'We started a movement': What does National Heritage Month mean to Arab Americans?

6 min read
Washington, D.C.
14 April, 2023

During the month of April, the achievements and contributions of Arab Americans are celebrated during National Arab American Heritage Month. 

This is increasingly being recognised across the US in schools, municipalities, cities, states and most recently nationally.

The Arab America Foundation started the initiative in 2017, following years of informal celebrations featuring food, music and other culture that sometimes lasted a day or a week.


This year, US President Joe Biden issued a historic proclamation for Arab American Heritage Month. In it, he paid tribute to the community's contributions, but also acknowledged the hatred and discrimination they have faced and continue to face. 

Arab American Heritage Month joins other cultural months for different communities across the US. These include Black History Month in February, Irish American Heritage in March, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May, National Hispanic Heritage Month from mid-September to mid-October, Polish American Heritage Month in October, and Native American Heritage Month in November.

Warren David, president of the Arab America Foundation

In 2017, Amal and I sat down and formed Arab American Heritage Month (Amal David is the director of operations and outreach at Arab America, married to Warren David). We had several states that went along with us. The turning point for us was in 2021 when we asked if the president could commemorate the month with a letter.

This year, 2023, was the first presidential proclamation. We started a movement. We brought together a network of volunteers from all over the country. Now, we have 28 state teams that have gone out to municipalities to get proclamations. We have proclamations from 32 governors. We're shooting for 50.

"This is a time when Arab Americans get to feel good about being Arab American, and about our identity and heritage and who we are. It's great to hear other people, other than Arab Americans, say good things about Arab Americans"

Our foundation is pan-Arab because our identities are very diverse. As much as we celebrate our differences, we also need to come together. What unites us is the Arabic language, hospitality and hummus. Those attributes bring us together. We have as many red states as blue states.

It's a wonderful time and a wonderful initiative. Our long-term goal is to make it permanent. So far, it's permanent in three states: Illinois, Oregon and Virginia. Once it becomes permanent, then it becomes part of the school calendar. 

Mohamed Khairullah, mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey:

Arab American Heritage Month is a good symbolic gesture, but it needs to have more teeth and nails. There needs to be something on the books brought to life at the institutional level.

We do a proclamation every year, but obviously, we'd love for the local school district or municipality to do more in terms of acknowledgement.

That's something I'd like to focus on more, meeting with the school boards and some of the other stakeholders for recognition.

We do Black History Month and Hispanic Heritage Month. For Arab American Heritage Month, all we do is a proclamation and then we move on. We've talked with the governor's office, and he met with a group of Arab Americans. There's an Arab American commission in New Jersey, but it's essentially dead in terms of membership and activities. If we can get the state to activate the commission, it will help to revitalise it.

"I think it's going to take a more concerted effort by the Arab American community. We can't wait for people to acknowledge our contributions"

We have to go out there and promote it in our local communities. We need to have local efforts that repeat themselves on a yearly basis. Everybody loves Arab food and culture, but no one takes the time to celebrate. Everybody is busy. Somebody has to take the time to start something that becomes a tradition. We plan on doing more.

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Dina Chehata, associate managing attorney of the civil rights department of CAIR-Los Angeles:

Most of us grew up not being able to identify as we saw fit. Arabs tend to be maligned and stereotyped. We like to think it's outdated, but it's still very present. It's nice to have a month when Arab Americans are like other Americans, being identified and counted for who we are, and not as an exploited group. 

It's important to recognise that Arabs are very diverse. I'm North African (Chehata grew up in Egypt and California), but some are from Southwest Asia and some are from the Arabian Peninsula.

"You don't want to homogenise people into a monolith. I'm a brown-skinned woman. To say I'm white in the census is not who I am. It's nice to be recognised more accurately and represented"

The president has recognised Arab American Heritage Month. We contribute to American society in so many ways. I'm someone who really appreciates the richness that comes with being multilingual and multicultural.

We also have so many things that are similar. There's a richness in the Arab fabric — the different dialects, the differences in music, and food traditions, it's a very rich group of people.

It's very beautiful to appreciate people's distinct cultures. Like any group, we have things that bind us together. I think it's a really great step in the right direction. 

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Hussam Ayloush, executive director of CAIR-California:

I am happy to see my heritage being recognised at various government levels. It is even more important for my children to know that they are not invisible and that, like other communities in our diverse country, their heritage and culture are recognised and celebrated.

It is heartwarming to reflect on the progress of the Arab American image in the public sphere.

"Our community was first invisible, then became the subject of ridicule by Hollywood, and then got demonised and smeared after the 9/11 attacks"

And now, after a surge in Arab American and Muslim American activism and engagement in politics, arts, media, business, and all other areas over the past two decades, we finally see the public and government gradually pay respect to the community and its positive contributions to our country and society.

Evelyn Alsultany, associate professor in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity and the author of the book Broken: The Failed Promise of Muslim Inclusion

Arab Americans have been part of the US since at least the 1880s.

While it will not end state policies that are discriminatory towards Arabs or individual acts of hate, official recognition of Arab American Heritage Month provides the community with visibility and a sense of belonging.

Brooke Anderson is The New Arab's Washington, DC correspondent. She did her BA in Geography of the Middle East at the University of London, SOAS, where she wrote a dissertation on water policy in Syria and Turkey. She spent five years in Damascus, where she studied Arabic and worked as a journalist and eight years in Beirut, where she mainly worked as a journalist. She has won awards for writing about police brutality in the US and Syrian refugees in Lebanon.

Follow her on Twitter: @Brookethenews