For decades, the Arab American story that has frequently been highlighted in the media and public forums has been based on falsities and stereotypes. Fortunately, we are experiencing a surge of Arab American visibility and representation, including President Biden’s recent proclamation of April 2023 as Arab American Heritage Month, hopefully reversing the oversimplification of a community that includes more than 20 nationalities and many religious groups, represented across the generations.

A part of this story that is worth uncovering is the impact of Arab American philanthropy, but before exploring that, we must further examine why Arab American history is so misunderstood.

The lack of formal recognition of MENA populations in the U.S., coupled with the proliferation of misconceptions about MENA communities nourished by the War on Terror, has created a false, problematic narrative about Arab Americans. This narrative is devastating and overlooks the long history and contributions of Arabs in the U.S.

However, there is reason for hope moving forward. Although the U.S. Census Bureau failed to add Middle Eastern/North African (MENA) to the 2020 Census survey, activists are pushing for its inclusion in the 2030 Census. To learn more about how you can support MENA visibility in federal and state data, see the recent blog, “Making MENA Visible,” by Dr. Claudia Youakim.

Little Syria: Arab American Philanthropy is Born

Examples of Arab American philanthropy can be traced back to when the first immigrants from the Arab world arrived. In Crossing the Waters: Arabic-speaking immigrants to the United States before 1940, E.J. Hooglund captures one such example of early community organizing. In 1917, Hannah Sabbagh Shakir founded the Society for Relief of Syria and Lebanon in Little Syria to help bring relief to communities back home who were suffering through World War 1.

Twenty-seven women banded together to launch a door-to-door membership campaign, securing over 250 memberships at the cost of only five cents a week. The community of women spearheaded grassroots fundraising efforts, such as posting donation boxes outside local businesses and selling their needlework.

Eventually, the organization decided to pivot its focus to supporting the local Arab American community, and in July 1918, the group was renamed the Syrian Ladies’ Aid Society of Boston (Hooglund, 1987). Although Little Syria no longer exists, the legacy of its trailblazers is embodied in Arab Americans today.

To help provide a current snapshot of Arab American giving, the Center for Arab American Philanthropy (CAAP), established as the nation’s first and only Arab American community foundation in 2010, published A Tapestry of Giving in 2022. CAAP is the only institution that has ever conducted research on Arab American philanthropy. This research report explores giving within the community, based on results from a questionnaire survey and various focus group discussions.

A Tapestry of Giving is not only an examination of trends and behaviors but also an endeavor to reclaim the narrative and highlight that Arab Americans are giving back to their communities. The research report is organized around nine themes of Arab American giving, including the following:

  1. Trust is everything. 
  2. A Sense of Obligation and Paying it Forward
  3. Giving by Generation

Read the full article about Arab-American giving trends by Mohamad Jaafar at Johnson Center.