Amin Nash, Hasan Ismail, Raneen Vace
On September 21, 2023, the US Census Bureau published data1 from their research of Americans who identify with the Middle East and North African (MENA) category. The data from this research allows people who identify with the MENA region to utilize data and information to understand the demographic makeup of the community. The data shows population centers and allows analysis to continue telling the story of the MENA population in America. Note that previous Census research from the Arab American Institute has suggested that “the Census data is likely significantly lower than the actual number of Arab Americans in the state.” Given that this data is the first of its kind and possible low response rates from the community, the numbers in this research is still significantly lower and requires more accurate studies.
Note that the data being offered by the US Census Bureau is the first of its kind in history and are estimated values. Still, it is possible to identify which cities in Southern California have the highest rates and sizes of Arab Americans. The Arab American Civic Council analyzed and disaggregated the data to identify the five cities with over 7,000 Arab Americans. Because the data from the Census is not complete, it can be assumed that there may be more Arab Americans in the area.
In this article, the Arab American Civic Council created maps and provided original analyses of Arab American population centers spread across Southern California. Unlike other parts of the United States, such as Michigan, Arab Americans in Southern California are largely spread out and consolidated in regional clusters. The spread has largely been speculated to occur due to housing costs, job access, and proximity to good schooling. Still, Arab Americans have been able to “spread their love” and impact their clusters despite being far apart. This article seeks to provide context and argue for further needs of a MENA category to better improve the community’s impact to their respective areas in Southern California.
Maps – Concentration Per City of MENA Population in Southern California
In California, 740,219 people belong to the MENA community, of which an estimated 373,012 are Arab American. This map shows the percentage of MENA community members who are Arab Americans living in cities throughout Southern California. Los Angeles, El Cajon, San Diego, Irvine, and Anaheim have the highest percentages.
Heat Map of Concentrated MENA Communities in Southern California
MENA communities are densely distributed across Southern California. Los Angeles, Orange County, San Diego County, and the surrounding areas have the highest concentration of MENA communities.
Rates by Percentage for Cities in this Article:
Below are the top five approximate cities home to the most Arab Americans. Note that the numbers below are estimates, and more work needs to be done to acquire a more accurate number.
|City Name||Rate by Percentage||Estimated Number of Arab Americans (margin of error ~ 2000 citizens)|
|Los Angeles City||12.04438463||44,927|
|San Diego City||4.7063||17,555|
Arab Americans in Southern California and their Social Impacts
This section will break down the five cities with the highest rate of Arab Americans while providing contextual information about the city in relation to Arab Americans. Additionally, this section will provide current quality-of-life issues that can assist with improving the community.
The City of Los Angeles has the highest number of Arab Americans in Southern California and is home to 12% of California’s Arab American Population. The largest individual populations are of Lebanese, Egyptian, and Syrian descent.
Arab Americans have been present in Los Angeles since the early 1900s and normally trace their heritage back to Lebanon and Syria. According to scholars such as Sarah Gualtieri, some immigrants arrived in Los Angeles as “step migrants,” meaning they arrived in America through Mexico instead of Manhattan2. Some migrants settled in areas such as Boyle Heights and Hollywood, becoming a part of Los Angeles’s fabric.
However, some Arab Americans faced their fair share of racial struggles, as seen in the case of police officer George Shishm3, who was notoriously “white enough” to be hired as a police officer but “not white enough” to make an arrest.
Many Arab Americans have settled in the San Fernando Valley and surrounding areas. The surrounding cities of Santa Clarita, Glendale, and Burbank have significant numbers of Arab Americans. Glendale is particularly known for its high Armenian population; many residents can trace their history to Arabic-speaking countries. Arab Americans have impacted the social and cultural fabric of Los Angeles through entrepreneurship, the arts, sciences, and education. The Armenian community has utilized their knowledge of Arabic influences to open restaurants, bakeries, and cafes in Glendale and the Valley.
Studies conducted in Southern California have shown that Arab Americans around the Los Angeles area tend to reflect healthy habits in comparison to other immigrant communities, such as lower chances of smoking, but tend to have higher chances of obesity4. Though the community has shown to be fairly healthy in the Los Angeles area, the MENA category will assist in gathering data for further studies that can reveal unseen challenges for the community.
San Diego and El Cajon
The Cities of San Diego and El Cajon, in combination, contain the second highest rate of Arab Americans in Southern California. The City of El Cajon is home to approximately 6% of California’s Arab American Population, while the City of San Diego is home to approximately 5%. Both these cities, in combination, make up about 11% of California’s Arab American Population.
In Southern California, the city with the highest concentration of Arab Americans is El Cajon, with approximately 20,000 citizens of Arab background, nearly 5% of the city’s total population. Given that El Cajon is home to many immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers, the population rate may be significantly higher than what’s given in the Census.
Particularly, El Cajon is home to a high concentration of Iraqi Americans, most specifically Iraqis of Arab, Chaldean, and Assyrian descent. These populations arrived in San Diego and El Cajon during the 1960s but in larger numbers during the 1970s. Articles from the San Diego Tribune have highlighted how individuals from the community immigrated to El Cajon from Northern Iraq, mainly Mosul, during the 1970s to open small shops and purchase apartment homes that eventually became rentals.
Additionally, due to Saddam Hussein’s oppression of Iraqi Shia and Kurds, followed by the US invasion of Iraq, many Iraqis in San Diego came as refugees and asylum seekers. The Arabic-speaking population can trace their heritage to Southern Iraqi cities such as Samawah and Nasriyah, where Saddam forced many citizens out of their villages and into either Kuwait or Saudi Arabia5. Citizens from Baghdad and other cities have also found their way to San Diego.
The Arab American community in San Diego and El Cajon have made a significant cultural and social impact on the area. For example, El Cajon’s Main Street has been a cultural gathering spot for Iraqis since the 1980s and has been affectionately known as “Baghdad Masaghara” or “Little Baghdad.” The Arab American population has also provided legal, medical, and educational services throughout San Diego. The Iraqi and overall Arab population has worked in hard labor jobs, such as truck driving and farming, but also impacted the area as civil servants in education or the police force.
Though the Arab American community is well established in San Diego, a MENA category could alleviate some health challenges and needs. For example, during the COVID-19 Pandemic, Arab Americans were admitted into hospitals at significantly high rates and were found to have higher rates of Medi-Cal use678. Arab Americans are more likely to be in households with multi-generational families. Without a MENA category, serious oversight can occur, leaving the population uncared for and unrecognized.
Anaheim and Irvine
Though the population is less than others, Orange County is one of the most influential and impacted centers of Arab Americans in California. The City of Irvine is home to approximately 3% of California’s Arab American Population, while the City of Anaheim is home to approximately 2%. Both these cities combined comprise about 5% of California’s Arab American population.
In Anaheim, Arab Americans have influenced the city’s cultural landscape. The designation of Anaheim’s Little Arabia, the country’s first, shows not just how the city recognizes the existence of the Arab American community but has taken steps to invest in the community.
The MENA category can help significantly address crucial mental health needs in Orange County. According to data gathered in the 2022 Orange County Community Health Survey (OCHCA)9, there are “noticeably higher depression rates for MENA and black or African Americans.” Compared to other studies conducted throughout California, mental health is a critical need for the community. Further, the MENA population has inequitable access to food. It is important to note that this sample size is small, and there needs to be more work to help address the population’s needs.
The various clusters of Southern California’s Arab American community tell a story about the population, while also shedding light on the diverse needs and challenges faced by this community. These clusters, located in the Greater Los Angeles areas as well as the Greater San Diego area, exhibit distinct characteristics that reflect the historical development and composition of each region.
The Arab American community clusters in the Greater Los Angeles areas have a longer history, with deeper roots and a more established presence. Over the years, this community has developed and flourished, contributing to the cultural fabric and socioeconomic landscape of the region. As a result, they have built stronger networks, established cultural centers, and developed a robust support system. This connectivity has enabled them to address their needs more effectively, including housing, small business support, and healthcare access.
On the other hand, the Arab American clusters in the Greater San Diego area are relatively newer and have a different set of challenges. These communities have more recently arrived and are often engaged in labor-intensive work to make a living. As a consequence, they may face additional hurdles in accessing resources and services. The prevalence of Medi-Cal use among this group highlights the importance of adequate healthcare coverage to meet their specific needs.
While each cluster has its unique requirements, it is crucial to approach the Arab American communities in Southern California holistically. Recognizing the diversity within the community and implementing a MENA (Middle Eastern and North African) category at the State of California level would allow for a comprehensive understanding of the various needs and requirements across the region. This categorization would provide valuable data that can inform policy decisions, leading to the full inclusion and integration of the Arab American community.
Despite the geographical distances between these clusters, the Arab American community remains interconnected through various cultural centers and community spaces. However, more work needs to be done to facilitate and cultivate connections between different groups. Emphasizing the importance of arts, storytelling, film, and other creative mediums can play a pivotal role in bringing the community closer together. These avenues provide opportunities for shared experiences, dialogue, and understanding, bridging any gaps that may exist and fostering a sense of unity among these distinct Arab American groups.
Through collaboration and emphasizing the sharing of culture, Southern California’s Arab American community can continue to strengthen its bonds and foster a sense of solidarity. This concerted effort to sustain connections among the various clusters would further empower the community, ensuring their voices are heard, their needs are met, and their contributions are acknowledged and celebrated. Through these collective endeavors, the Arab American community can thrive, while enriching the multicultural fabric of Southern California as a whole.
Note on Method:
This data contains the Rate by Percentage of Arab Americans per city in Southern California. Not all So Cal cities are featured.
The Counties featured are Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, San Bernardino, and Riverside.
Measurements were done by taking the US Total MENA Population and disaggregating Arab Americans from that number. The same was done for the State of California. Each City’s Arab American population was subtracted, and the result was divided by the State of California total.
For example, the total number of Californians identifying with the Middle East and North African Category in California was 740,219. When subtracting non-Arab populations, such as Iranians and Israelis, the number of Arab Americans in California is estimated to be 373,012.
A similar procedure would be done in a city such as Los Angeles. The total MENA Population alone or in any combination was 127,753. When removing non-Arab citizens, the Arab American alone or combined population is estimated to be 44,927. LA City’s 44,927 population would then be divided by California’s Arab American estimate of 373,012. This number provides the rate by percentage of Arab Americans, which shows that the City of Los Angeles has 12% of California’s Arab American population.
Data was acquired through the US Census Bureau. Maps were designed using ArcGIS.
2- Gualtieri, Sarah M. A. Arab Routes: Pathways to Syrian California. Stanford Studies in Comparative Race and Ethnicity. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 2020.