Chicagoans are fond of saying that there are more Poles here than anywhere outside of Poland. But ask about Palestinians and you may get a blank stare. As it turns out, there are likely more Palestinian immigrants living in the Chicagoland area than anywhere else in the U.S.
The nexus of Arab American life in the Chicago region is the city’s Southwest suburbs. Bridgeview, the oldest and most established of the area’s Muslim community, is seen as the hub, but the community also extends to neighboring towns like Oak Lawn and Orland Park.
When listeners learned that reporter Michael Puente and I planned to visit Orland Park this week, they asked us to look into the town’s diverse population. “I work out in Orland and I'd be interested to hear you address the large Arabic populations here,” listener Eric Olsen told us. “Where are they from?”
Lunch in Little Beitunia (or Big Beitunia, as the case may be)
We started our research with a visit to Grape Vine, a small storefront grocery and bakery on John Humphrey Drive. It was lunchtime, and the sun filtered in onto shelves lined with pita bread and pickled cucumbers, red lentils and Royal World Tea, bags of rice and jars of butter ghee. Aluminum trays of savory pastries and stout, cigar-shaped falafel sat on the counter. Grape Vine’s owner, Laila Maali, stood behind the cash register in a navy blue blouse and loosely draped black hijab, rattling off phone orders from catering customers in a quick mix of Arabic and English.
While we chatted with Maali, Edward Hassan walked inside. Hassan was smartly dressed in leather gloves and a wool overcoat, and told us that he owned seven strip malls in the area, including the one we were in. The vanity plates on his white Mercedes Benz read LND LRD.
Both Maali and Hassan immigrated to the U.S. from Beitunia (sometimes spelled Baytunya), a town roughly eight miles outside Ramallah in the West Bank of the Palestinian territories. Maali said she has lived in the Chicago area for 26 years, while Hassan said he came to the U.S. as a child with his parents 50 years ago, first settling in Chicago at 63rd and Halsted then moving to the suburbs.
It was Hassan who first tipped us off to the sheer number of Palestinians living southwest of Chicago.
“There are 23,000 people living here from Beitunia,” he told us, much to our surprise. “And only 2,000 back in Beitunia.”
How many people of Palestinian descent actually live in the region?
The truth is more complicated, but surprising nonetheless. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, there were closer to 20,000 people living in Beitunia as of 2007. But sociologist Louise Cainkar, a professor at Marquette University and an expert on Arab immigration, backs up the underlying thrust of Hassan’s claim.
“Historically Beitunia was the largest feeder village [of Palestinian immigrants] to Chicago,” she said.
Cainkar has spent time in Beitunia and has seen the results of this relationship.
“[The village]used to be characterized by agriculture, but is now quite built up,” she said.
Cainkar says the investment from money made in the U.S. and sent back to the village in the form of remittances is visible.
Cainkar estimates that as many as a quarter of all Palestinians living in the U.S. live in the counties surrounding Chicago — more than live any other American city. And, Palestinians make up the single largest Arab ethnic group in the Chicago region, according to Cainkar — as much as 40 percent of the area’s total Arab population.
It’s actually quite difficult, though, to measure exactly how many people of Palestinian descent live in the Chicago area. And it’s hard to know how many people of Arab descent there are in the country as a whole. Nationally, the 2010 U.S. Census found that about 1.9 million Americans are of Arab descent, although groups like the Arab American Institute estimate that the number could be much larger, as high as 5.1 million people. It’s a similar story in Illinois; the Census found about 85,000 people of Arab descent living in the state, but again, the AAI thinks the number is much higher, closer to 220,000 total.
Cainkar thinks the real number of Arab Americans living in the U.S. — and in Illinois — is probably somewhere in the middle of those estimates, but agrees that the Census misses a lot of people.
The short version of the Census — given to 82 percent of people who take it — only measures race, and Arabs are supposed to mark themselves down as white. The 18 percent of people who take the longer version of the survey are asked questions about their “ancestry.” In 2010, of the people who indicated they were of Arab ancestry, five percent described themselves as being of Palestinian descent. But another 11 percent said they were “Other, Arab” and another 15 percent said they were “Arab/Arabic.”
Cainkar’s research suggests that many of these respondents are actually Palestinian, too.
“I looked at the Census tracts block by block, based on where people live,” she said, adding that many Chicago communities she knows to be Palestinian weren’t counted as such.
Regardless of the exact number of Arab Americans living in Chicago’s Southwest suburbs, their presence is clear, whether in the Prayer Center, the Orland Park mosque with a glowing gold dome and colorful tile walls built in 2004, or the sheer number of businesses that cater to Middle Eastern tastes.
“I counted 100 Arab-owned businesses in less than one square mile between 79th and 87th and Harlem, and that’s just a little piece of their commercial enterprises down there,” Cainkar said of one portion of the Southwest Side community. “That is definitely their hub.”
So why Chicago?
What, then, drew Palestinian immigrants and other Arabs to the region to begin with? As is the case with so many elements of Chicago history, Cainkar said the answer lies in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exhibition. The fair brought travelers and presenters from all over the globe, including Arab traders who liked the region and found a market here for their goods.
That started the first wave of Arab immigration to the U.S., which was followed by many more. And because U.S. immigration policy is focused on family reunification, once a family had one member settled permanently in the U.S., more were likely to follow.
Of course, the answer to why there are nearly as many Palestinians living abroad as there are still living in Palestine — about 4.5 million — lies in that region’s troubled history. Many left or were forced out starting in 1948 with the creation of the state of Israel, an event many Palestinians refer to as the “Nakba” or “disaster.” (At the time, many Jews were also expelled from or chose to leave their homes in neighboring Arab countries.) Subsequent conflicts, like the 1967 war, prompted subsequent waves of immigration.
But Cainkar said the biggest wave of Palestinian immigration to the U.S. came in the 1980s and ‘90s. Many who came were not immigrants but students, Cainkar said, earning advanced degrees.
Many of those same students-turned-engineers, say, went on to live in Persian Gulf states, drawn by the promise of good paying jobs funded with oil boom money. But 350,000 Palestinians were expelled from Kuwait and other Gulf states in 1990 after the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) refused to back foreign intervention as a solution to Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait. Cainkar said that for many of these Palestinians, “this meant their only other option for survival was the U.S.”
Putting down roots
Arab Americans have been subjected to much unwanted scrutiny since 9/11 turned “Islamic extremism” into a household term that fueled fear — the 2004 struggle over the Prayer Center in Orland Park is certainly evidence of that — and Palestinians carry with them a particularly painful history of struggle.
But Cainkar said that as a whole, America’s Arab population, including the entrepreneurial Palestinian community in Chicago’s Southwest suburbs, is thriving.
“Overall Arab income in the U.S. is higher than the median income of the U.S. as a whole,” Cainkar said. “Usually groups that face discrimination don’t do well in this country, but they're an exception to this pattern.”
Back at Grape Vine, property owner Edward Hassan talked not just of his business investments, but of his childhood in Chicago and his service during Vietnam. Hassan said he founded an Arab American veterans group that has over 200 area members, some of whom served in the Korean War.
“We didn’t just get off the boat,” he told us. “We’re American.”