Growing up, the Arab Community Center in the Chicago Lawn neighborhood was Souzan Naser’s second home.
Her family made frequent trips there on Sundays and some weeknights, driving up from the southwest suburbs to the center on the corner of West 63rd Street and South Kedzie Avenue.
She and her three brothers would learn Arabic, take Palestinian history classes and learn how to dance the Dabke, a traditional Palestinian folklore line dance.
Naser remembers the center was always packed to the brim, on Wednesday and Friday nights, with families who came together for community meals.
“It was really a source of comfort, it was a safety net for us. It filled us with pride and a place of belonging from a world that was often hostile to us,” remembers Naser, 46, a second-generation Palestinian American who is a counselor and professor at Moraine Valley Community College.
Naser’s parents, Sumaya and Izziden Naser, left Al-Bireh in the West Bank in 1971. “My parents had a deep, strong desire to stay in Palestine and stay on the land, so they came to the U.S. reluctantly four years after their city, Al-Bireh, came under Israeli occupation,” Naser said.
Like many other Palestinians in the Chicago area at the time, Naser’s parents initially settled on the Southwest Side of Chicago where they found a vibrant and diverse Palestinian community, especially in places like the Arab Community Center. The center is now home to the Arab American Action Network, a grassroots organizing and social services nonprofit. Naser currently serves on the board.
Today, more Palestinians live in Cook County than any other county in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than 18,000 Palestinians live in Cook County, and more than 23,000 live in the Chicago metropolitan area, which includes 14 counties in Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin.
However, experts say the census significantly underestimates the size of the Palestinian population.
Overall, Arab Americans are undercounted in the once-in-a-decade census because there isn’t a specific category for people of Middle Eastern or North African (MENA) descent among the choices available to indicate race or ethnicity, said Maya Berry, executive director of the nonprofit Arab American Institute. Illinois is the first state that will require state agencies, starting in 2025, to include a MENA category when collecting information about racial and ethnic identity.
Data on Palestinian ancestry is collected as a write-in response to some census questions, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But some Palestinians skip the question, or write in something other than “Palestinian” such as “other” or “Arab American,” Berry said.
Others may be afraid to identify themselves as Palestinians or indicate their ancestry with Jordan, Lebanon or another country where there is a large Palestinian diaspora, said Louise Cainkar, a sociologist at Marquette University.
Cainkar, who has studied the demographics of Arab migration since the 1980s, estimates the Palestinian population in the Chicago metropolitan area has likely grown from 20,000 in the 1980s to around 70,000 to 100,000 today.
Determining an exact estimate is difficult, but experts agree the Chicago area is home to one of the largest, and most densely populated, Palestinian communities in the country.
In the 1990s, many Palestinians began moving from Chicago’s Southwest Side to the suburbs, Cainkar said. The majority now live in the southwest suburbs of Cook County in places like Orland Park, Oak Lawn, Tinley Park and Bridgeview, according to a WBEZ analysis of census data.
“If you come to the southwest suburbs of Chicago and you just walk around or spend some time, it’s visible by the eye, that there is a sizable community,” said Nina Shoman-Dajani, 42, an assistant dean at Moraine Valley Community College. She’s a first-generation Palestinian American who grew up in California and moved to the southwest suburbs in the early 2000s.
Palestinian flags and business signs, in both Arabic and English, for law offices, doctors’ offices, grocery stores, restaurants and bakeries dot both sides of Harlem Avenue from about 79th Street to 123rd Street, an area Shoman-Dajani and many others refer to as “Little Palestine.”
More than a century of Palestinian migration
For more than a century, generations of Palestinians have settled, raised families and built institutions like mosques, schools and community centers in the Chicago area.
The city’s first Arab American communities were established by Syrian-Lebanese and Palestinian immigrants after the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Cainkar said.
The Palestinians were mostly single men that worked as peddlers of dry goods and grocery store owners in what was then known as the city’s Black Belt.
They carved out a niche working in majority-Black areas where white shopkeepers wouldn’t sell, Cainkar said. “They were willing to live in those communities and do business in those communities, and they often lived above their stores in those communities.”
These early merchants helped put Chicago on the map for future generations of Palestinian immigrants.
As Palestinians established roots in and around Chicago, they became a draw for others to follow them. “People move to places where they know other people or where their family is,” Cainkar said. There are even some villages in the Jerusalem and Ramallah area that are “highly represented” in the Chicago area, she said.
New generations have also contributed to the growth of the community, Cainkar said. “It’s also the children, the grandchildren, great grandchildren of immigrants. You put that whole picture together and you have a large and robust community.”
But experts also say the history of Palestinian migration to Chicago has to be understood in the context of a long history of conflict in the Middle East.
“To discuss the history of Palestinian migration or displacement to the United States requires discussing the history of Israel. Otherwise, we are leaving out the root cause behind why there’s such a large number of Palestinians in Chicago,” said Nadine Naber, professor of Gender and Women’s Studies and Global Asian Studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
In the 1948 war around Israel’s creation, more than 700,000 Palestinians were displaced from land that became part of the new state of Israel, according to the United Nations. Palestinians refer to the mass displacement of 1948 as the “Nakba,” meaning “catastrophe” in Arabic, Naber said.
Roughly six million people around the world are direct descendents of the refugees displaced from 1946 to 1948, according to the United Nations. A majority of them “have been denied the right to return to their homeland, because they or their ancestors are refugees,” Naber said.
Chicago experienced an increase in Palestinian immigration after the 1948 war, Cainkar said. That’s when Hatem Abudayyeh, 52, can start tracing his family’s history in the United States.In the 1950s, Abudayyeh’s grandfather was a peddler who sold shoes and household items in Milwaukee. He suggested Abudayyeh’s father, Khairy, move to the United States amid growing concern that their village, El Jib, would soon come under Israeli occupation.
In the 1960s, Khairy joined his brother, who was already in Milwaukee, and they opened a grocery store together. But Khairy had his eyes set on Chicago.
“My father was always kind of cosmopolitan, even when he was in Palestine,” said Abudayyeh. “Him and his contemporaries always saw Jerusalem as being the center of their lives … maybe Milwaukee was a little small for him comparatively.”
A few years later, Abudayyeh’s mother, Khiryeh, moved to Chicago and the family settled on the city’s North Side where they became active in community organizing. They “instilled in us early on … going to protests and rallies, even younger than teenagers, for Palestinian rights,” said Abudayyeh.
His father, Khairy, was a co-founder of the Arab Community Center, now formally known as the nonprofit Arab American Action Network. And Abudayyeh is currently the executive director. “It’s the circle of life, right?” he said.
Immigration from non-European countries grew significantly after 1965 when Congress eliminated national origin quotas and established an immigration policy that gave preference to family members of U.S. citizens.
That policy change and the displacement of hundreds of thousands more Palestinians, during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, when the West Bank and Gaza came under Israeli military occupation, led to a second wave of Palestinian migration to Chicago from the 1970s onwards, according to Cainkar and Naber.
“There are a lot of Palestinians in Chicago who have been displaced from the West Bank and Gaza where their town or village or home was razed to the ground, and they were forced to leave,” Naber said. “Then you have people where the economic conditions, as well as the military conditions of living in the West Bank and Gaza, become unbearable with an exceptionally high and growing poverty rate and humanitarian crises.”
Illinois State Representative Abdelnasser Rashid (D-21) is the first Palestinian American to serve in the Illinois House of Representatives. His district includes parts of “Little Palestine” in the southwest suburbs.
Rashid’s parents left Turmus Ayya in the West Bank in 1966 and moved to Puerto Rico. In 1970, they moved to Chicago where they had family living in the Bucktown and Ukrainian Village neighborhoods.
“My parents left Palestine because they didn’t see a way to build a life for their family that was going to be viable with the reality of what was happening in the Middle East, and so they left for economic opportunity and to escape Israeli oppression,” Rashid said.
In 1994, his family moved back to Turmus Ayya when he was five years old so that he and his siblings could “develop a deep relationship with Palestine, with our village, with our culture and our language,” Rashid said. “It is very common for Palestinian families to do that, if they have the ability to do that.”
The six years he spent living in Turmus Ayya, from the ages of five to 11, were formative for him in understanding what it was like to live under a military occupation.
“Even though I didn’t fully understand the political context at the time, I still lived the reality of a brutal, violent Israeli military occupation where I saw Palestinians being beaten or arrested,” Rashid said.
“I remember thinking it was normal that you could not have electricity some days, or not be able to drink water from the spring because it was cut off,” he said. “I remember not being able to attend school sometimes because we were turned back at an Israeli checkpoint, or we’re at a checkpoint for so many hours that you simply missed school.”
Mohamad Abdelhalim’s parents immigrated to Chicago in the 1990s from Turmus Ayya, the same town Rashid’s family is from and where many Palestinian Americans live.
Abdelhalim said his parents left Turmus Ayya because they “felt like they really couldn’t give their children the best life that they can over there.”
The 18-year-old recently graduated high school and feels lucky that he was able to grow up in Chicago. His family settled in the Belmont Cragin area, and he grew up around many other Palestinian families. “I felt that we were privileged to have a safe life over here,” he said.
Asked whether he would move back to Turmus Ayya if he had the chance, Abdelhalim said he would. “I have put plenty of thought into it, and I just feel like I could probably make a change if I moved over there.”
Cainkar says Palestinian immigration to the Chicago area hit its peak in the 1990s driven in part by more Palestinians who joined their families, like Abdelhalim’s, in the United States and after many were exiled from Kuwait and nearby countries following the first Gulf War.
Will there be another wave of migration from the war in Gaza?
Israel and Hamas have been at war for more than a month. An estimated 1,200 Israelis were killed and 240 were taken hostage in the initial Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas militants, according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry and the Israeli military. Israel has responded with airstrikes and an expanding ground invasion. The Palestinian death toll in Gaza continues to climb. More than 11,000 Palestinians have been killed, the Health Ministry in Gaza said on Nov. 13.
Roughly two-thirds of Gaza’s population have fled their homes since the war began, according to the United Nations. In the West Bank, increasing violence from Israeli settlers since the war began has displaced more than 900 Palestinians from 15 herding communities, according to the United Nations.
For Nina Shoman-Dajani, the war and ongoing displacement has revived painful historical parallels.
“This current war on Gaza and on the Palestinian people is taking a toll in a way that has kind of resurrected a lot of the historical trauma that our parents and grandparents and great grandparents experienced with the original Nakba of 1948,” Shoman-Dajani said.
But unlike the waves of Palestinian migration that followed the 1948 war and the wars that followed, an influx of refugees from Gaza as a result of the ongoing war is unlikely, said Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst at the nonprofit Migration Policy Institute. And for those who are able to come here, Batalova said the number of people will be fairly small.
Many Palestinians are unable to leave Gaza or the West Bank “for all sorts of reasons — logistical, financial [and] the fact that they just won’t be accepted by other countries through regular means,” Batalova said.
Even fewer are likely to enter the United States because of the time and difficulty involved in refugee resettlement and family immigration sponsorship, Batalova said. Last year, the United States admitted 56 Palestinian refugees out of more than 60,000 refugees, according to U.S. State Department data.
As of Nov. 7, an estimated 400 Americans have left Gaza, according to the U.S. State Department.
For Palestinians with American citizenship in the West Bank, Rashid says many face a difficult decision.
“I’ve spoken to people who [say] there’s a reason they and their children moved there. They want their children and families to be connected to their land and relatives and learn the language. And they want to stay,” Rashid said. “But of course, they have to protect their families, and if they feel like the only way is to come back to Chicago or other parts of the United States, then that’s what they’re going to do.”
Amy Qin is a data reporter for WBEZ. Archival photo research provided by WBEZ’s Justine Tobiasz.