The Lebanese Diaspora in the USA… A century of immigration

In 1992, President Bill Clinton said that Lebanese Americans “have played a great role in the history of the United States, with major achievements in medicine, business, law, government and the arts.” Two decades later Yale Law School professors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld published The Triple Package in which they categorized Lebanese Americans as one of the eight most successful immigrant groups in the United States. NOW takes a look at the Lebanese Diaspora in the Unites States.

The Lebanese-American community

Out of 316 million people in the United States, 1.5 million are of Arab ancestry. Lebanese Americans are the largest group within that Arab population, with a population of nearly 1 million.

The Lebanese American population is scattered throughout the Unites States, with the majority living on the east coast. Brooklyn is said to have one of the oldest Lebanese populations in America, dating over 125 years, with a large enclave in the Bay Ridge area. A large number live in the Midwest, primarily in Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago and Toledo. A significant number live in southern California, attracted by a climate and landscape both similar to that of Lebanon.

A successful immigrant group

Lebanese Americans report high rates of social and educational achievement. On average, as of the American Community Survey (ACS) 5-year estimates (2006–2010), Lebanese Americans have high rates of home ownership, bigger houses, and higher income than the average American citizen, and tend to be more highly educated than the general population.

Lebanese prominence: sectors and regions

In Motor City, Detroit, there is a substantial number of high-profile Lebanese American executives, a large number of upper and mid-level executives, engineers and administrative white collar employees, coupled with leaders in the unions, blue-collar work, as well as dealership owners, tire company proprietors, after-market corporations, and automotive consultants.

In New York and Los Angeles, there has been an influx of very successful Lebanese Americans in theater, television, film, fashion and food.   

As for Washington, DC, Lebanese Americans have succeeded in politics. They have served in the cabinets of the last three presidential administrations. They are being elected to Congress and as governors, with one currently serving as a presidential chief of staff. The former head of US Central Command is a Lebanese American, as is the now-retired Supreme Commander of NATO.

Lebanese Americans are also active in professional sports such as basketball, hockey, boxing and race car driving. Quite a few Lebanese Americans have also served or continue to serve as presidents of major universities throughout the country.

History of emigration to the US

Half or more of Lebanese Americans are descended from immigrants who arrived to the United States between 1880 and 1940 and the rest arrived after World War II.

The Lebanese peddler

The fundamental factor in the assimilation of the Lebanese in America and the source of their success was peddling goods on foot. They were attracted to it because it required no capital, advanced training, or knowledge of English. They sold ribbons, jewelry, calico work, children’s clothes and much more. They settled in various regions around the country and adopted respective social attitudes, manners and regional accents. Some Lebanese Americanized their names to overcome difficulties in spelling and pronunciation of Arabic names.

Being “In business”

Lebanese families in the US retained many of their native traditions and values, such as defending and enhancing family status. It produced a competitive spirit that in turn bred an ethic of hard work that paralleled the spirit of the American Dream very much at the forefront of American social consciousness at the time. Given the economic opportunity and the similarities between the two value systems, the Lebanese became as success-oriented and free enterprising as their American hosts.

But by 1910, peddling had become obsolete so many Lebanese opened family businesses in cities and small towns. They sold dry goods and groceries and subsequently expanded into everything from banking, wholesaling and manufacturing to restaurants and cinemas.

In New York, they graduated to selling prestigious imported rugs and linens and began to refer to themselves as salesmen. They also produced lace, linens, and kimonos. Merchants dressed smartly and developed wealthy clienteles. This was a golden era for Lebanese Americans. Some became millionaires.

Early success stories

Mansour Farah left Lebanon for Mexico in 1905. He then went to New York to learn shirt design and manufacturing. Later, he moved to El Paso, Texas, with his family and opened a small factory that produced blue chambray work shirts. He then changed his line to denim pants. On his death in 1937, his sons expanded nationally and specialized in men’s apparel.

Joseph Haggar got his start as a cotton grader in 1908 and later peddled. In 1921, he moved his family to Dallas, Texas, bought a few sewing machines and started manufacturing work pants. His innovative assembly line became a model for the entire industry. The Haggar Company would become the world’s largest manufacturers of men’s dress slacks.

Theodore Gantos began as a peddler in 1924 in Grand Rapids, Michigan. With his new bride he opened a store in 1932. In a few years, they moved downtown where the business grew into a department store, the forerunner of the Gantos Corporation, a nationwide chain of women’s boutiques operated by his wife and sons, since his death in 1970.

Politicized communities

It was in the United States that Lebanese Americans began to organize democratically-run clubs and societies. In time, societies based on family name and place of origin were formed. They modernized their respective villages with schools, hospitals, orphanages and new churches.

Organizations motivated by homeland politics did not appear until the First World War. One exception was the Lebanon League of Progress, founded in 1911, to promote a French-supported Maronite-dominated Lebanon.

Lebanese and their descendants were mainly conservative, generally voting Republican because of their economic success and partly because the Republican ideology, with its emphasis on individualism, was predominant among the Diaspora. Since then, numerous Lebanese have entered politics at the local level.

In 1958, the first descendant of a Lebanese immigrant won a seat in congress. Twenty years later, in 1978, James Abourezk of South Dakota, the son of a peddler, became the first Lebanese in the United States Senate. That year, five Lebanese Americans were in the House of Representatives.

One was a woman. Mary Rose Oakar was elected to Congress from Cleveland, Ohio, in 1977 and in 1989 served her seventh consecutive term.

One of Mary Rose Oakar's Lebanese-American colleagues in Congress was Nick Joe Rahall, of West Virginia.

Mary Rose Oakar's other Lebanese-American colleague was the second-term Senator George Mitchell, a former judge from Maine. The Senate elected Mitchell majority leader in 1989, the highest office in the United States Senate.

At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, President George Bush appointed John Sununu, former governor of New Hampshire, as chief of staff.

Philip Habib, son of a Brooklyn grocer was an expert on Southeast Asia and key negotiator in the peace talks that ended the Vietnam War. In 1980, he was under secretary of State for Political Affairs, the highest career position in the Foreign Service. In 1981, he negotiated a ceasefire across the Lebanese-Israeli border.

* Source: Now Media – Nadine Elali---Other sources: Sources: Success factors of Lebanese Small Businesses in the United States by Zeinab Fawaz I The Arab community in the United States by Michael Suleiman I Lebanese Immigration into the United States by Alixa Naff I The Lebanon in the World by Charles Issawi. I Disclaimer: Information extracted from various books and references and remains estimates instead of real data. I John Akouri, the president and CEO of the Lebanese American Chamber of Commerce I Lebanese Emigration Research center (LERC) NDU


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