Devon Akmon

Random Musings. Visual Interpretations.

Arab Americans in Search of Their Family History

Jeff Karoub, a Michigan-based reporter for the Associated Press, just published an excellent article titled, After a century, US Arabs look for pieces of past. As the title suggests, the article explores the difficulties in tracing the (factual) histories of Arab families that settled in the United States prior to 1924. Karoub draws upon his own frustrations of researching his family’s history in metropolitan Detroit.

The article speaks to many of the challenges we face when conducting research on Arab Americans who settled in the United States during the first major wave of Arab immigration (1880-1924). During this time, more than 20 million immigrants entered the U.S. Approximately 95,000 of these immigrants were from Greater Syria (present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel). For various reasons, including Ottoman rule in the homeland and the desire for rapid assimilation in the U.S., tracing the history of Arab Americans from this time period can be extremely challenging.

Mr. Karoub interviewed me for this article several months ago. As detailed in the feature, I can empathize with Mr. Karoub’s frustration with tracing his family’s history. As a third-generation American, you would hope to have a rather robust understanding of your family’s immigration story. However, this is not so for my family. I know roughly when my family arrived to the U.S., the name of our family’s village, but very little else. This is strange given that we have retained so many of our family’s customs and traditions. I have no idea why my family first settled in Kentucky, when they arrived in Detroit, our why my paternal grandfather’s family changed their surname from Joseph to Shatter. So many mysteries with so few answers.

We are currently working on a few initiatives at the AANM to help document and preserve family history. Many of these projects are being led by our staff in the Library & Resource Center. This includes the creation of a Community Resource Directory wiki, which will enable Arab Americans from around the country the opportunity to build community history for the comforts of their home. Additionally, we are creating a new laboratory in the L&RC for recording oral histories and digitizing two-dimensional artifacts and ephemera. Together, we hope these resources will provide an outlet for preserving Arab American history and documenting family histories.