Houston Chronicle – December 6, 2003
Arab-Americans' successful assimilation
makes them difficult to count
By KIM COBB
When Abdel Kader Fustok moved to Houston in 1975 and started looking for a taste of home, he could find only one Arab restaurant in this booming city.
Almost three decades later, Houston has the fifth-largest population of Arab descent of any city in the United States, according to a new census report. As for Arab restaurants, "They're everywhere," says plastic surgeon Fustok.
But while the growth of the Arab-American population here may be obvious when flipping through a restaurant guide, there is disagreement over the numbers. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the Arab population in Houston at 11,128, but community leaders say that is an undercount of at least 40,000.
The conventional wisdom among many Arab-Americans is they are easy to overlook, and hard to count, because they have assimilated so well. Others say the population needs to become more vocal -- a touchy goal in the post-9/11 era.
Local community leaders claim Houston's population of Arab descent is as high as 65,000, a drop in the bucket in a city of 2 million.
But the numbers don't tell the whole story: It is a well-educated, largely affluent community well-represented among the city's most influential people, and it pulls enough weight that Arab-American leaders such as Fustok have a standing meeting with Mayor Lee Brown every two months.
"I wouldn't underestimate their voice," said Dr. Jen'nan Read, a sociologist of Arab descent at the University of California at Irvine who spent much of the last decade researching Arab-Americans in Houston.
Many can trace their roots back to the first wave of immigrants from Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and what was then Palestine in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
"These people became part of the cultural and industrial map of Houston," said Fustok, president of the Arab-American Cultural and Community Center here.
From the early immigrant families came oil magnate Michel Halbouty, attorney Joe Jamail, surgeon Michael DeBakey, and former City Council members Louis Macey and Helen Huey, he said.
"Houston has one of the more settled Arab communities," Read said, unlike cities such as Dearborn, Mich., where recent immigrants have swelled the Arab-American population to 30 percent of its residents. Many people are surprised to learn that two-thirds of Arabs in Houston are Christian, she said.
"They have a real American identity -- not just among Christians, but among Muslims, too."
Ruth Ann Skaff moved to Houston as a child in 1959 when her father took over as pastor of St. George Antiochan Orthodox Church. Her grandparents had immigrated to the United States from small villages in Lebanon in the 1880s.
Her family and friends didn't think of themselves as "Arab-Americans" then, she said, but were aware of their Arab heritage.
Skaff graduated from the University of Texas in 1972 and spent the next decade in the Peace Corps. Returning to Houston in 1983, she was at first puzzled by the formation of the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee, but would later serve as the organization's Texas coordinator.
"And then they showed me these despicable editorial cartoons, and the astonishing and insidious blatant defamation of Arab people," Skaff said. "That's when I made the decision to self-identify as an Arab-American."
Skaff, now working in Washington as a fund-raiser for an Arab-American social services organization, says she understands why the Census Bureau undercounts the Arab population. There is disagreement, even among Arabs, as to who should be considered "Arab," and there is a reluctance among many to embrace the label, she said.
"People who are third and fourth and fifth generation, people who have grown up in this country, people my age, have been bombarded with the (negative) image of the Arab," Skaff said. "And a lot of my friends will look me dead in the eye and say, `I'm not of Arab descent.'
"They'll say, `I'm Phoenician,' or whatever," Skaff said. "They're ashamed, because of the vicious stereotyping that occurs."
This is the first time the Census Bureau has issued a report focusing on the Arab-American population. The question on ancestry or ethnic heritage went out on the 2000 Census long form to one out of every six households, but 19 percent of the respondents provided no response to the ancestry question.
The Census Bureau reports 1.25 million Americans claimed Arab ancestry in the 2000 Census -- an increase of about 40 percent over 1990. But the Arab American Institute Foundation in Washington, D.C., a partner with the Census Bureau, estimates the national population of Arab-Americans to be more than 3.5 million.
The census acknowledges 18 countries as Arab, but the Arab American Institute Foundation also recognizes Arabic-speaking people who call themselves Assyrian or Chaldean, Somali or Sudanese.
The number of Texans who claim Arab ancestry has more than doubled since the census first measured ethnic origin in 1980, and AAIF studies show that Texas is one of the most popular destinations for new arrivals from the Persian Gulf region.
"Just the fact that this particular report shows a number in the range of 11,000 is indicative of the underestimation of the (Houston Arab) community," said Houston attorney DeeDee Baba, 29. "There are that many in Sugar Land, alone, right?"
As coordinator of the local Arab American Leadership Council, Baba sees that low number as evidence that Houston residents of Arab descent have made themselves easy to overlook, and need to be more vocal.
"Sometimes, in the current political climate, maybe there are not a lot of people who are proud to be Arab-Americans," Baba said. "Sometimes, if you just kind of do your own thing, you can avoid the stigma. I don't know if that's been the trend for 10 years, but post-9/11 may be a factor to consider."
But Fustok, who was born in Syria, suggests different motivation for the low profile.
"Most Arab-Americans, when they come here, they want to fit," Fustok said. "They don't see themselves as different, and they see themselves as guests of a country. As guests, they try to make as few waves as possible."
Descendants of the first major wave of Arab immigration to the United States (1880-1920) are now well into their fifth generation, and more recent Arab immigration has averaged more than 25,000 annually in the past decade alone.
Arab immigrants arriving in Houston in recent decades tend to be highly educated, with incomes higher than the average American -- good predictors of future political involvement, according to Rice University sociologist Stephen Klineberg.
"This is a brain drain of monumental proportions coming from these countries," Klineberg said. "Their children are going to be dynamite."