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Survey yields answers about Toledo’s Middle East community but questions remain

The Mideast in the Midwest project consisted of a survey as well as a Web site, mideastmidwest.com, that includes videos of oral histories from individuals such as local barber Mohammad Reda, who came to the area from Lebanon, and Lebanese immigrant Yehia Shousher, at right, who arrived in Toledo in 1953 and remains today. The site also includes a gallery of historic photos, including an image of the Jacob siblings, top. Fifth from the left is a young Amos Jacob, who later became known to most Americans as actor and humanitarian Danny Thomas. (Blade Photo Illustration)

The Mideast in the Midwest project consisted of a survey as well as a Web site, mideastmidwest.com, that includes videos of oral histories from individuals such as local barber Mohammad Reda, who came to the area from Lebanon, and Lebanese immigrant Yehia Shousher, at right, who arrived in Toledo in 1953 and remains today. The site also includes a gallery of historic photos, including an image of the Jacob siblings, top. Fifth from the left is a young Amos Jacob, who later became known to most Americans as actor and humanitarian Danny Thomas. (Blade Photo Illustration)

By HASAN DUDAR

BLADE STAFF WRITER

One in a series

This story first appeared online at toledoblade.com and in print in the Nov. 16, 2014 edition of The Blade. 

A year ago, I began working on a Blade special project called Mideast in the Midwest. The purpose was two-fold: to survey the local Middle Eastern-American community and to establish an online oral history site, which would host stories of local people who trace their heritage from the Middle East and North Africa.

After several months of distributing close to 1,000 print surveys, directing people to an online version of the survey, and analyzing the data, the results are in.

And they’re not good.

In the end, only 183 surveys were returned. (The turnout in the midterm elections fared better.) This response rate was not enough for us to draw any conclusions.

We had hoped to replicate the U.S. Census and to provide a more accurate estimate of the number of people in the Toledo area who trace their heritage to the Greater Middle East, for lack of a better term, and to draw comparisons between the different religions, ethnic groups, and generations within the community. We asked questions such as: How do you identify your ethnicity? How many years have you lived in the Toledo area? Why did you or your family immigrate to the United States?

Despite the low return rate, I wouldn’t say the project was a failure. I was still able to learn a lot about the community from the surveys that were returned to The Blade. I learned that more Christian respondents (20 percent) than Muslim respondents (12.8 percent) immigrated to the United States to escape war and persecution. I learned that more Muslim respondents (15.9 percent) than Christian respondents (3.3 percent) are employed in the business sector. And when it comes to who has lived in the Toledo area the longest, the average Jewish respondent has been here for 29 years, followed by Muslims at 25 years, and Christians at 22 years.

Beyond the data, there was also the uniqueness of the project in general and its oral history component. In all my research leading up to publication of the first story in January, I couldn’t find an equivalent — that is, a daily newspaper undertaking a survey of a select population. As a journalist, I learned what it was like to begin at the zero point, to be without information.

Journalists like to have all the information, or at least to know where to find it. You can imagine how this put us in a vulnerable position. We like being the ones with the questions and the answers. Here, I only had questions.

In my opinion, the oral history portion succeeded more than the survey. The numbers tell us information about individuals and how they compare and differ from one another in rather dry terms. In the oral history videos and audio stories, found at mideastmidwest.com, people came alive and showed us the connections they have with Toledo, those they have “back home,” and those they might have lost along the way.

Toledo barber Mohammad Reda, for example, invited us into his home to show us the antique barber chair that belonged to his late grandfather, who taught him his craft. He shipped the chair from his mountain village in Lebanon to have it refurbished and, some day, use it as his own barber chair. In hindsight, I would have focused more on the oral histories.

As Dwight Haase, the University of Toledo sociologist who advised me and helped analyze the survey data put it: “There’s a lot of information embedded just within that story that you’ll never get from a survey.”

0916REASONSimmigratingWebProject origins

The idea for this project was an outgrowth and adaptation of my master’s project at the University of California, Berkeley, which dealt with the generational divide in religiosity between Muslims who immigrated to the United States and those who were raised here, particularly Muslims raised in Toledo.

While working on the master’s project, I was met with surprise from people outside Toledo. “There are Muslims in Ohio?” some asked.

They were being half serious, of course, but there was something to be said about them even bringing up the idea. Such a question wouldn’t be posed in jest to someone from New York or California.

Underneath the quips, most people were genuinely curious how Muslims practice in a region so often stereotyped as a cultural desert. Soon, their curiosity fed mine. Is it a big community? Where are they from? Why Toledo?

I had few answers to these questions.

Several months after submitting my thesis, I found myself back at home in Toledo and working at The Blade. I wanted to continue where I left off, but I chose to take a different direction and focus on ethnicity rather than religion.

I chose the former for three reasons. For one, people tracing their heritage to Middle East, mostly the eastern Mediterranean region, have been in Toledo well before the 20th century. However, little is known about them.

There was one book, a very thorough, helpful book that I found during my research: The Arab Moslems in the United States by Abdo Elkholy.

1116OCCUPATIONreligionWebIt was a comparison between the Arab Muslims in Toledo and Detroit in the 1950s. However, the city’s sizable Arab-Christian community was, for the most part, left out — and that community had been here long before the Muslims. There is also University of Toledo professor Samir Abu Absi’s book Arab Americans in Toledo, which includes academic and personal accounts of the history of Arabs in the city. This inspired the oral history portion of the project.

The second, and perhaps more important, reason I picked Middle Easterners was because this group is not counted in its own category on the U.S. Census. They are counted as white.

Middle Easterners are divided on this designation. Some see it as accurate, while others see it as a misrepresentation. So as a journalist, the conflict was already built in: A much-talked about group that is being portrayed as the “other” and labeled as the “them” in the “us-vs.-them” narrative is legally counted as white, a classification that historically carries the connotation of majority status in the United States.

The third reason is more personal. As a person of Middle Eastern descent, this issue was very near to me.

Growing up, I was well aware that Arabs and Middle Easterners did not have their own legal category. This turned doctor’s visits, school questionnaires, and government paperwork into an inquiry into identity.

“What am I?”

I’d stare at the boxes — Caucasian, Black, Asian, Native American, and Hispanic — and find that I fit into none of them. My parents come from Palestine and Lebanon, and we also trace our ancestry on my father’s side to Egypt. I was never sure what this made me, according to the categories listed in front of me. I had always identified with Arab or Middle Eastern as broader categories, but these are also difficult to define, as the Arab identity contains many races and the Middle East region spans three continents.

All of this self-interrogation would lead me back to the most important question of all: Does any of this really matter? I would hope, one day, it doesn’t, but I’m pessimistic enough to know that this won’t likely be the case. The truth is, these questions matter to people, in good and bad ways, and I see no reason in ignoring them — which was the point of the project.

As trivial as it might seem, for some reason, I still can’t get myself to check any box other than “Other.” Sometimes I feel compelled to check all of the boxes. But always, it’s “Other” that gets the mark. To me, I see it as a quiet expression I share with that sheet of paper and the anonymous entry clerk I’ll never meet.

1116IDethnicityWebSurvey and results

As it turns out, I’m not alone. Many Middle Easterners, including Arabs, Turks, and Iranians, have this same issue of identity. We’re not counted in a way we feel represents us. And because we’re not counted, no one knows how many of us there are. Therefore, no one really knows much about us, beside the talking points on CNN and Fox News.

The Census estimates that about 9,000 Arab-Americans live in northwest Ohio and southeast Michigan, but to many people we asked, that number looked like an undercount — by at least half. To give you an idea, the Arab Moslems book put the city’s Arab community in the 1950s, both Christians and Muslims, at about 9,600 people. That was before people began fleeing wars in Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq en masse, from the late 1960s on.

I began to agree with the doubters. Maybe the census figures were off and the numbers were much higher.

That’s where the survey came in.

The first order of business was to organize a focus group and discuss the idea of a Middle Eastern census and survey. About a dozen or so people met on two separate occasions. These were people from all walks of life: students, business professionals, and academics.

We devised a survey, taking after the format of the Census long form. The respondent, or head of household, would account for himself or herself and all other people living with them. The one-page survey was printed, along with an explanatory pamphlet of frequently asked questions and key terms, and we built a special Web site for the online version of the survey and oral history stories.

We enlisted the help of Mr. Haase, the UT sociologist, to advise us along the way, and come January, we were ready to go. We ran an article in The Blade and online at toledoblade.com announcing the project, as a way to create interest, and we began putting together occasional oral history stories with links to the online survey. We also distributed the survey through announcements and handouts at local religious and cultural centers. You could even find them at the counters of your favorite Middle Eastern grocers.

It was a community-wide effort. That’s why the low response rate was both perplexing and frustrating.

Paradoxically, this nonanswer from the Middle Eastern community provided me with an answer — and, again, more questions.

The answer was clear: We don’t want to be counted. The questions were: Why don’t some people want to be counted? Was it something to do with the survey? Had we underestimated readers’ sensitivity to certain questions? Maybe it was the way we went about publicizing it?

I turned those questions to members of the community and was surprised by what I found.

1116YEARSinUSAWebA sensitive topic

Bahaa Hariri, co-owner of the Middle East Market in West Toledo, said he ran out of the surveys — twice. He placed 75 surveys on his counter and said there was an interest in them. Back in January, we quoted him in our first story in the series as estimating that the number of Arab-American families stands at about 1,000 to 1,500. He said that afterward, many people came to his store and told him that he was being conservative, that the number is really double his estimate.

Though there was an interest, Mr. Hariri still isn’t sure what might have kept his customers from taking that extra step and filling out the survey.

“I think you touched on a sensitive topic,” he said. “I think if there are more studies about it in the future, this is definitely a good start. I feel that the second time and the third and the fourth time people see the same topic around, they’re more comfortable maybe to be part of it.”

A second try, Mr. Haase said, would require a more hands-on method: going door-to-door.

“I think the best information we have is the Census. I think that’s fair to say,” Mr. Haase said. “That said, it being the best, we’re still suspicious of it.”

Despite being skeptical that we would be able produce a better estimate than the Census, Mr. Haase, whom I consulted with regularly, was still disappointed more people did not participate, which would have given us more room to draw conclusions.

He thought the low response might speak to a lack of unification within the community.

1116YEARSinToledoWebSpecial interests

After speaking with local leader Nadeem Salem, Mr. Haase’s hypothesis didn’t seem far off.

Mr. Salem, the founder of the Toledo chapter of the Network of Arab American Professionals, said he’s faced the same struggles in organizing the Arab community which, according to Census estimates and the snapshot from our survey, is the majority of the Middle Eastern community in Toledo.

The network, which serves as a group where Arab-Americans can come together for functions such as a unity dinner at the Beirut Restaurant or an upcoming masquerade party, has had to overcome obstacles of bridging internal divides.

As Mr. Salem put it, there are many factors contributing to the apathy but one of the largest obstacles has been that the Arab-Americans in Toledo have succeeded in “importing their problems from overseas.”

“We’ve become a divided community,” said Mr. Salem, who helped on the survey. “I’ve never seen it like this. If you’re Syrian and your lot is with the government, for your own special reasons, then you don’t want to hear anything about the other side. And if you’re the other side, then you’re right and you’re side is right, and you don’t want to hear what your counterparts think.”

He calls this development “pockets of special interests.”

“We don’t identify in the terms of Arabs as something of a uniter any more. I think that people generally feel the Arab identity has let them down.”

Amjad Doumani, a community organizer from Toledo, finds a different kind of special interest among Arab-Americans, one that centers on self preservation in a difficult time for Arab-Americans.

Mr. Doumani, co-founder of the Northwest Ohio Peace Coalition, said he did not fill out the survey for many reasons, one of them being that he wasn’t clear on the objectives and that he wasn’t sure what would be done with the data.

“There’s fear,” he said. “There is stigma for being Arab, and it’s brought through U.S. policy, through the increased surveillance state.”

Hasan Dudar is a Web editor at The Blade.

Contact Hasan Dudar at: hdudar@theblade.com, 419-724-6082 or on Twitter @h_dudar.