Arab American Studies Association

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AASA President Louise Cainkar Featured on WBEZ 91.5 Chicago

Forget Poles: Palestinians find a home in suburban Chicago

AASA President Louise Cainkar was recently quoted in a Chicago area radio program on Chicago’s growing Palestinian community.

Check out the full piece here, and read an excerpt below:

How many people of Palestinian descent actually live in the region?

The truth is more complicated, but surprising nonetheless. According to the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics, there were closer to 20,000 people living in Beitunia as of 2007. But sociologist Louise Cainkar, a professor at Marquette University and an expert on Arab immigration, backs up the underlying thrust of Hassan’s claim.

“Historically Beitunia was the largest feeder village [of Palestinian immigrants] to Chicago,” she said.

Cainkar has spent time in Beitunia and has seen the results of this relationship.

“[The village]used to be characterized by agriculture, but is now quite built up,” she said.

Cainkar says the investment from money made in the U.S. and sent back to the village in the form of remittances is visible.

Cainkar estimates that as many as a quarter of all Palestinians living in the U.S. live in the counties surrounding Chicago — more than live any other American city. And, Palestinians make up the single largest Arab ethnic group in the Chicago region, according to Cainkar — as much as 40 percent of the area’s total Arab population.

It’s actually quite difficult, though, to measure exactly how many people of Palestinian descent live in the Chicago area. And it’s hard to know how many people of Arab descent there are in the country as a whole. Nationally, the 2010 U.S. Census found that about 1.9 million Americans are of Arab descent, although groups like the Arab American Institute estimate that the number could be much larger, as high as 5.1 million people. It’s a similar story in Illinois; the Census found about 85,000 people of Arab descent living in the state, but again, the AAI thinks the number is much higher, closer to 220,000 total.

Cainkar thinks the real number of Arab Americans living in the U.S. — and in Illinois — is probably somewhere in the middle of those estimates, but agrees that the Census misses a lot of people.

The short version of the Census — given to 82 percent of people who take it — only measures race, and Arabs are supposed to mark themselves down as white. The 18 percent of people who take the longer version of the survey are asked questions about their “ancestry.” In 2010, of the people who indicated they were of Arab ancestry, five percent described themselves as being of Palestinian descent. But another 11 percent said they were “Other, Arab” and another 15 percent said they were “Arab/Arabic.”

Cainkar’s research suggests that many of these respondents are actually Palestinian, too.

“I looked at the Census tracts block by block, based on where people live,” she said, adding that many Chicago communities she knows to be Palestinian weren’t counted as such.

Regardless of the exact number of Arab Americans living in Chicago’s Southwest suburbs, their presence is clear, whether in the Prayer Center, the Orland Park mosque with a glowing gold dome and colorful tile walls built in 2004, or the sheer number of businesses that cater to Middle Eastern tastes.

“I counted 100 Arab-owned businesses in less than one square mile between 79th and 87th and Harlem, and that’s just a little piece of their commercial enterprises down there,” Cainkar said of one portion of the Southwest Side community. “That is definitely their hub.”


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