Although often portrayed as a new and foreign element, Arabs have been a part of Chicago since the first large wave of Arab immigration to the United States occurred between 1899 and 1921, according to Louise Cainkar, a fellow with the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute.
The vast majority came from the region known today as Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, according to Cainkar’s study of the Chicago-area Arab community, “Meeting Community Needs, Building on Community Strengths.” Most were Syrian-Lebanese Christians, who tended to assimilate quickly into American society. Almost exclusively male, they were economically successful and brought over their families before U.S. immigration quotas took effect.
Palestinian Muslims arrived as well but took a different path. They, too, had left their wives and children behind to venture to the United States for work as peddlers or small shop owners, hoping to amass money and return to their homeland. But, being Muslim, they were less able and less willing to assimilate, according to Cainkar. Many lived in all-male rooming houses near East 18th Street and South Michigan Avenue, and sold their goods in the nearby and newly emerging African American community, where some eventually opened food and dry goods stores. Today, Palestinians are the largest Arab group in the Chicago area.
Palestinian migration increased after World War II, this time bringing wives of men already living here. The war following the founding of Israel in 1948 and the Six-Day War in 1967 created new waves of immigrants.
In 1965, the United States dramatically loosened immigration policies, and by 1969 the number of Palestinian and Jordanian immigrants in Chicago had quadrupled. Now reunited with their families, Palestinian males moved into homes and apartments in South Side neighborhoods that whites were leaving. By the 1970s, they had settled in the Chicago Lawn and Gage Park areas, which remain ports of entry for the city’s Arab community.
Arab-owned grocery stores, insurance companies, restaurants, law offices and community centers sprung up on West 63rd Street between South Kedzie Avenue and South Pulaski Road, and along Pulaski between West 55th and West 87th streets. Now, the growing Muslim community turned to constructing houses of worship. Arab Muslims “had prayer halls in different locations, but their aspiration and dream was to build a mosque,” said Ayoub Talhami, a longtime Arab community activist.
In 1981, after years of planning and fundraising, the Mosque Foundation was constructed at 7360 W. 93rd St. in southwest suburban Bridgeview. After Arab immigration surged in the late 1980s, the complex expanded to include two Islamic schools.
Arab families began buying homes around the mosque, and an “Arab village” started to form in an out-of-the-way enclave to the west of Harlem Avenue, where side streets now bustle with Muslim children on roller blades and bicycles.
By the 1990s, most of the successful, middle-class Palestinians and Jordanians had moved to Bridgeview and other suburbs, including Oak Lawn and Palos Hills. Census data show that Bridgeview had become 7 percent Arab by 2000, up from 2 percent in 1990. The Arab village had an American twist, however. The Mosque Foundation runs in a decidedly democratic fashion, according to Rafeeq Jaber, the organization’s past president. Governed by a constitution, each member of the mosque has voting rights and elects a president who is subject to term limits.
Arab charitable societies first began to appear locally in the late 1960s. Many, like the United Holy Land Fund, incorporated in 1968, were dedicated to sending aid to Palestinians worldwide. In the 1990s, Global Relief Foundation and Benevolence International Foundation established headquarters in the southwest suburbs, both with the stated mission of helping impoverished Muslims and others throughout the world.
But the federal government has repeatedly placed Arabs here under surveillance for their political activity. “Beginning in the late 1960s, there was surveillance of anything Palestinian,” said Talhami, who explains this was the heyday of the Palestine Liberation Organization–”and also the era of the Chicago Police Department’s Red Squad, a secret unit that investigated hundreds of groups because of their political beliefs.
“This was a time when, whatever function we had, you can bet the police would come and pick up the license plate numbers of every car parked within three blocks of the event,” he said. During the 1960s and 1970s, the FBI pursued Talhami, who was once visited at work by two federal agents. Through a Freedom of Information Act request, he obtained a two-inch-thick FBI file noting his involvement with a weekly radio show called “Voice of Palestine,” he said.
During the Iranian hostage crisis in 1980, “every Middle Eastern person was subject to harassment,” recalled Ghassan Barakat, who publishes Al-Bostaan, a local Arab American newspaper. In 1987, it was first reported that a secret inter-agency committee, including the FBI and the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, drafted a contingency plan to intern Arab and other non-citizens at a federal detention facility in Oakdale, La., in an attempt to implement counterterrorism efforts, according to press reports. It was never implemented.
During the crisis leading into the Gulf War, a Jan. 12, 1991, article in The New York Times detailing FBI interviews with Arab Americans asked a question that is still on peoples’ minds after Sept. 11: “Does national origin imply a connection with terrorism?”