Arab Americans Struggle For Accurate Census Count

Maha Attieh Points to a Census Poster in her Office - Photo: Sarah Kate Kramer

Maha Attieh Wants Arab Americans To Send In Their Census Forms. (Photo: Sarah Kate Kramer)

NEW YORK – At the “Super Deli” on the corner of Fulton and Cambridge streets in Brooklyn, Brohan Kassim mans the cashier, and his brother Waleed makes the sandwiches. Waleed only knows a few words of English, and relies on his brother to interpret “bacon egg and cheese on a roll” into the Yemeni Arabic dialect.

Brohan said he didn’t get a census form in the mail, though it’s possible it was lost in the shuffle of his house, where he lives with his four brothers. But last month his teacher at Kingsborough College gave a form to everyone in his class, and he filled it out there.

When Brohan got to question 5, What is Person 1’s race? he scanned the choices for “Arab” or “Middle Eastern” but didn’t see either, so he marked the box for “some other race,” and wrote in “Arabic/Yemen.”

“I didn’t think it was that important,” Brohan said.

He may not have thought so, but Maha Attieh, at Brooklyn’s Arab American Family Support Center, does. She’s been encouraging all of her clients to fill out the form.

“We’ve never known how many Arab Americans are in New York City,” Attieh said.

Posters Explaining the Census in Arabic - Photo: Sarah Kate Kramer

Posters Explaining the Census in Arabic. (Photo: Sarah Kate Kramer)

According to the 2000 Census, there were approximately 1.25 million people living in the United States who identified as Arab.

But many advocates estimate the Arab-American population to be three times that size—at least 3.5 million.  They say Arab-Americans have been historically under counted because many check the box for “white” when they don’t see a specific “Arab,” “Middle Eastern,” or “North African,” box.

This year, a number of Arab American groups lobbied for an “Arab” racial category on the Census form, but were unsuccessful. As Roberto Ramirez, chief of the ethnicity and ancestry branch at the Census Bureau, told New America Media, “Anyone from Europe, North Africa or the Middle East [will be classified] as white.” But advocates say that’s not statistically accurate, because there are black as well as white Arabs. Furthermore, they say the under count deprives the Arab American community of services and makes it difficult to mobilize politically.

Attieh said she’s seen the Arab American community in New York City grow a great deal over the past decade. She said much of it’s due to immigration, but people also have also come from other places within the U.S., like Detroit. “Because of the economy, they move for jobs,” she said.

Map of Arabic Speakers in NYC According to 2000 Census Data - Map: Neil Freeman

Map of Arabic Speakers in NYC According to 2000 Census Data. (Map: Neil Freeman)

For Attieh’s work at the AAFSC, she believes it’s important to know the size of the community and where people live, so that she can determine their needs. She said she already knows about Bay Ridge, Astoria, downtown Brooklyn and upper Manhattan—neighborhoods that have traditionally had large Arabic speaking communities. But she wants to know the other places Arab Americans are living, so her organization can provide services to them.

“How many kids are there? Do we need an Arabic class in a school? How many seniors are there? They don’t have services.”

Attieh said the Census Bureau hasn’t done enough publicity for Arab Americans. Census forms are available in 6 languages, but not in Arabic. She said that’s a problem, because the majority of her clients do not speak English.

“In a way I felt ignored, but at the same time I don’t blame them because we always put ourselves under “white,” so they don’t know who we are, and how many of us there are,” she explained.

Ayman Ghaly, an Egyptian born Arab American Program specialist working for the NY branch of the Census Bureau, said he’s suffering for lack of people power. He’s the one person in charge of reaching out to the entire Arabic speaking community in Astoria and Ridgewood, Queens. “There are a lot of them! We don’t have the time or people to find all of them!” he said, exasperated.

“I wish we had 16 more people. Then we could cover a neighborhood well. Go to the café with people, have a cup of tea.”

Ghaly said it takes a lot of time to convince Arab Americans to fill out the form. In his trips to hookah bars, delis, social cafes and pool halls where he knows Arab Americans congregate, he encounters a lot of resistance.

“This is the first census to take place after 9/11 and people are fearful of the government,” Ghaly said.

Beyond the fear, he said many don’t see the connection between government funding and the census.

“Childcare programs would help the community, but people don’t understand how the form would help them get that,” Ghaly said.

Census numbers affect how the federal government doles out funding to state and local governments, as well as how congressional districts are drawn. The forms also help state and local governments identify policy issues and opportunities—where to put facilities like schools, health clinics, and roads. According to the Brookings Institution, counting each person is crucial, because a small increase in accuracy can result in thousands of extra dollars.

Arabic Instructions for Census Forms (Photo: Sarah Kate Kramer)

Arabic Instructions for Census Forms – Photo: Sarah Kate Kramer

Tomorrow, on May 1st, Census workers will start knocking on doors of households that have not returned their forms. But Attieh is skeptical it will work for the Arab American community, for cultural reasons. She wonders what will happen when a female census worker knocks on the door of an Arab man’s home.

“Especially a religious man. He would never let a single woman into his house.”

She said trust is a huge issue. “People will not want to share information about their family with a stranger.”

That’s why she asked the Census Bureau to provide a worker to sit at a table in the AAFSC for two weeks.

“Because he is in our center, people trust him. If he were on the street, or at their door, they would never talk to him.”

If the Arab American community can demonstrate their size this year, Attieh hopes they will not only get funds for more services, they will also increase their political power.

“Maybe we could have a (New York City) council member one day. It’s a dream, I would love to see that.”

Even if only a thousand more Arab American New Yorkers are counted in 2010, Attieh said she’ll be satisfied. “We need to know who we are.”

Related Article: Census Count Going Poorly in New York

The Feet in Two Worlds project on the Census is made possible thanks to the generous support of the 2010 Census Outreach Initiative Fund at The New York Community Trust and the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund.

AboutSarah Kate Kramer
Sarah Kate Kramer first got hooked on collecting stories as a StoryCorps facilitator, then traveled the world with a microphone for a few years before settling down in her hometown of New York City. From 2010-2012 she was the editor of Feet in 2 Worlds and a freelance reporter for WNYC Radio, where she created “Niche Market,” a weekly segment that profiled specialty stores in New York. Sarah is now a producer at Radio Diaries, a non-profit that produces documentaries for NPR and other public radio outlets.