Chicago Heritage: Arabs in Chicago

Settling in Chicago

The first Arabs settled in Chicago in the middle of the 19th century on Polk Street near Canal Street, according to records maintained by Hull House. We do not know the exact year. However, we do know that not long after, a small colony easily assimilated into Chicago’s rich ethnic diversity. Soon, more Arab immigrants followed, drawn by the lure of wealth and fortune of several American hosted world’s fairs, beginning with Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exposition and later, Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition.

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Azzat Mohammed (back row, center), Aziz Saba (back row, right), and Mohammed Abdelatif (front) came to the United States in1910, settling in Pittsburgh. This picture was taken in 1929. Like most Arabs, Azzat married his wife but left her in the old country for 15 years while he worked in the United States. During that time, Azzat was drafted into the U.S. Army during World War I.

The Three Waves of Immigration

There were three major periods of Arab immigration to Chicago. The first wave of Arabs arrived in the mid-19th century, consisting mostly of Lebanese Christian Arabs fleeing religious persecution in Syria. It also included Arabs, especially Palestinian Muslims, attracted by the allure of wealth from the world’s fairs.  

The Arab-Israeli conflict caused many to deny that the term “Palestinian” or that “Palestine” existed. Palestine was controlled by a British mandate through the first half of the 20th century. The mandate government issued this Provisional Certificate of “Palestinian Nationality” to George Hanna (John) Hanania in August 1926, demonstrating beyond any doubt that Palestinians did and do exist. Those denying their existence are politically motivated.

The second wave of immigration occurred between the 1930s and 1960s and reflected political change, as nations were formed in the Middle East, and emphasis shifted from the pursuit of wealth to freedom. No single group dominated this period in Chicago’s Arab history.

Hassan Haleem became active in the Palestinian Arab community and joined other community leaders in raising money to build a mosque, or an Islamic house of worship. Hassan Haleem is often looked at as the patriarch of the Palestinian American community in Chicago and was active in the early days of building the first Arab mosque.

The third and largest wave of immigration to Chicago began after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and consisted mostly of Christian and Muslim Palestinians who quickly tripled the size of the Arab community. These Palestinians came mainly, but not exclusively, from two West Bank cities located just north of Jerusalem called Beitunia (Muslim) and Ramallah (Christian). Today the Palestinians make up the largest of the Arabs living in Chicago.

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They are equally divided between Muslims and Christians with the majority of Christians living on the Northwest Side and the majority of Muslims living on the Southwest Side.

Arab Americans organized the Arab World display at Mayor Richard J. Daley’s Ethnic Folk Festival that was held at Navy Pier. This photograph was taken on October 31, 1976. Pictured are writers Leila Diab (second from left) and Mimi Kateeb (fourth from left), Georgette Hanania, Grace Suzanne Hanania, and Fadwa Hasan (far right).


Two challenges faced in completing this introduction is the absence of any formal record of Arab presence in Chicago. Although Arabs have lived in Chicago from the mid-19th century, they did not have their own news media to record their activities until the late 1960s. Until then, most Arabs in Chicago subscribed to newspapers published in other American cities like New York or others that came from their home countries.

Kayyad “Edward” Hassan, president of the Beitunia American Club and a U.S. military veteran, leads Arab American participation in a South Side Veterans’ Day Parade. About a dozen Arab Americans who served in the U.S. military participated in the parade demonstrating Arab support of the United States. Arab Americans have played a major role in defending this country at times of war and conflict and are proud of their patriotic history.

To learn more about the Arab community in Chicago, click here.