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Census: More Arabs Live In U.S.

Raghdaa Ali, who immigrated from Iraq three years ago, has found it easy to adjust to life in this heavily Arab Detroit suburb.

"Everybody wants to live in a place they can work, make money, live safely," said Ali, 23, who works at Middle East Financial Services, a small business flanked by Arab-owned grocery stores, restaurants and hair salons.

The Arab population in the United States has nearly doubled in the past two decades, according to the Census Bureau's first report on the group.

The bureau counted nearly 1.2 million Arabs in the United States in 2000, compared with 860,000 in 1990 and 610,000 in 1980. About 60 percent trace their ancestry to three countries: Lebanon, Syria and Egypt.

The census report stops at 2000 - the year Ali and her husband came here from Baghdad - so there is no data to measure the impact of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But tighter immigration procedures imposed after then have reduced the flow of Arabs to the United States.

While earlier Arab immigrants came from countries with large Christian populations, newer arrivals come from heavily Muslim countries such as Iraq and Yemen.

"Immigrants from the Arab world come for the same reason all immigrants come - economic opportunity, opportunities to have an education, to develop a professional career," said Helen Samhan, executive director of the Arab American Institute Foundation, a research group.

Samhan said the lifting of U.S. immigration quotas in the 1960s opened the door to people from Arab countries and many took advantage during the 1980s and 1990s, with a large number coming from nations such as Lebanon and Iraq where there were wars.

Almost half of the Arabs in the United States live in five states - California (190,890), New York (120,370), Michigan (115,284), New Jersey (71,770) and Florida (77,461).

"It would be better to come to America than Europe or Canada," said Zak Trad, 33, of Anaheim, Calif., who emigrated from Lebanon three years ago. "It's the largest Arab community not in an Arab country. I didn't think I would be a stranger here."

New York City, the first stop for millions of immigrants for more than a century, had the largest Arab population among U.S. cities, 69,985. Dearborn, where many Arabs first settled to work in the automobile industry, was next at 29,181.

Billboards and storefronts bearing Arabic greetings remind motorists driving into Dearborn that about a third of the city's residents identify themselves as Arab or Arab-American.

Pharaoh's Cafe stands out in a predominantly Arab business district with small red and green bells spray-painted on the windows offering Christmas, New Year's and Ramadan greetings in English and Arabic. Omar Abdul-Hamid has owned the cafe - which features belly dancers and hookahs - for four years. He moved to the area in 1985.

"When I got here, there weren't that many Arabs, not many businesses or stores," said Abdul-Hamid, 43, who is Egyptian. "Now there's a lot, a lot, a lot."

Sterling Heights, Mich., was the city with the largest percentage of Arab-Americans, 3.7 percent, followed by Jersey City, N.J., with 2.8 percent. Dearborn was not ranked because the Census Bureau only counted cities with at least 100,000 residents; Dearborn has about 98,000.

The bureau asked those who received the long version of their decennial questionnaire to list their ancestry. The form was sent to about one-sixth of all households.

Arab-Americans say their population is larger than that reported, but many are reluctant to fill out government forms because they came from countries with oppressive regimes.

The Arab American Institute Foundation said that just over 15,000 visas were issued to immigrants from Arab countries in 2002, compared with more than 21,000 in 2001.

"The fact that immigration procedures and visa applications have been so tightly screened is going to slow down the volume of new immigrants," Samhan said.

The backlash that occurred against Arab Americans following Sept. 11 served to draw them closer and get more involved in politics. The concentration of Arab-Americans in a few key election states, particularly Michigan, also has boosted their political influence.

In October, seven of the nine Democratic presidential candidates addressed the Arab American Institute's national leadership conference either in person or by satellite, and an eighth, Wesley Clark, had a statement read for him because he was losing his voice.

"These days, anything that moves votes one way or another by the thousands can have an impact of seismic proportions," said pollster John Zogby, himself an Arab-American.

By Sarah Freeman

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