Living in America

There may be only 1.2 million Arab Americans – according to the US Census Bureau – but most live in states that remain up for grabs for the presidential candidates.  As the American presidential race enters the home straight, before voters head to the polls on November 4, the American Arab Institute is working to register first time Arab Americans so they can ensure that their voices are heard. The group is running a campaign called Yalla Vote 2008 and stressing that in Florida, for example, Arab Americans constitute 1.2 percent of the voting population. As the 2000 presidential election made clear, those votes could make a significant difference.

Zogby International, a polling firm run by Lebanese American John Zogby, whose brother is president of the Arab American Institute and which regularly asks Arab Americans about their political preferences, has found that since 2002 the Arab American community has been moving closer to the Democratic Party. In the most recent poll, conducted in September, 46 percent of Arab Americans said they were Democrats, twice as many as those who declared they were for the Republican Party. Nineteen percent said they were Independent.

Zogby’s work does not look at subgroups within the community, but according to US Census Bureau figures 450,000 have Lebanese roots, and more Lebanese than other Arab Americans intend to vote for John McCain. (Zogby’s polls also ask respondents which faith they follow. Lebanese make up the majority of American Arab Catholics, with 53 percent of this subgroup saying they will vote for McCain compared to the total Arab American population, of which 54 percent supports Obama.)

Standing apart

This is not the only area where Lebanese differ from the rest of the Arab American community. They arrived in America before other Arabs – 54 percent came before 1990, compared to 40 percent of the total Arab American population, according to the Census Bureau – and own their own homes in greater number (73 percent versus 62 percent).

Lebanese American families also earn more, with a median yearly income of $75,341, more than both the total Arab American population ($63,899) and the total US population ($58,526). Only 7.8 percent of Lebanese American families live in poverty while 12 percent of all Arab American and 9.8 percent of all American families have this unfortunate distinction.

Also, Lebanese American women tend to be more independent than their counterparts in the wider Arab American community. Some 13 percent of Lebanese American women live alone (compared to 9.8 percent of all Arab American women) and 5.5 percent are single mothers (compared to 4.9 percent of all Arab American women).

Ties to home

Like many immigrant populations in America, the Lebanese regularly celebrate their heritage. The International Maronite Foundation has its headquarters in California, where it holds yearly conferences. California, which has the second-highest (9 percent) population of Lebanese Americans is also home to the American Druze Society, which has chapters across America. “It’s a networking community tool,” said Rabih Ghabban, a member. “It’s a meeting place where Druze can get together.”

The society, Ghabban said, does not actively engage in or reflect trends in Lebanese politics, but many Lebanese Americans are passionate about what happens in their adopted country. “If you ask the older generation, who came during the [Lebanese] civil war, they care more about political developments in Lebanon, but the younger generation either has no idea or doesn’t care. Among the youth, Lebanese politics rarely – if at all – comes up. It’s more common for American politics to come up – Obama and McCain instead of Jumblatt.”

That is not to say, however, that there is no outlet for those Lebanese Americans who still care deeply about Lebanese affairs. Several political parties, such as the Future Movement and the Lebanese Forces, have US branches. On www.futuremovementusa.com, partisans posted pictures of their official delegation taking part in a Memorial Day parade in Michigan – the state with the largest Lebanese American population.

John Faddoul, president of the Kataeb in the US, which lobbies and fundraises, moved to America in 1978 but still cares very deeply about the party and its role in Lebanon. The Kataeb has 15 chapters in America, down from a high of around 28 just before 1988, but they are looking to start another five chapters soon, including one in Chicago.

Lebanese Americans are also very active in lobbying the federal government, especially when it comes to influencing American policy toward Syria. Other groups, like the American Task Force for Lebanon (ATFL), have lobbied, so far unsuccessfully, to get America to sign a treaty banning the use of cluster bombs and to pressure Israel into releasing maps of strike zones during the 2006 war.