hills of Kesserwan with my wife, Eileen, and my one-year-old son, Joseph. Standing in front of what remained of my father’s house-a one room stone structure built into the side of the wadi that forms the center of Kfartay, I felt rooted in that place that defined my origins.

I never forget the importance of that experience. In a real sense, I have always seen the trajectory of my life beginning with my father in Kfartay.

The connections I have felt with Lebanon and the Arab world, as a whole, started with the venture in 1971. And it did not end there. The experience transformed me and shaped my life’s work.

I was able to bring my wife and five grown children to Kfartay in 1996. A few years later I accompanied my brother John to Lebanon. He, in turn, was able to bring his wife and three sons there in 1999.

And this year, we embarked on a venture to bring even more of our extended family to Lebanon and the Arab world.

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I am writing as we have just returned. My brother, sister Selwa and I and twenty other relatives have come back from a family visit to Egypt and Lebanon. For most members of the group it was their first visit to the region. It was a remarkable and memorable journey, a defining moment for the entire group. And it provided an important lesson, we should all learn.

We met cousins and aunts we didn’t know we had. We heard stories we hadn’t heard before. We saw the houses and villages of our fathers and mothers, about which we had only dreamed. And we came away rooted in an experience of our families’ past and a connection to the reality of our Lebanese family of the present. It was transformative.

I have long argued the importance of this experience for the Arab American community and for our work in the United States. To understand my point, consider the demographics of the community.

There are 3 é million Americans of Arab descent. Almost 80 percent of the three to 3.5 million Arab Americans are born in the United States and the overwhelming majority of them have never been to the Arab world.

We have succeeded in the past three decades in building a community consciousness and in organizing and establishing institutions that have given voice to our concerns. Our polling data shows that we have been somewhat successful. More than 80 percent of Arab Americans have strong feelings about their heritage and more than half report a strong emotional tie to the country of their origin. Over 90 percent support a Palestinian state, the sovereignty of Lebanon and a more balanced U.S. policy toward the Arab world. And almost one-half define themselves now as Arab Americans, in addition to a much larger percentage who also identify with their specific country of origin (Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Palestine, etc.).

But their knowledge of the region remains generalized and vague and not rooted in personal experience.

For the most part, Arab Americans are an extremely successful ethnic community, with many having excelled in business and in the culture and political life of the United States. There are two Arab Americans in the President’s cabinet, six in Congress and 400 other elected officials, judges and mayors, etc. They are well established in their communities as business leaders and professionals of all types. But, it is important to remember that 80 percent of all of them are born in the United States. And take note, my Arab readers, they do not know you and you do not know them.

There are reasons aplenty to explain this separation. Most of it has to do with the fact that most Arab Americans are descendants of the first wave of immigrants who came before 1925. The majority of this group came to the United States and could not return even to visit their homelands. Two world wars, a great depression and the struggle to establish themselves and their families in the United States exhausted their resources and their energies. Negative stereotypes of the Arab world also took their toll on this generation, as did the perceptions and the reality of instability and strife that characterized most of what is reported in the United States about the Arab world.

In any case and for whatever reasons, an entire generation of Arab Americans, the largest component group of the community, has grown to maturity never having ventured forth to the Middle East. Feelings about the region never died, but the healthy and normal synergy that connects an ethnic community with the lands of its origin never developed.

More recent immigrants from the Arab world do travel to, maintain contact with and invest in the region, but the much larger generations of those born in the United States, do not. If the community is to realize its full potential and become a bridge between the U.S. and the Arab world, this situation must be corrected-before it is too late.

American Jews, who do not come from Israel, have developed a program with the full cooperation and support of the government of Israel. It is called “Operation Birthright.” It guarantees to every American Jewish child the opportunity to travel to Israel and to develop a bond with that country.

We must do the same before it is too late. Why do I say that? Because if we wait much longer, an entire generation, the children of the first wave of Arab immigrants to America, will be gone and the connection that their children will have to the region will be even more remote and even more difficult to build upon.

Let me give just one disturbing example of the depth of this problem, from the Lebanese experience, which, after all, represents more than 60 percent of the entire Arab American community. According to our own data, more than one-half of the Lebanese and Syrians who came to the United States in the early part of the last century, lost their family names upon entry to the United States! In one bold stroke, U.S. immigration officials simply deleted their family names from their forms and left them with only their first names and their father’s names. That is why so many Arab Americans today have names like Abraham, Hanna, Thomas or Ali. In many cases these Arab Americans have forgotten or were never told their family names. They remember hearing the names of their villages or the name of an ancestor, but they do not know their own name. One more generation, and even what little they remember, will be lost.

To reestablish the bond, to connect Arab Americans to their roots and to help them develop an appreciation for their countries’ of origin and the region as a whole, action should be taken now.

Working together with leadership in the Arab world, we can begin a program to restore the synergy that has been lost. If we succeed, what will follow is expanded tourism, personal investment and a deepened sense of political connectedness.

It is an important step to take. And it is a step we must take to build our community and our bridge between the United States and the Arab world.