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Arab Americans

Abstract and Keywords

This entry defines the term Arab American, followed by a discussion of the two waves of immigration: before 1924 and post-1965. A demographic overview is presented next, drawing from data available through analysis of the ancestry question on the long form of the United States Census. Previously invisible in the scholarly and practice literatures, key concerns related to stereotypes emanating through recent world events, assumptions about gender relations, and struggles concerning family relations are highlighted. Finally, practice implications are considered, with an emphasis on cultural sensitivity and social justice.

The term Arab American is relatively new, signifying a pan-ethnic term meant to capture a diverse group of people who differ with respect to national origins, religion, and historical experiences of migration to the United States. Arab American refers to those individuals whose ancestors arrived from Arab-speaking countries, including 22 nations in North Africa and West Asia. Religious faiths include both Christian and Muslim; Lebanon is the number one country of origin for Arab immigrants to the United States, followed by Syria and Egypt. Defined objectively, any individual with ancestral ties to an Arabic-speaking country may be considered an Arab American. This characterization, however, rests upon a language-based definition, obscuring the cultural and structural variations that differentiate those who fall within this pan-ethnic category (Ajrouch & Jamal, 2007).

Keywords: Arab, ethnicity, gender, Muslim, stereotype

Immigration History

Immigration from Arab-speaking countries occurred in two major waves. The first wave began during the late 1800s, and ended in 1924 with the passage of the National Origins Act. The majority were of the Christian faith, originating from the Levant, or modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, and Palestine, and emigrated primarily to seek economic opportunities. Those arriving in the first wave were originally farmers who in the United States became peddlers. The later wave began in 1965, had a majority who were from the Muslim faith, and arrived from all over the Arab world. The largest group was displaced Palestinians, but also included those from Egypt, Iraq, Yemen, North Africa, as well as Lebanon and Syria. The circumstances surrounding their emigration differed substantially from the first wave. Political turmoil and war marked their countries of origin, and many arrived in America with an Arab political consciousness unknown to earlier immigrants. The second wave was composed of two primary groups: (a) those with more education—many either held college degrees, or came to the United States in order to earn them; and (b) refugees fleeing conflict in the region.


Based on the 2000 Census, at least 3.5 million Americans are of Arab descent. There are 11 states where one finds the majority of Arab Americans, including California, Michigan, New York, Massachusetts, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Texas, New Jersey, Florida, and Virginia. California boasts the largest number of Arab Americans in the country, but southeastern Michigan is home to the biggest, most visible concentration. Immigration to Michigan from an Arab-speaking country grew by 65% between 1990 and 2000.

Approximately two-thirds of Arab Americans report belonging to the Christian faith, and one-fourth to Islam. Americans with Arab ancestry are more likely to be born in the United States than to be an immigrant, and the majority of immigrants from Arab-speaking countries are naturalized U.S. citizens (Brittingham & de la Cruz, 2005). Compared to the average American, those of Arab descent are more likely to have a postgraduate degree, more likely to work in management or professional or the service sector, and on average report a higher mean annual income. Some new arrivals struggle economically, however, resulting in a poverty rate close to 10% (http://www.aaiusa.org/arab-americans/22/demographics).

Practice Implications

Stereotypes. Some refer to Arab Americans as an invisible minority in the United States (Ajrouch, 2005; Cainkar, 2003). Research that empirically documents lives of individuals with ancestry from an Arab-speaking country provides important insights into the pragmatics of their attitudes and experiences. Perhaps most relevant for social work practice is that Arab Americans are not a homogenous ethnic group, but instead are quite diverse with varying needs depending on characteristics such as age, education level, and geographic location.

Arab Americans now, more than ever, face critical judgments and stigmatized identities because of recent world events. Arab Americans are officially classified non-Hispanic Whites, yet attention is increasingly directed toward them because of the events and aftermath of September 11, 2001. Stereotyped perceptions of Arab Americans become the primary means by which most of the United States understands Americans of Arab origin (Cainkar, 2003).

Gender relations represent an area that social work must approach with a keen sense of cultural sensitivity. Assumptions that Arab American women/girls are unilaterally oppressed and devalued because of culture can pose an obstacle to effective service delivery. Patriarchy has historically characterized relations between men and women in the United States regardless of ethnicity, a critical detail that provides a context for understanding Arab American women's experiences and situations. Another delicate issue among Muslim Arab Americans concerns the veil or hijab. Some women wear it while others do not. It is not mandated, but instead derives from interpretations of religious teaching. Some young Muslim women in the United States choose to wear hijab as a symbol of their identity.

Family relations constitute another area of importance. Similar to other immigrant groups, relations between parents and children may involve conflict because of adaptation and acculturation processes. For instance, in a study (Ajrouch, 1999) focusing on adolescent children of immigrants and their parents, it was found that parents increased restrictions on their daughters' behavior in the United States to battle perceived negative aspects such as pre-marital sex, drug use, etc. of the host culture. The daughters themselves expressed a desire for more personal freedoms, but concurrently reported a sense of security and belonging through parental and communal restrictions.

An emerging area of importance concerns the situation of older Arab Americans. In particular, many of the oldest generation left their homelands before having to experience caring for their own parents, and so norms of elder care have been forged more on the basis of ideals than learned experience. Research (Ajrouch, 2005) suggests that a preference for independence coexists with high value placed on children's help, yet a simultaneous wish not to burden their children. Social workers should consider that Arab Americans struggle to address the increasing challenges faced by the demographic reality of longer life expectancies, smaller families, and women who increasingly are employed outside the home. Caring for older adults is often shouldered alone, without the benefit of community resources, support, or co-ethnic validation of the challenges associated with care giving situations.

Cultural ideals within this ethnic group are important to recognize and carefully evaluate. For instance, family is the traditional source of security for Arab Americans, and so should be viewed as a strength and resource in times of need, yet must not be assumed to serve as the sole source of support. Similar to other groups in the United States, families act in response to environmental and societal challenges, and hence may be vulnerable. Effective practice and policy will recognize both the strengths and vulnerabilities within Arab American families. Social workers at various levels ought to recognize that a challenge for Arab Americans is to find a way to both ask for and accept formal support without implying or acknowledging any disappointment or neglect on the part of the family.

As in working with clients from any given ethnic group, social workers should evaluate their own perceptions and beliefs about Arab Americans, determine the source of those attitudes or beliefs, and then evaluate each case on its own terms. Arab Americans are quite diverse, and issues of concern may vary by national origin, religion, and immigrant status. Owing to the wide range of diversity and identity parameters, social workers should not necessarily assume that they understand the predicament an Arab American client faces. The clients and issues in need of attention may depend upon setting. For example, a social worker employed by a human services agency may be more likely to work with a recent immigrant or a refugee with relatively more pressing economic and social services needs. When working with Arab Americans, social workers must consider the overall context or family situations of clients to address such challenges with cultural sensitivity, empathy, and social justice.


Ajrouch, K. J., & Jamal, A. (2007). Assimilating to a white identity: The case of Arab Americans. International Migration Review 41(4), 860–879.Find this resource:

    Ajrouch, K. J. 2007. Resources and well-being among Arab-American elders. Journal of Cross Cultural Gerontology, 22(2), 167–182.Find this resource:

      Ajrouch, K. J. (2005). Arab-American immigrant elders' views about social support. Ageing and Society, 25(5), 655–673.Find this resource:

        Ajrouch, K. J. (1999). Family and ethnic identity in an Arab American community. In M. Suleiman (Ed.), Arabs in America: Building a new future (pp. 129–139). Philadelphia: Temple University Press.Find this resource:

          Brittingham, A., & de la Cruz, G. P. (2005). We the people of Arab ancestry in the United States. Current population reports. Washington, DC: Department of Commerce. Retrieved May 18, 2006, from http://www.census.gov.Find this resource:

            Cainkar, L. (2003). No longer invisible: Arab and Muslim exclusion after September 11. Middle East Report. Retrieved August 31, 2006, from http://www.merip.org/mer/mer224/224_cainkar.html

            Further Reading

            Arab American Demographics. Washington, DC: Arab American Institute. Retrieved May 30, 2007, from http://www.aaiusa.org/arab-americans/22/demographics

            Nassar-McMillan, S. C. (2003, January). Counseling Arab Americans: Counselors' call for advocacy and social justice. Counseling and Human Development. Retrieved May 30, 2007, from http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3934/is_200301/ai_n9170054.

            Read, J. G. (2004). Culture, class, and work among Arab-American women. New York: LFB Scholarly Publishing LLC.Find this resource: