They came, beginning in the late 1800s, from all parts of the Middle East. They were Christians and Muslims, peddlers and professionals, men and women whose presence contributed to the multi-ethnic mix of Milwaukee.
Now a Marquette professor and group of students are offering a first-of-its-kind snapshot of Milwaukee's diverse Arab-American community culled from oral histories collected this summer across three generations of its members.
"This is very important toward changing perceptions of Arabs and Muslims in general, and women specifically," said Enaya Othman, visiting assistant professor of foreign languages and literature at Marquette University and a co-founder of the nonprofit Arab and Muslim Women Research and Resource Institute.
"Many of the prevailing stereotypes stem from misconceptions about Arab and Muslim women," she said.
Othman and her students will present their findings at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Islamic Society of Milwaukee, 4707 S. 13th St. They made a similar presentation to the Arab Christian community in November at St. George Melkite Catholic Church.
The oral histories explore the Arabs' reasons for emigrating, assimilation, discrimination, the role of community centers such as the Islamic Society and the impact of the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Although the histories include men and women, the project focuses on immigrant women's social histories, economic and professional status and positions in their families.
Milwaukee's first Arabs were Melkite Catholics from Syria who'd come to Chicago for the 1893 World's Fair and would later settle in the area around W. State St. and Highland Blvd. Uneducated and poor, for the most part, assimilation was a priority. And by the second generation, many had moved to the middle and professional classes, according to Othman.
Successive waves of immigration brought Coptic Christians from Egypt and Muslims from Palestine, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, Africa and elsewhere. Muslims, who came after World War II, were more likely to embrace pluralism - "the idea that you can keep your language, your religion, your culture, and still be American," said Othman.
Today's Milwaukee Arabs, including Othman, are predominantly Palestinian Muslims.
The oral history project is part of a 1-credit seminar at Marquette, where a $142,000 federal grant has funded an expansion of Middle Eastern studies, including courses in Arabic language, theology, history and philosophy, according to the university.