We celebrate Arab American Heritage Month this month by recognizing the Arab Americans who are making a difference in our communities.

Abdi Nor Iftin is a Somali-American writer, radio journalist and public speaker. He lives in Yarmouth.

Our state of Maine has a growing and thriving number of Arabic-speaking communities, most of which can be found in Augusta, Westbrook and Portland. Of the 22 countries in the Arab League, most of Maine’s immigrant residents are from Somalia, Djibouti, Sudan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen and Egypt. Except for Egypt and Djibouti, other countries such as Somalia, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Sudan were on Trump’s Muslim ban. Also remember that every country I mentioned above except for Yemen, Syria and Iraq are all in the continent of Africa.

The Arabic-speaking communities are not new to this country. Immigration from the Middle East goes far back to the 19th century, and these migrants lived in America’s biggest cities such as Boston, New York and Detroit.

Arabs are heavily stereotyped across the country and in Maine. They are more than what newspapers write about them or what you hear on TV. They are not represented by the images you see on the news – images of death and destruction. Not many Americans know about the diversity in the Arab world. Arabs are not a race. Some are white, some are Black, some have blue eyes and blond hair, other have thicker and darker hair. Millions of Arabs are Christians or are of other faiths.

Many Americans who are making a change in the world are Arab-American. They include the Egyptian-American space scientist and geologist Farouk El-Baz, Palestinian-American poet and physician Fady Joudah, Rashina Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, Gigi Hadid and the thousands who serve in our army and work at our hospitals. Their contributions have enriched the academics, activism, creative art, entertainment, science and sports in this country. Over 50,000 Arabs in the United States are physicians, 5% of the nation’s total.

Our schools should include Arabic language in their teaching as well as the Arab history. Schools should teach more than the Middle East history. Not all Arabs are Muslims and not all Muslims are Arabs. More than a billion people in the world are Muslims, but fewer than 16% of Muslims in the world are Arabs. And not all Muslims live in the Middle East. The five countries with the largest Muslim population are Indonesia, which has over 170 million Muslims, and Pakistan with 136 million, followed by Bangladesh, India and Turkey. Yet none of these countries have Arabic as their first language and not all of them are in the Middle East.

The halal markets in Portland are good example of how much the Arab communities are contributing to the United States, the state of Maine and to their families across the globe. The halal markets help a majority of the immigrant communities in Maine connect to their family members back in their countries of origin. In every halal market you walk into you will find the international mobile top-up services that allow Maine immigrants to call their families overseas. Hawala is another essential service that transfers money from a family in Maine to a family member in parts of the world that do not have a functioning government and banking system.

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