For this month’s diversity, equity and inclusion message, we wanted to highlight a newer cultural commemoration: Arab American Heritage Month.
This commemoration was officially recognized nationally for the first time in April 2021, following efforts by two U.S. congresswomen from Michigan, Debbie Dingell and Rashida Tlaib, a first-generation Arab American. Oregon became the second state to permanently recognize Arab American Heritage Month in July 2021.
Nationwide, nearly 4 million Americans have Arab familial roots, originating in 22 countries in the Middle East and North Africa. In Oregon, about 32,000 people have an Arab ancestry. (Read more about Arab Americans in Oregon.)
People of Arab descent have been immigrating to America since the late 1800s. Many came to the U.S. to flee religious persecution or war in their home countries. They faced hurdles to acceptance in America, and many early Arab immigrants identified themselves as “white” to gain access to American citizenship. (Read more about this history: The Story of Arab Americans’ Beginning in America)
Perspectives from OYA
A.A., 18-year-old youth at MacLaren YCF
A.A. was born in Yemen and lived there with his family until age 9, when they immigrated to the U.S. He speaks three languages: Arabic, Somali, and English. He is also a practicing Muslim.
When he was in the community, A.A. says he went to a mosque daily with family and enjoyed eating his mom’s home cooking, which included meat and potato kebabs and chicken cooked with colorful spices.
When asked what he would like others to know about Arab Americans and his people, he said, “Our country is not a terrorist country. We’re like other people. There’s always respect for each other, and we don’t treat others a different way because they’re a different color.”
He said his family left Yemen because of violence. Yemen has been experiencing a civil war since 2011. “I’m just glad my family is strong,” A.A. says. “We made it out of there. To this day, we still try to be a strong family and get past those hard times and focus on the future.”
Akech Mach, group life coordinator at MacLaren YCF
Akech was born in Sudan and moved to the U.S. in 1998. He is not of Arab ethnicity, but he says that most of Sudanese culture is dominated by Arab culture and language. He speaks three languages: Sudanese Arabic, Dinka, and English.
Akech had this to say about Arab Americans and about his home country and culture: “Most of the Arabs I have lived and crossed paths with are friendly and generous. Sudanese culture is made up of Arab and African cultures. This makes it unique in both sub-Saharan and Northern Africa. We love music and celebrating cultural/religious festivities.”
When asked about famous Arabs he admires, Akech named:
- Mohamed Wardi, a Sudanese singer, poet and songwriter
- Anwar Sadat, former Egyptian president who was also the first Muslim to win the Nobel Peace Prize
- Zeinab Badawi, a Sudanese-British TV and radio journalist at the BBC
Notable Arab Americans
Arab Americans have made numerous rich, diverse, and impactful contributions in the U.S. The Arab American National Museum website contains a wealth of information about these contributions. Here are just a few notable Arab Americans we recommend you learn more about:
- Victor Atiyeh, Oregon’s 32nd governor, was the first elected governor of Syrian descent in the United States. Gov. Atiyeh established public safety programs for the fishing and lumber trades, worked toward the designation of the Columbia River Gorge as a national scenic preservation area, and helped establish the nation’s first statewide food bank.
- Dr. Susan Ziadeh, of Palestinian-American heritage, was a U.S. ambassador to Qatar and served for 23 years with the U.S. Department of State in multiple high-level positions related to Arabian Peninsula and Near Eastern affairs.
- Luma Mufleh, a Jordanian American of Syrian descent, founded a school and a nonprofit called Fugees Family, Inc., to use soccer, education and community to empower refugee children in the U.S.
- Ahmed Zewail, is an Egyptian-American scientist known as the “father of femtochemistry,” a field that studies chemical reactions on extremely short timescales. He won the Nobel Price in chemistry in 1999.
Our agency celebrates and honors those of Arab heritage, and we hope you’ll also take some time this month to learn more about Arab Americans’ diverse and rich cultures, history, and the positive impacts they’ve made in our country.