Colombian singer Shakira Image Credit: AP

Dubai: The year gone by will go down as the year Arab Americans made history.

A new Paraguayan president took office last August. Mario Abdo Benitez, who has a Lebanese background, became the ninth president of Arab descent to be sworn in as the leader in a South American country. He joins current Brazilian president Michel Temer.

Just few decades after their grandparents crossed the Atlantic to countries in North and South America, many Arab descendants have reached senior positions in their new homelands — an accomplishment that seemed out of reach in their native lands. Today, there are Arabs who are ministers, members of parliament and even candidates in presidential elections in their new countries.


of all people in South America have some Arab roots, with a higher percentage in Brazil

“The problem is not with an Arab or his or her genes,” Sobhi Ghandour, a founder and executive director of Al Hewar Center, an independent forum for dialogue among Arab community members in Virginia, told Gulf News. “The problem is with the lack of appropriate opportunities in several Arab countries. Lack of jobs, poor higher-educational standards, lack of political stability, security crises, absence of a proper political atmosphere that inspires participation and impact of the global economic crises due to which Arabs have suffered,” Ghandour added.

US-based journalist Ramzy Baroud said: “The United States, despite all its problems, has a functioning democracy that we have lacked in the Arab world.”

Significant influx

While there are no readily available figures on how many Arabs have migrated to America from what is called the Levant, |(Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and historical Palestine), it is believed there has been a significant influx into the Americas from that area.

During the Ottoman Empire, 250,000-300,000 Arabs migrated to Argentina, Brazil and Mexico. According to some press reports, at least 5 per cent of all people in South America have some Arab roots, with a higher percentage in Brazil.

A press report in 2016 said about 10 per cent of Brazil’s parliamentarians have Arab ancestry, while Chile could have the largest Palestinian-Christian community in the world outside of Israel and the Occupied Territories. The majority of South American countries recognise Palestinian statehood.

South America, Baroud said, offers “a much more inspiring example because the cultural assimilation between Arabs and South Americans is more seamless than between Arabs and Americans” in the US. Also, race is not an issue in South America.

“Integration among the 50 American states offers human talent and businessmen to move from one state to another, in case of social, security or economic chaos. The same applies to the EU nations. In this case, (the two) blocs don’t suffer brain-drain, and keep their expertise within their borders,” Ghandour said.

Some successful stories in the diaspora:

In South America:

1. Michel Miguel Elias Temer: A Brazilian lawyer who is currently serving as the 37th and current President of Brazil since 2016. His Lebanese parents had arrived in Brazil in the 1920s as part of a diaspora.

2. Carlos Menem: A former president of Argentina is a son of Syrian nationals.

3. Julio Cesar Turbay: A former president of Colombia, from 1978 to 1982. His father was a merchant who had migrated from Tannourine, a Lebanese town.

4. In Ecuador, two former presidents, Abdala Bucaram (1996–97) and Jamil Mahuad (1998–2000), were of Arab origion.

Abdala Bucaram
Abdala Bucaram Image Credit: Supplied

5. Shakira: The Colombian singer has Lebanese roots — her paternal grandparents arrived in New York from Lebanon, where her father was born. Later, the family emigrated to Colombia.

6. Jose Antonio Meade: A former foreign secretary of Mexico. He finished third in the 2018 presidential elections, running for the Institutional Revolutionary Party.

In North America:

1. Rashida Harbi Tlaib: This 42-year-old became the first Muslim woman to serve in the Michigan legislature and was the first Muslim woman in history to be elected to any US state legislature. She is the first Palestinian-American woman in the US Congress. She is the eldest of 14 children born to working-class Palestinian immigrants in Detroit.

Rashida Harbi Tlaib
Rashida Harbi Tlaib Image Credit: Supplied

2. Ilhan Omar: In 2018, she became the first Somali-American to be elected to the US Congress. She was elected in 2016, to Minnesota House of Representatives as a member of the Democratic Farmer–Labor Party, making her the first Somali-American elected to the legislative office in the US.

3. Donna Shalala: The first Arab-American ever appointed to the post of a cabinet secretary. She is the nation’s longest-serving secretary of health and human services. Recently, she was elected as a member of the US House of Representatives from Florida’s 27 district. Born in Cleveland, Ohio, of Maronite Catholic-Lebanese descent, Shalala’s mother was among the first Lebanese-Americans to graduate from Ohio State University.

Donna Shalala
Donna Shalala Image Credit: Supplied

4. John Sununu: Former White House chief of staff under late president George HW Bush. Sununu was born in Havana, Cuba, to a family that had landed in the US from the Middle East at the turn of the 20th century. He is of Lebanese-Palestinian ancestry from the Greek Orthodox Church community in Jerusalem and Beirut.

5. Selwa Roosevelt: She was America’s longest-serving White House chief of protocol. She served for seven-and-a-half years under late president Donald Reagan. Selwa was born in the city of Kingsport, Tennessee, to Lebanese Druze immigrants. She got married in 1950 to Archibald “Archie” B. Roosevelt Jr, a grandson of former president Theodore Roosevelt.

Selwa Roosevelt
Selwa Roosevelt Image Credit: Supplied

6. Edward Said: A late Columbia professor and well-known literary and social critic, he wrote nearly a dozen volumes on different topics ranging from the Middle East to English literature. A Palestinian-American born in Mandatory Palestine, he was a citizen of the US by way of his father — a US army veteran..
— J.A.T.