Arab American Heritage Month, occurring each April, is a relatively new event on the yearly calendar—but the history of Arab immigrants in the U.S. goes way back. Here are a few facts to know about the event that celebrates the community's creative, cultural, and economic impacts.
1. Arab American history began in 1527.
Two points in history mark the earliest appearances of Arab people in what became the United States. In 1528, an enslaved Moroccan man named Estevanico (or Estebanico) Azemmouri arrived in present-day Florida as part of a Spanish expedition to conquer territory along the Gulf Coast. After a series of disasters, Estevanico and two other men led by Álvar Núñez Cabeza de Vaca, the only survivors of the original group, traveled across Texas, Mexico, and New Mexico, enduring enslavement by Native tribes and other hardships. Estevanico was killed by Zuni people defending their pueblo around 1539; his story appeared in Cabeza de Vaca’s account of the ordeal.
Antonio Bishallany came to New York from Lebanon just over 300 years later, becoming the first Arab American immigrant, according to many scholars. Bishallany intended to study Christianity in the city and then return to Lebanon as a missionary (so his status as a true “immigrant” is debated), but he contracted tuberculosis and died in 1856. Though his time in the U.S. was short, his arrival is a milestone in Arab American history.
2. There have been four waves of Arab American immigration.
Since Bishallany’s time, four major waves of Arab American immigration have taken place. The first, from the 1880s to 1924, saw roughly 95,000 people come to the U.S. from present-day Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine, and smaller populations from Yemen, Egypt, Iraq, and Morocco. The second occurred between 1925 and 1965, despite racist federal laws that limited immigration from certain countries. More favorable laws after the mid-1960s brought a huge third wave that lasted until the 1990s, bringing a cross-section of Arab society to the U.S., including refugees, laborers, white-collar professionals, students, and others. From then until present day, those groups have been joined by Arab immigrants fleeing political unrest in Iraq, Somalia, Syria, Egypt, and other countries.
3. The biggest Arab American community is in Dearborn, Michigan.
A Detroit suburb is home to the largest Arab American population in the country. The community traces its roots to late the 19th century, when a wave of Lebanese migrants came to the U.S. to escape military enlistment and unemployment following the decline of the silk-weaving industry. Many came to Dearborn looking for work. As the auto industry took off, job opportunities attracted even more immigrants to the region, including people from Arab countries. Housing codes targeted Black Detroiters at this time, but Arab Americans were considered white by the U.S. Census Bureau, so it was easier for them to skirt racist housing restrictions and settle in the suburbs.
Today Dearborn is estimated to be 42 percent Arab American, which makes it an appealing choice for new generations of immigrants coming from the Middle East. The town is home to the Arab American National Museum, and in 2017, the district's voters elected Abdullah Hammoud to the Michigan House of Representatives as its first Arab American lawmaker. (He's now the mayor of Dearborn.)
4. A “National Arab American Day” was first celebrated in 1992.
Nearly 30 years before the movement to have Arab American Heritage Month observed nationally would make headlines, another event aimed to celebrate the valuable creative, cultural, and historical contributions of Arab Americans in the nation.
In a joint resolution approved in November 1989, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives called on President George H.W. Bush [PDF] to designate October 25 as National Arab American Day. In his proclamation [PDF] approving the measure, Bush noted that Arab Americans have “added to the strength and diversity of American society,” as well as enriched its culture. He called on fellow Americans to recognize the event, and by 1992, festivities were well underway in multiple states, including California, North Carolina, and Ohio.
5. A campaign to establish a national Arab American heritage month began in 2017.
Celebrations of Arab American heritage have continued on the state level, though not all at the same time. The push for a unified national initiative didn’t begin until 2017. That year, the nonprofit Arab America Foundation and media organization Arab America began working together to launch an official Arab American History Month. Only a few states backed the campaign at first, but support has steadily grown.
6. Two Michigan Congresswomen sponsored a resolution to recognize National American Heritage Month.
On April 30, 2019, Congresswoman Donna Shalala of Florida introduced a resolution to the House of Representatives to formally recognize April as Arab American Heritage Month. The resolution had been spearheaded by Michigan representatives Debbie Dingell and Rashida Tlaib, along with a bevy of co-sponsors from across the country.
In the text, they emphasized the “valuable contributions to every aspect of American society—in medicine, law, business, technology, civic engagement, government, and culture,” and highlighted a few key achievements by Arab Americans, including Ameen Rihani’s 1911 novel The Book of Khalid; Kahlil Gibran’s poetry collection The Prophet; and St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, founded by entertainer Danny Thomas in the mid-20th century.
7. Currently, about half of U.S. states recognize Arab American Heritage Month.
Some states—including Illinois, Oregon, and Virginia—have taken it upon themselves to pass their own permanent legislation formalizing April as Arab American Heritage Month. There’s legislation in the works in Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, and Rhode Island, too.
In other states, governors have issued annual proclamations acknowledging the month-long holiday. Arab America keeps track of these (along with those made by mayors and other local officials), with the goal of hitting all 50 states. So far this year, they’re up to 18. You can view the full list here.
8. The State Department and President Joe Biden have recognized April as Arab American Heritage Month.
While many states don’t yet acknowledge National Arab American Heritage Month, both the U.S. Department of State and President Biden have done so since 2021. “The Arab American community is essential to the fabric of our nation,” Biden wrote in a letter to Arab America that year, “and I am honored to be a part of this celebration that recognizes Arab American culture, heritage, and contributions to American society.”
In April 2023, President Biden issues what Arab America called “a historic proclamation recognizing National Arab American Heritage Month,” in which he acknowledged the impact Arab Americans have had on everything from business to science, noting, “even as Arab Americans enrich our nation, many continue to face prejudice, bigotry, and violence—a stain on our collective conscience.”
9. Arab American Heritage Month resolutions still have not made it through the House of Representatives for federal recognition.
As Arab American Heritage Month has grown in prominence, there have been increasing calls for a resolution to be recognized by the U.S. House of Representatives. In June 2022, Representatives Rashida Tlaib and Debbie Dingell reintroduced their resolution for the third time. “As an Arab American woman in Congress, I know how important it is to ensure we do all we can to make sure Arab Americans know that we belong in the United States and to show appreciation for our contributions to this country,” Tlaib said in a statement. “Arab Americans make the United States a better place and I look forward to seeing this resolution adopted.”