April is Arab American Heritage Month! During this time, we celebrate Arab Americans throughout the past and present, and recognize their invaluable contributions to our country. It also serves as a time to combat Anti-Arab bigotry and to challenge stereotypes and prejudices.
Arab American Heritage Month began as a 2017 initiative that only involved a few states and cities, but recognition has been steadily spreading since then. While it is still not officially federally recognized with permanent legislation, President Biden became the first U.S. president to issue a proclamation acknowledging Arab American Heritage Month in April 2021. Last year, he was joined by the U.S. Congress, Department of State, 45 state governors, and many mayors and city governments across the country, including both New York City and New York State, all issuing proclamations of their own.
While the celebration of Arab American Heritage Month is fairly new, the history which it commemorates dates back as far as 1527, when Estebanico Azemmouri, a native of present-day Morocco, and Antonio Bishallany, a native of present-day Lebanon, arrived to what would many years later become the United States, becoming the first members of the Arab American community that is estimated today to number approximately 3.7 million people.
Since those very early days, there have been several waves of Arab immigration into the United States. In the 1800s, the first group consisted mainly of Arab Christians fleeing religious persecution and economic insecurity in the Ottoman Empire, from the region that today makes up Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine. This period came to an end in the 1920s, largely due to immigration policies that placed strict quotas on the number of people who could come into the United States from many Asian and Arab countries located within a region called the “Asiatic Barred Zone.” Later, as political instability in the region increased throughout the mid-20th century, another wave of immigrants from the Middle East and North Africa began arriving in search of both humanitarian protection, as well as economic and educational opportunities and family reunification. The third period began with new immigration laws that repealed the restrictive quotas in 1965 and allowed hundreds of thousands of new immigrants to come into the United States. A fourth wave that began in the 1990s continues today, even after the rise of Anti-Arab sentiment that occurred in the United States following the September 11 attacks, as well as immigration policy changes in 2017 that made it more challenging for Arab immigrants to enter the United States. A fourth wave that began in the 1990s continues today, even after the rise of anti-Arab sentiment due to the September 11, 2001 attacks, as well as immigration policy changes in 2017 that made it more difficult for many Arab immigrants to come to the U.S.
Today’s Arab American community is made up of individuals with roots in 22 countries located in the Middle East and North Africa: Algeria, Bahrain, the Comoros Islands, Djibouti, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Mauritania, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen. In addition to the many nationalities represented, Arab Americans are also diverse in faith — despite a common misconception, not all Arabs are Muslim, nor are all Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa, and over half of Arab Americans are estimated to be Christian — as well as race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and ability. Within their diverse community, Arab Americans are united by their primary language — Arabic — as well as by their shared history and culture.
New York City has a rich Arab American history in its own right: when the first major wave of Arab immigrants began fleeing the Ottoman Empire (what is now Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine) in the late 1800s, many of them arrived in New York. In fact, from the 1870s until the 1940s, the center of Arab life in the United States could be found in “Little Syria,” a neighborhood in Lower Manhattan concentrated on Washington Street and Rector Street. By the year 1900, nearly 2,000 Syrians were living there, working in nearby textile factories and as merchants. It was also in Little Syria that some of the best-known Arab writers of the time, including Kahlil Gibran, formed the Pen Bond (also known as the Pen League) and sparked a literary movement in Arab literature. Unfortunately, the neighborhood of Little Syria had all but disappeared by the mid-20th century. Plans for construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in the 1940s forced many residents to leave the area, often relocating to Brooklyn. Those that remained were not able to stay for long: the construction of the World Trade Center in the 1960s pushed the rest of the community out of their homes.
Even still, today, the New York City Metropolitan area has the second-highest population of Arab Americans in the United States. Statewide, the Arab population in New York is one of the fasting growing in the country, with the number of New Yorkers who claim Arab ancestry estimated to have more than doubled since the 1980 Census.
Throughout April, and all year long, we hope you will join us in appreciating the rich and diverse history of this large and growing community. This month is an excellent time to learn and teach more about Arab American history, and we encourage you to do so by checking out the resources below, which include exhibitions, lesson plans, recommended reading, and more, for use both in and out of the classroom.
Throughout the month, and all year long, we encourage families, educators, and students to dive into a book about the history, culture, and experiences of the Arab diaspora. The suggestions below are just a few of our favorite titles, with works of fiction and non-fiction for every grade level that feature characters and perspectives that are often not reflected in other popular works. We hope you will enjoy reading and learning from these outstanding stories.
Early Readers (Grades 3K–2)
- The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story, by Aya Khalil; illustrated by Anait Semirdzhyan
- Building Zaha: The Story of Architect Zaha Hadid, by Victoria Tentler-Krylov
- The Butter Man, by Elizabeth Alalou and Ali Alalou; illustrated by Julie Klear Essakalli
- The Cat Man of Aleppo, by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha; illustrated by Yuko Shimizu
- The Day Saida Arrived, by Susana Gómez Redondo; illustrated by Sonja Wimmer
- Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books, by Susan L. Roth and Karen Leggett Abouraya
- Lailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story, by Reem Faruqi; illustrated by Lea Lyon
- Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey, by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes; illustrated by Sue Cornelison
- Salma the Syrian Chef, by Danny Ramadan; illustrated by Anna Bron
- The Story of Hurry, by Emma Williams; illustrated by Ibrahim Quraishi
Elementary (Grades 3–5)
- Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq, by Mark Alan Stamaty
- Farah Rocks Fifth Grade, by Susan Muaddi Darraj; illustrated by Ruaida Mannaa
- A Kid’s Guide to Arab American History, by Yvonne Wakim Dennis and Maha Addasi
- Muslim Girls Rise: Inspirational Champions of Our Time, by Saira Mir; illustrated by Aaliya Jaleel
- Shad Hadid and the Alchemists of Alexandria, by George Jreije
- Silverworld, by Diana Abu-Jaber
- The Three Lucys, by Hayan Charara; illustrated by Sara Kahn
- The Treasure of Maria Mamoun, by Michelle Chalfoun
- The Turtle of Oman, by Naomi Shihab Nye; illustrated by Betsy Peterschmidt
- Yusra Swims, by Julie Abery and Sally Deng
Middle Grade (Grades 6–8)
- Escape from Aleppo, by N.H. Senzai
- A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return, by Zeina Abirached
- Habibi, by Naomi Shihab Nye
- Muhammad Najem, War Reporter: How One Boy Put the Spotlight on Syria, by Muhammad Najem and Nora Neus; illustrated by Julie Robine
- Nowhere Boy, by Katherine Marsh
- Once Upon an Eid: Stories of Hope and Joy by 15 Muslim Voices, edited by S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed
- Other Words for Home, by Jasmine Warga
- Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood, by Ibtisam Barakat
- Wishing Upon the Same Stars, by Jacquetta Nammar Feldman
- Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero, by Saadia Faruqi
Young Adult (Grades 9–12)
- All-American Muslim Girl, by Nadine Jolie Courtney
- As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow, by Zoulfa Katouh
- Here to Stay, by Sara Farizan
- Here We Are Now, by Jasmine Warga
- Huda F Are You? By Huda Fahmy
- I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir, by Malaka Gharib
- Mirage, by Somaiya Daud
- Saints and Misfits, by S.K. Ali
- A Stone in My Hand, by Cathryn Clinton
- We Hunt the Flame, by Hafsah Faizal
Many of these books are readily available through the citywide Digital Library on Sora, which provides free access to hundreds of digital e-books and audiobooks for our students. For even more recommendations, check out the “Cultural Connections” collection on Sora, which features many Arab stories, and will introduce students to titles with diverse characters and world religions set in the Transcontinental Region, the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and beyond.