Arabs In Cleveland Area Striving For Acceptance

CLEVELAND (AP) - Since 1990, the Arab-American community in northeast Ohio has more than doubled in size, and leaders of the community say it's much bigger than the official numbers indicate.

The Census Bureau has estimated that the area's Arab-American population has grown to about 40,000, compared with 19,000 in 1990.

Arab-American civic leaders say the real number is between 60,000 and 70,000 in the seven-county region surrounding Cleveland.

That amounts to the fifth-largest Arab-American metropolitan-area population in the nation, behind Detroit, Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles, said Helen Samhan, a demographics specialist for the American Arab Institute in Washington.

Many of the new immigrants made their way to Ohio from Palestine. Samhan said the Cleveland area has about 14,000 Palestinians, the second-largest concentration of Palestinians in the nation. Only Chicago has a larger Palestinian population.

Through specialized classes, Palestinian parents hope to connect their children to Islam and the language of their culture, instilling a sense of identity even as they encounter suspicion and occasional antagonism following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, The Plain Dealer reported Tuesday.

"My daughter, she gets asked all the time now, 'What is Islam? Who are you people?"' said Intisar Abed, who enrolled her four children in an Arabic school in part to prepare them for what they face at public school.

Many of the Palestinians put in long hours, often at small stores, as they try to establish financial security.

At the All for One Market in Cleveland, Asma Hassan is usually behind the counter from dawn to well past dark. Her husband, Mike, and one or two of their five children often join her.

She came to the city five years ago from California after growing up in Beit Hanina, a Palestinian village in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. She and her husband have family there.

In some ways, they never left. The store's telephone rings often with calls from the village.

Between 1990 and 2000, 15 Arab shopkeepers in Cleveland were killed in robberies.

Despite the risks, Mustafa Ali, 58, owner of Anne's Beverage, never has considered another trade.

"You make a good living," he said with a shrug. "You don't have to work for somebody else. Nobody tells you what to do."

He said running a small store appeals to the Arab sense of individualism. It's also a business accessible to immigrants with little capital who can pool savings with family members.

Mufeed Kirresh was a mechanical engineer, but now owns and runs the Green Harvest Deli market in a neighborhood on the city's west side known as Little Arabia for its Arabic shops and restaurants.

Kirresh came to the United States from Jerusalem 20 years ago. Lately, people have been shouting at him to go home. The insults distress him.

"We're Americans," he said. "I feel shame to have any American look at me as a stranger. Shame. This whole country is immigrants. So why do people give me dirty looks like this?"

(Copyright 2001 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)