Let’s celebrate Arab American heritage, one page at a time.
In recent years, April has become known as Arab American Heritage Month, a month-long celebration of Arab Americans, past and present, who have made invaluable contributions to the United States’ history, culture, and society since its founding. Arab American Heritage Month began in 2017 as an initiative that only involved a few states and cities, but since then, it has adopted and celebrated by an increasing number of municipalities and cultural institutions across the country. In April 2022, President Biden became the first U.S. president to issue a proclamation acknowledging Arab American Heritage Month. That year, he was also joined by members of the U.S. Congress, the Department of State, 45 state governors, and many mayors and city governments across the country, including New York City and New York State, all issuing proclamations of their own.
While the celebration of Arab American heritage is fairly new, the history which it commemorates dates as far back as 1527, when Estebanico Azemmouri (1500–1539[?]), a native of present-day Morocco, became the first African to explore North America. Years later, Antonio Bishallany (1827–1856), a native of present-day Lebanon, moved to the United States and officially became the first member of an “Arab American” community that today is estimated to number approximately 3.7 million people.
Since those very early days, there have been several waves of Arab immigration into the United States. In the 1800s, the first group consisted of mainly Arab Christians fleeing religious persecution and economic insecurity in the Ottoman Empire. Then, in the 1920s when immigration policies changed, strict quotas were placed on the number of people who could come into the United States from Asian and Arab countries. Forty years later, another wave of Arab immigration kicked off in earnest when new immigration laws were passed in 1965 that did away with immigration quotas for good. Today, we are in the midst of another wave of Arab immigrants that started in the 1990s, even in the face of anti-Arab sentiment following the September 11 attacks in 2001, as well as immigration policy changes in 2017 that made it more difficult for many Arab immigrants to come to the U.S.
Today’s Arab American community is made up of individuals with roots in 22 countries located in the Middle East and North Africa:
- the Comoros Islands
- Saudi Arabia
- the United Arab Emirates
In addition to the many nationalities represented, Arab Americans are also diverse in faith—despite a common misconception, not all Arabs are Muslim, and over half of Arab Americans are estimated to be Christian—as well as race, sexual orientation, gender identity, and ability. Within their diverse community, Arab Americans are united by a primary language—Arabic—as well as by shared history and culture.
New York City itself has a rich Arab American history in its own right: when the first major wave of Arab immigrants began fleeing the Ottoman Empire (from areas now known as Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine) in the late 1800s, many of them arrived in New York. In fact, from the 1870s until the 1940s, the center of Arab life in the United States could be found in Little Syria, a neighborhood in Lower Manhattan concentrated on Washington Street and Rector Street. By the year 1900, nearly 2,000 Syrians were living there, including merchants, artists, and factory workers. It was also in Little Syria that some of the best-known Arab writers of the time, including Kahlil Gibran, formed the Pen Bond (also known as the Pen League) and sparked a literary movement in Arab literature. Unfortunately, the neighborhood of Little Syria had all but disappeared by the 1950s. Plans for construction of the Brooklyn Battery Tunnel in the 1940s forced many residents to leave the areas, often relocating to Brooklyn. Then in the 1960s, the construction of the World Trade Center pushed what remained of the Little Syria community out of their homes.
Even still, today, the New York City metropolitan area has the second-highest population of Arab Americans in the United States. Statewide, the Arab population in New York is one of the fastest growing in the country, with the number of New Yorkers who claim Arab ancestry estimated to have more than doubled since the 1980 Census.
Throughout April and all year long, we hope you will join us in appreciating the rich and diverse history of this large and growing community. In fact, this spring is an excellent time to learn and teach more about Arab American culture, perspective, and history, and one of the best ways to get going is by checking out the following list of books we’ve put together for students in grades 3-K through 12! We’ve picked out a wide range of titles for students and families to enjoy—from historical and other non-fiction works, to wonderfully creative works that provide readers with a chance to learn new perspectives in fun and thought-provoking ways. Scroll through our lists below, and look for any of the titles that interest you in school libraries, City public libraries (NYPL, BPL, and QPL), and in our Citywide Digital Library on Sora (open to NYC Public School students). Then, after reading them, let us know what you think about any of these works!
Have other age-appropriate book recommendations you’d like to share for other students and families? Please let us know in the comments section below!
Arab American Heritage Month Booklist for Young Readers
Early Elementary School (Grades 3-K through 2)
- The Arabic Quilt: An Immigrant Story by Aya Khalil; art by Anait Semirdzhyan
- Building Zaha: The Story of Architect Zaha Hadid by Victoria Tentler-Krylov
- The Butter Man by Elizabeth Alalou and Ali Alalou; art by Julie Klear Essakalli
- The Cat Man of Aleppo by Irene Latham and Karim Shamsi-Basha; art by Yuko Shimizu
- The Day Saida Arrived by Susana Gómez Redonodo; art by Sonja Wimmer
- Hands Around the Library: Protecting Egypt’s Treasured Books by Susan L. Roth and Karen Leggett Abouraya
- Lailah’s Lunchbox: A Ramadan Story by Reem Faruqi; art by Lea Lyon
- Lost and Found Cat: The True Story of Kunkush’s Incredible Journey by Doug Kuntz and Amy Shrodes; art by Sue Cornelison
- Salma and the Syrian Chef by Danny Ramadan; art by Anna Bron
- The Story of Hurry by Emma Williams; art by Ibrahim Quraishi
Elementary School (Grades 3–5)
- Alia’s Mission: Saving the Books of Iraq by Mark Alan Stamaty
- Farah Rocks Fifth Grade by Susan Muaddi Darraj; art by Ruaida Mannaa
- A Kid’s Guide to Arab American History by Yvonne Wakim Dennis and Maha Addasi
- Muslim Girls Rise: Inspirational Champions of Our Time by Saira Mir; art by Aaliya Jaleel
- Shad Hadid and the Alchemists of Alexandria by George Jreije
- Silverworld by Diana Abu-Jaber
- The Three Lucys by Hayan Charara; art by Sara Kahn
- The Treasure of Maria Mamoun by Michelle Chalfoun
- The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye; art by Betsy Peterschmidt
- Yusra Swims by Julie Abery; art by Sally Deng
Middle School (Grades 6–8)
- Escape from Aleppo by N.H. Senzai
- A Game for Swallows: To Die, To Leave, To Return by Zeina Abirached
- Habibi by Naomi Shihab Nye
- Muhammad Najem, War Reporter: How One Boy Put the Spotlight on Syria by Muhammad Najem and Nora Neus; art by Julie Robine
- Nowhere Boy by Katherine Marsh
- Once Upon an Eid: Stories of Hope and Joy by 15 Muslim Voices edited by S.K. Ali and Aisha Saeed
- Other Words for Home by Jasmine Warga
- Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood by Ibtisam Barakat
- Wishing Upon the Same Stars by Jacquetta Nammar Feldman
- Yusuf Azeem is Not a Hero by Saadia Faruqi
High School (Grades 9–12)
- All-American Muslim Girl by Nadine Jolie Courtney
- As Long as the Lemon Trees Grow by Zoulfa Katouh
- Here to Stay by Sara Farizan
- Here We Are Now by Jasmine Warga
- Huda F Are You? by Huda Fahmy
- I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir by Malaka Gharib
- Mirage by Somaiya Daud
- Saints and Misfits by S.K. Ali
- A Stone in My Hand by Cathryn Clinton
- We Hunt the Flame by Hafsah Faizal
We hope that this booklist helps students and families celebrate and commemorate Arab American heritage and history! For more Arab American Heritage Month coverage, check out our official Arab American Heritage Month webpage, follow us on Twitter and Facebook, and subscribe to The Morning Bell down below!
On behalf of NYC Public Schools, we wish all of our families a fun and memorable Arab American Heritage Month!