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Volume 52, Number 4July/August 2001

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The Arabs of Honduras

Written by Larry Luxner

In a small, brightly decorated classroom at the Escuela Trilingüe San Juan Bautista in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, 18 boys and girls gaze intently at the blackboard as their teacher, Bethlehem-born Buthaina de Bandy, writes out the morning's Arabic lesson.

School rector George Faraj peeks in, exchanges a "sabah al-khayr" ("good morning") with de Bandy and the class, and walks on to his office, which is dominated by a framed map titled "Palestine" and a large blue-and-white Honduran flag. "This is the only trilingual school of its kind in Central America," Faraj says proudly. "We have 155 students from kindergarten through ninth grade, and all of them learn English, Spanish and Arabic."

Although there are no official statistics, it's generally agreed that between 150,000 and 200,000 of Honduras' six million inhabitants are of Arab descent, and of these, the great majority are Palestinian. No other country in the Western Hemisphere has a higher proportion of Arab immigrants and, in absolute numbers, Honduras ranks fourth after the United States, Canada and Chile.

And though three percent is a small minority of the Honduran population, it includes a good many of the country's political and business leaders, among them the country's president, Carlos Roberto Flores Facussé. His mother, like many of the early settlers, hailed from Bethlehem. In business, the names of free-trade-zone and textile entrepreneur Juan Canahuati, mattress-maker George Elias Mitri and shoe manufacturer Roberto Handal are all well known.

Coffee exporter Oscar Kafati recently became minister of industry and commerce. "My grandfather Gabriel was one of the first Arabs in Honduras," he says, describing Gabriel's journey at the end of the 19th century from Beit Jala, a village on the outskirts of Jerusalem.

"He was heading for Colombia, where he had a very rich friend. But he didn't like it there, so he decided to visit friends from Beit Jala who were already living in Honduras. I admire those first immigrants like my grandfather, because they arrived in the country without speaking the language."

Kafati's family has been in the coffee business since 1933, and today the company named for his grandfather, Gabriel Kafati SA, is the principal coffee roaster of Honduras.

"I grew up in the business," says Kafati, who is now 71. He served as ambassador to Egypt for three years; after that, he was appointed ambassador to Italy, but resigned in 1999 following Hurricane Mitch, because of business losses and "the psychological damage our family suffered." Then, in March of last year, President Flores offered him the post at the head of the Ministry of Industry and Commerce. As a young man, he says, he never expected to end up in government, and indeed, until a few decades ago, there were no elected officials of Arab origin in Honduras.

These days, of course, things are different. Besides Flores and Kafati, government officials of Palestinian origin also include Vice President William Handal; Central Bank President Victoria Asfoura; Minister-at-Large Juan Ben-deck; and some half dozen of the 120 deputies in the Honduran parliament.

How Arabs came to succeed so dramatically in Honduras is a story that reflects the best of the Arab immigrant experience in the Americas as a whole.

Honduras received its first Arab immigrant in 1893, recounts António Jacobo Saybe, who at 68 still works every day at his farm-equipment factory, Fundidora del Norte SA. The immigrant's name was Constantino Nini, and he was a merchant who peddled dry goods door-to-door in the little towns along the northern Honduran coast. Later on, Nini established a mop and broom factory in the coastal town of La Ceiba.

Another early settler was Rosa Handal, who arrived on December 22, 1898 from Bethlehem. Other Palestinians who came at that time included Elías Yuja, Juan Kawas and Jacobo Saybe, Antonio's father.

But what really brought a wave of immigrants—to all of the Americas—was World War I, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the delay of the Arab drive for independence from colonial rule.

"Many of our fathers and grandfathers in Palestine were saving their money to go to America," says Saybe. "They bought third-class tickets, which were all they could afford. They weren't too smart geographically. The first stop was either the Caribbean or Central America. They didn't speak English, and they didn't speak Spanish. So they came without any papers, and without a penny in their pockets, and were admitted to a country that really opened its arms to them." Hardware-store owner Elías Larach, whose family came to Honduras in 1900, adds that "our fathers and grandfathers were very innocent, simple people. They worked hard and eventually became successful."

Indeed: By 1918, according to a local survey, Arab immigrants owned just more than 41 percent of the businesses in San Pedro Sula, the country's second-largest city. On June 27, 1936, in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the death of the Honduran warrior Lempira, the city's Arab community expressed its gratitude to its adopted home by dedicating a statue of him.

Immigration picked up again after World War II and the Middle East war of 1948. "My father, Bishara, was forced to come to Honduras because of the war," says Selim B. Canahuati, who was born in Bethlehem in 1949 and arrived in San Pedro Sula two years later. Canahuati's father already had relatives here, so establishing a business wasn't difficult. The family opened a hardware store in Puerto Cortés, and they run it to this day—along with a San Pedro Sula garment factory that employs 150 workers and assembles shirts on contract for Macy's, Burdine's and other US-based department-store chains. A cousin, Nawal Canahuati de Burbara, owns Comisariato Los Andes, a major Honduran supermarket. Other members of the family own the Elías Canahuati y Hermanos tobacco company in San Pedro Sula, founded in 1931.

José Segebre, whose family also came from Beit Jala, recalls Palestinians swarming to Marseille, France, where "we'd see a ship in the harbor and ask where it was going. If we were told it was going to America, that was enough for us. We hurried to get on, and we got off wherever it went."

In Honduras, he says, "a friend gave me yarn and clothes, and I opened a store in downtown San Pedro Sula, though I had no experience." He adds that he did well nonetheless, and his parents joined him shortly thereafter.

One major expression of Arab community identity came in 1968, when a local group founded the Centro Social Hondureno-Arabe in the suburbs above San Pedro Sula. From a single swimming pool, it has grown into a $15-million complex with an Olympic-sized pool, tennis courts, a gym, three restaurants and three ballrooms—named Palestina, Jerusalem and Belén. Some 1600 families are members. The restaurants offer both Palestinian dishes—falafil, kibbe and baba ghanoush—and Honduran dishes such as beef filet with rice, beans, plantains and tortillas. A recent New Year's Eve party attracted more than 1000 people.

All this is a long way from the 1930's and 1940's, when Arabs and other Honduran immigrant minorities—mostly Chinese and Jews— were often denied entrance to the country's top restaurants and clubs.

"There wasn't hate against the Palestinians, but there was jealousy, because we worked hard and made money. This was the only way," says Tewfik Canahuati, 70. "Today we have no more such social problems in Honduras. There are always some people who don't understand us, just as there are some people who tell Americans, 'Yankee, go home.' But we are integrated in all aspects of life here."

So integrated, in fact, that marriages recently announced in the community's bimonthly bulletin Marhaba (Hello) included Sakhel-Morales, Handal-Rodríguez and Castelain-Nasralla.

Today, as many as 25 percent of the city's 800,000 inhabitants are at least related to someone Arab, according to Nancie González, author of a 1992 study Dollar, Dove and Eagle: One Hundred Years of Palestinian Migration to Honduras. In other Honduran cities, from the capital, Tegucigalpa, to San Lorenzo, Comayagua, Puerto Cortés and El Progreso, the numbers are much smaller. In San Pedro Sula, González notes, some 75 percent of the stores in the six-square-block downtown area are Arab-owned, but because the Arabs are neither residentially segregated nor very distinct physically from other Hondurans, "they tend to fade into the general fabric of Honduran life when viewed casually by outsiders."

Beyond political service, Honduras's Arab community has lately embarked on a number of charitable enterprises. After the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in late 1998, the Association of Arab Orthodox Women and the Honduran-Arab Ladies' Association worked hard to help hurricane victims.

In addition, the local chamber of commerce has established Fundacion Mhotivo, a school on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula where 320 children from the poorest sections of the city receive free education in both Spanish and English. Funding for the $2-million school comes from local businesses, and while the Arab community isn't supporting the project alone, a good many of the names on the plaque at the school's entrance have a distinctly Arab flavor.

"We are conscious that only through education can we provide the tools people need to search for new opportunities," says foundation president Mario Canahuati. "We make sure the parents participate, and we're getting pretty good results. We're seeing some changes almost immediately. The parents realize that something different is happening in their lives."

Ventures such as these weave the Arabs of San Pedro Sula ever more tightly into the warp and weft of their adopted country. "This has taken a long time. It didn't happen overnight," says Selim Canahuati. "But I don't think we're going to disappear, because the people would like us to keep our way of life. We Hondurans, whether or not we are Arabs, have a traditional way of life, with strong family traditions. We're a small country and this has helped to keep things normal."

Larry Luxner (www.luxner.com) is a Washington-based freelance journalist and photographer who specializes in Latin America and the Middle East. He thanks Fanny Hawit of the Hotel Real Inter-Continental San Pedro Sula for her assistance in that city.


Prominent Latin-American Arabs

Scholars estimate that well over seven million Arabs—the majority of Syrian, Lebanese or Palestinian origin—live in Latin America and the Caribbean, with the biggest communities in Brazil (1.5 million) and Argentina (1 million).

Prominent leaders of Arab descent include two former Ecuadoran presidents, the present prime minister of Belize, and the minister of education of El Salvador.

But it's in business that Arabs have really made their marks. Paraguay's leading retailer is Lebanese-born Faisal Hammoud. A Palestinian, Mohammed El Amal, owns one of Puerto Rico's largest drug-store chains. In Panama, Lebanese-born Abdul Waked oversees the largest duty-free business in the Colón Free Zone. And in Mexico, Carlos Slim Helú—of Lebanese origin—is Latin America's richest man.

As the region's Muslim population continues to grow, mosques have begun sprouting up from Caracas to Curaçao. In Mexico City, the Centra Cultural Islámico de México is both a mosque and a translation center, while the Buenos Aires-based Islamic Organization of Latin America has been active in sending young Muslims on the pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia.

This article appeared on pages 34-37 of the July/August 2001 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for July/August 2001 images.