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East Goes West

Christian emigrants from the Middle East preserve their faith and traditions in Southern California

by Vincent Gragnani

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Leaving behind economic hardship, religious persecution and war – and in many cases family, friends and culture – Middle Eastern Christians have flocked to the United States in increasing numbers over the past three decades.

They have been immigrating to the United States and other Western countries since the late 19th century, but migration has increased as political and economic conditions have deteriorated in their home countries. About a quarter of a million Christians have left Palestine since 1948. Roughly the same number has left Lebanon since the end of its civil war more than a decade ago.

In coming to the United States, Christians from Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine and Syria bring with them rich traditions they hope to preserve amid the dominant American culture, which their children often absorb.

“I would like to think we will preserve our culture and identity and keep that distinctiveness, but that may be wishful thinking,” says Michael Nahabet, an Armenian who emigrated from Syria more than 20 years ago. “The melting pot is a reality and we do not fight it. I believe we should be integrated and not live in a ghetto. It’s not a resistance, but we want to keep our identity.”

Mr. Nahabet and his wife, Nora, an Armenian from Lebanon, send their two children, Eddie and Natalie, to an Armenian school. They speak mostly Armenian in the home, but Natalie says she mainly speaks English with her brother and her friends.

The Nahabets live in the Los Angeles suburb of Chatsworth, not far from another suburb, Glendale, where one in four residents is Armenian. An estimated quarter of a million Armenians – many from the eastern Mediterranean where Armenians have lived since the Middle Ages – live in Southern California. Mr. Nahabet immigrated to the Los Angeles area at age 24 to start a business. He bought a service station, which he operated for 10 years before going into publishing.

Large numbers of Christians – often wealthier, better educated and with more connections to the West than their Muslim neighbors in the Middle East – take advantage of the opportunities available to them in the United States and Europe.

Nader Qumsieh was without work in his native Palestine for more than a year before deciding to bring his family from Beit Sahour, a Christian village adjacent to Bethlehem, to San Diego, where his brother lives.

“There’s no future in Bethlehem,” he says. “No future.”

His children, ages 6, 11 and 14, say they want to go back to Palestine, but he and his wife, Nibeen, know they have a brighter future in their adopted country.

“We’re not sorry we came here,” Mrs. Qumsieh says. “We can see the children have a future here. There are schools and universities for them. We always tell our kids, ‘when you finish college and university, you can work back home if you want to and if the situation is good.’ ”

The Qumsiehs are in touch with their homeland, which has been racked by violence for more than half a century. They talk daily to family via computer and receive shipments of olivewood crafts, which they sell at parishes after Sunday Masses. With the olivewood crafts often comes food they cannot find here: good grape leaves and dried lamb’s milk.

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Tags: Cultural Identity Armenia Emigration Multiculturalism