Dearborn, Michigan, home to one of the nation's largest Arab-American communities is now home to what is being called the first facility in the United States dedicated solely to preserving Arab-American history. The Arab American National Museum was in its planning stages before the 9-11 attacks in 2001, and its creators say their mission has taken on greater importance since that event.
At almost every turn, it challenges the stereotypes of Arabs, such as that most of them come from the Middle East. "The Arab world is a very, very large, diverse place," says Museum Director Annan Ameri, pointing out a huge map showing the 22 Arab nations. "Most people are surprised when we say that the number of Arab people in Africa is more than those who live in Asia. We come from two continents."
There are about 4 million Arabs in the United States today. Many are Muslim, but most Arab-Americans are Christian. The first Arab arrived in North America in 1528 - about 250 years before the American Revolution. He was a North African man named Zammouri, enslaved by Spaniards and brought to what is now Florida.
"Very few people know how long we have been in this country," Ms. Ameri says. "Very few people know that Arab-Americans have fought and died for this country, going back to the Civil War, Independence War, First World War, Second World War, Korean War, Iraqi War, you name it, we were there, we fought, we died."
The museum has exhibits of famous Americans of Arab descent, like activist Ralph Nader and radio personality Casey Kasem. And it also tells the stories of lesser-known Arab immigrants, sometimes in their own words. One exhibit features a life-size sculpture of an immigrant named Ahmad Ibrahim, sitting on his front stoop in New York City. In a recording, he talks about arriving in the United States in 1953 with a vial of stones and dirt from his Palestinian village, and beginning a new life for himself. "The second day I came to this country, I was in the Bronx, selling stuff. The second day!"
Arabs created new communities wherever they settled, turning parts of cities like New York, Los Angeles, and Detroit into places that reminded them of home. Their stories are in a part of the museum called "Living in America." One recording begins, "When I was a young boy back in the (19)40s, we lived on a street on the east side of Detroit called Lakewood. We often referred to it as Damascus Road, because many of our cousins, perhaps as many as 20 families, lived on Lakewood. And on a Sunday afternoon, perhaps after Mass, everybody would gather on our front porch, and it was much like a get-together of the family."
Arabs also moved to unlikely places, such as remote, windswept, North Dakota. Immigrants from Syria settled there in exchange for free farmland early in the 20th century. They built one of the first mosques in the United States, in the town of Ross.
If any of this is starting to sound like the experience of many immigrant families in the United States, Anan Ameri says, that's the point. "We want to say we are like any other immigrant group. We are not different." She stresses that the Arab-American story is an American story. "All immigrant groups collectively made this country great," she says. "It wasn't this group, it wasn't that group. It wasn't the Arab alone, it wasn't the Mexican alone, it wasn't the Italian or the Irish alone, but as a collective, immigrant groups built this country, and some people forget about that."
But things have been different for Arab-Americans since the September 11th attacks, and there's an exhibit devoted to that, as well. It displays a large reproduction of a letter the U-S government sent to hundreds of young Arab immigrants in late 2001. The letter urges them to contact the FBI for an interview, to help with the government's investigation of the attacks.
The museum also addresses negative images of Arab-Americans in the media. It features a video montage of people on the street, describing the last time they saw an Arab on TV. They mention terrorists? Osama bin Laden? angry Iraqis.
In the aftermath of September 11th, Arab-American leaders said their community needed to do a better job educating non-Arabs, making it clear that most Arabs want what their fellow Americans want. Imad Hamad, who heads the Michigan chapter of the American-Arab Anti-discrimination Committee, says this new museum will help do that. "It is a way to shed some light," he says, "especially under such confusing times, about the right image and the right history and the right traditions of Arabs and the Arab culture."
Some Arab countries have shown interest in supporting the mission of the $15 million museum. Qatar has kicked in $1 million. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates each contributed $500,000. And, the head of OPEC persuaded several oil companies to make donations.
Pictures courtesy of the Arab American National Museum