Arab American Heritage Month

Christina Knight | April 5, 2021

A 1920 photograph of four members of The Pen League (left to right): Nasib ‘Arida, Kahlil Gibran, ‘Abd al-Masih Haddad, and Mikhail Naimy. (From Robin Waterfield’s The Life and Times of Kahlil Gibran).

Arab American Heritage Month in April is an opportunity to share PBS programs and clips featuring Arab Americans and also to highlight the work of New York City’s Arab American community groups that are partners of Thirteen in the Community.

Who Are Arab Americans?

Selling cool drinks in Little Syria, Manhattan in ca. 1910-15. Library of Congress.


Arab Americans include many faiths, races and ethnicities, and ancestry in any one of 22 Arab countries that span northern Africa to western Asia. What these diverse countries share most in common is the Arabic language.

To illuminate some facts about Arab American identity, we looked to the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, MI. Its 2019 Educational Book is an excellent primer and is free to download on the Arab American National Museum site. One common misunderstanding for Americans is to equate Arab with Middle Eastern, or Arab with Muslim. Arab countries represent one-fifth of the world’s Muslims, and in turn, Arabs are a minority among the U.S. Muslim population.

Arab immigration to the U.S. first began in the 1890s from the Ottoman Empire’s Syria area (today’s Syria, Lebanon and Palestine). In New York City, most of the first Arab Americans were Christian and by 1910 had established the now disappeared “Little Syria” neighborhood in Lower Manhattan. With the construction of the Battery Tunnel that started in 1940 and the World Trade Center in the mid-1960s, much of the population relocated to another community in Brooklyn.

The number of Arab Americans in the U.S. today is estimated to be between 2 and 3.6 million; the largest group are Lebanese Americans, who have the longest history of immigration.

Theme in 2021

The theme of Arab American Heritage Month in 2021 is “Mosaic,” with a focus on educators, writers, poets and musicians, said Warren David, president of the national Arab America foundation. Between April 11 and April 25, Arab America will present three online events to celebrate the month.

The first on April 11 includes Dr. Debbie Almontaser, a Yemeni American and founding and former principal of the Khalil Gibran International Academy in Brooklyn, NY. The school in Boerum Hill is named after the writer and artist Khalil Gibran, who eventually settled in New York City in 1911. Gibran, together with other immigrant writers from the area of Syria that is now Lebanon, reformed The Pen League in 1920, the aim of which was to modernize Arabic literature. Gibran’s poetry-prose book, The Prophet (1923) remains one of the best-selling books of all time and has been translated into 100 languages.

Films and Programs

Films BYKids: Poet Against Prejudice


Moving to a new country was challenging for Faiza Almontaser, a 17-year-old from New York City, who immigrated with her family to the U.S. from Yemen when she was in middle school. Mentored by the legendary pioneer of direct cinema, Albert Maysles, Faiza’s film documents her courageous and inspiring journey from victim to activist. Season 3 of Films BYKids premieres April 18, 2021, on THIRTEEN.

Arab American Poet


The PBS NewsHour arts and culture series, CANVAS, recently featured Fady Joudah, a Palestinian American poet and physician. Jeffrey Brown spoke with Joudah in a segment that examines the intersection of the alchemy of health and art.

Arab American Author

Writer Laila Lalami was born in Rabat and educated in Morocco, Great Britain, and the U.S. Today, she is a full professor at the University of California. Her 2014 novel, The Moor’s Account, won the American Book Award, the Arab-American Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction. Her recent bestselling novel, The Other Americans, was a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction. Her latest book, Conditional Citizens: On Belonging in America, was longlisted for the Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Nonfiction.

On May 26, 2021, she is one of the author panelists in The WNET Group virtual series: New American Dream. BRAVER THAN THE ONE BEFORE IT: In Search of the New American Dream will be a conversation with Lalami and four other major authors on what America means and can become for people long kept at its margins. Learn more about the free online event.

Arab American Politician Donna Shalala


Former Representative Donna Shalala, a Lebanese American, lost her bid for re-election in 2020 in Florida. The Democrat lost her race against Maria Elvira Salazar by 2% and joined Judy Woodruff on PBS NewsHour to discuss why Republicans had success in gaining seats. Donna Shalala served as Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton.

Arab American Scholar and Candidate Ralph Nader


In 2000, Lebanese American Ralph Nader ran for president against Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Vice President Al Gore. Nader wanted to shift politics to favor “the people.” Nader is featured in the special Perot and Nader – The Independents, part of ’16 for ’16: The Contenders.

POV: Natour’s Grocery


Filmmaker Nadine Natour turns her lens on her parents and her hometown, Appomattox, VA, to capture the story of her parents’ emigration from Palestine to the United States. The film is part of POV, television’s longest-running showcase for independent non-fiction films.

PBS Resources for the Classroom

WNET Education offers educators free tools to promote understanding of Islam in the classroom. This includes background on religious holidays like Eid al-Fitr (Idul-Fitr) and Eid Al-Adha (Idul-Adha), history and culture, and how to dispel stereotypes.

New York City-Based Arab American Groups

Thirteen’s Community Engagement team and leaders of the Arab American community in New York have met along with other groups for the past three years to discuss important concerns for its community. We are pleased to highlight the aims and work of these community partners. (See all of Thirteen’s community partners.)

Arab-American Family Support Center

The Khalil Gibran International Academy, view from State Street and 3rd Avenue in Brooklyn. Photo by Matt Green/Flickr.


The Arab-American Family Support Center (AAFS) provides trauma-informed social services to all low-income immigrants and refugees in New York City, and has developed expertise in serving the Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, and South Asian (AMEMSA) communities.

In March the center received a community service award from the Brooklyn Heights Association and celebrated the opening of a second Queens-based office. AAFSC also provides youth services at Khalil Gibran International Academy, a New York City public high school that AAFSC helped found and which is dedicated to fostering intercultural understanding.

The center is very active and welcomes volunteers. Learn how to get involved.

ArteEast

Based in New York, ArteEast provides support to artists and art organizations from the Middle East and North Africa in order to broaden the global audience for contemporary culture from the region. In March, ArteEast co-presented the seventh annual Arab Film Festival with the Arab American National Museum and other groups.

Currently in its Artist Spotlight is Eleana Antonaki, a New York based artist with an MFA from Parsons, The New School in New York City. See more of its artist picks and catalogs on its linktr.ee page.

Network of Arab-American Professionals

The Network of Arab-American Professionals is a non-partisan, volunteer-based organization dedicated to the development of a prosperous and influential Arab-American community connected through its national network. It seeks to connect, organize and empower the Arab-American community by channeling the interests and passions of our members through social, cultural, professional, political and service initiatives. Its LinkedIn group has nearly 3,000 members.