Arab-Americans among victims of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation

Fayik worked in a supermarket in New Orleans when Hurricane Katrina slammed into the city and the entire Gulf Coast was devastated on August 29.

For seven days since the devastation, his family back in Nileen near Ramallah in Palestine was frantically making calls to relatives and friends and anyone they could to find out information about him.

On Tuesday, relatives got word he was safe, huddled in a church with other evacuees.

Officially, according to the 2000 US Census, there are only about 24,000 Arabs in the three states most impacted by the hurricane, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

But Arab community activists have long questioned the historic inaccuracy of the governments effort to tabulate the true population of Arabs in America, putting the number at three times the government statistic.

Surely, Arabs are among the casualties and those forced into homeless refugee status. Most of the Arabs live in the cities hardest hit.

Fayik’s story has to be only one of hundreds that probably exist but that few will find out about for months, mainly because Arab Americans in the South are considered an invisible population.

Google the word “Arab” and the phrase “Hurricane Katrina” and you’ll get a long list of articles and commentaries blaming the Arab Oil producers for the increases in pricing, a myth that most Americans accept as fact because of racism.

None address the impact of the storm on the Arab Americans of the southern coastal region.

Part of the problem is the erosion of Arab American organizations that are being consumed by the growing and more powerful Muslim American organizations. If you are an Arab who is Muslim, chances are you will find support and concern from the larger American Muslim community.

There are about 7 million Muslims in the United States, and about 22 percent are Arab. There are about 4.5 million Arabs in the United States, and the majority are Christian.

Muslim American organizations have been generously raising money not only to help their own Muslim community but also the larger American community. Very little is being organized by secular Arab organizations or by Arab Christian Churches.

Accurate census data on Arab Americans is non-existent, mainly because the American political establishment controls minorities by minimizing their presence in the country’s tabulations. The fact is grants and funding is based on population size.

In recent years, American citizens and residents were permitted to identify themselves on census forms, so we do have some data from those Arab Americans who identified themselves as such.

But studies show that even the U.S. Census estimates represent only a third of the populations, and are woefully inaccurate.

According to the U.S. Census, here are the Arab populations in each of the three states, followed by the number most Arab American activists believe is closer to reality.

  • Louisiana: 4.5 million citizens and 13,445 Arabs, according to the US Census. Estimated accurate population: about 45,000 or 1 percent of the state’s population.
  • Mississippi: 2.8 million citizens and 4,185 Arabs, according to the US Census. Estimated accurate population: about 12,000 or about 4 percent of the state’s population.
  • Alabama: 4.4 million citizens and 6,634 Arabs, according to the US Census. Estimated accurate population: about 19,000 or 2.5 percent of the population.

Frantic calls have been trickling in about Arab Americans living in the Hurricane’s path who have been missing or not heard from by relatives not just living in other states but in other countries.

Many of the Arab Americans own businesses in cities and towns devastated by the hurricane, including in New Orleans which has been submerged in polluted ocean waters for more than a week now.

The first time I ever heard a “Southern Arab” speak with the heavy drawl combined with the Middle East accent, it was a pure delight to know Arab Americans have settled in every nook and cranny of American society.

When Hurricane Katrina struck, I was immediately shaken by the thought of how much they will suffer, too. With no recognition of their plight and left to the mercy of a merciless American system already plagued with serious accusations of racism.