Over the past year, dozens of Yemeni-Americans visiting their ancestral homeland have had their US passports summarily revoked or confiscated by the embassy in Sanaa without any clear legal basis, effectively stranding them outside the United States. Last month, a coalition of US civil rights groups submitted a report on this practice to the Committee on Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) pursuant to the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
This past winter, I was privileged to participate in several events in Chicago organized by Rasmea Yousef Odeh, associate director of the Arab American Action Network and leader of that group’s Arab Women’s Committee. The events brought together anywhere from 60-100 disenfranchised women, all recent immigrants, from nearly every Arabic-speaking country. The attendees were there to learn English, share meals and stories, and discuss personal struggles, in everything from marriage and parenting to navigating the US educational and medical industries and the US immigration system. The women also talked about fending off racism.
“War on Terrorism Hits LA,” the headline of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner screamed on January 27, 1987. The Los Angeles Eight, as the seven Palestinians and a Kenyan came to be known, are still fighting deportation today. Dangerous security risks? The Immigration and Naturalization Service said so. International terrorists? The INS still argues that the Eight were members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP). These charges were partly based on secret evidence, including photos showing the Eight distributing a “subversive” magazine published in Damascus entitled Democratic Palestine.
I never knew that cold could burn. It was a wild wind and my fingers were numb and clumsy. I fumbled with the sheet of paper, turning the page over and over. It was little more than tatters now, covered in smeared ink. My mother wrote all the instructions for me on this page and I held it in the palm of my hand since the day I had left home. Now it seemed the words had dissolved in the ship’s mist and the heat of my skin. I stood on the pavement, still feeling the pulse of the waves in my legs. I stared at the shell-curves of her Arabic letters, intricate as nautilus chambers.
I had forgotten how to read Arabic.
In June 1998 the Spanish government began constructing several 12-foot high fences to halt African immigrants from illegally entering Europe by way of Spain’s North African enclave territory in Melilla. Running along the ten-kilometer border separating Morocco from Melilla, these fences were scheduled for completion by January 1999. They are to be patrolled by members of the Spanish civil guard and monitored by the latest in surveillance technology: cameras, sensors and armed guards stationed in lookout towers. These rigorous new border controls are required by the European Union’s adoption of stricter measures to regulate the inflow of individuals from non-EU nations.
Nearly every day, off the Mediterranean coast of Spain, wealthy windsurfers unfold their multicolored sails and plunge into the waters. As often as the wind invites acrobatic risk taking on the crest of the waves, it turns the Straits into a graveyard for hundreds of Moroccan migrants. More than 200 drowned from January to October 1992 alone. Their journeys occur under conditions of extraordinary risk and with minimal chances of success. Many are captured the moment they set foot on Spanish soil, or even while still at sea. During the first ten months of 1992, 2,000 undocumented immigrants were detained on the coasts of Cadiz. In 1991, 2,500 were captured in Andalusia alone.  This risk they evidently prefer to the desperate poverty that motivated their flight.
Alixa Naff, Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience, (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985).
Alixa Naff gives us a rare and detailed look into the virtually unknown and now largely forgotten world of the early Arabic-speaking immigrants who made their way to America in the last decades of the 19th century. They hailed from the Ottoman provinces of Syria and Palestine, but mostly from Mount Lebanon and environs. The majority were Christians (Maronite, Melkite and Orthodox); a significant minority were Muslims and Druze. They called themselves “Syrians.”