WASHINGTON – The Arab community in Maryland grew more than 28 percent in the 1990s, rising to more than 20,000 people, according to the first-ever report by the Census Bureau on Americans of Arab ancestry.
But those 20,401 Arabs accounted for less than one-half of 1 percent of the total state population, said the report. That was even lower than the national rate: The Census said the 1.2 million Arabs in America made up just 0.42 percent of the total population in 2000.
The report was quickly challenged by some state and national groups who claim that the Arab community is three times as large.
“We’re happy to see that there’s something coming out about Arab Americans,” said Rateb Rabie, president of Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation in Silver Spring. He called the Census report a “good first step.”
“The census is not correct. It doesn’t reflect the number of Arab Americans in the United States,” Rabie said.
The Arab American Institute says the Arab population is about 70,000 in the state and 3.5 million nationwide, based on Census data and surveys it has commissioned.
Helen Samhan, the institute’s executive director, attributed the lower Census numbers to recent immigrants’ reluctance to give the government too much information and multiracial children who fit into more than one ethnic category, among other factors.
Samhan and Rabie worry about the effect of a Census undercount.
“Because we are such a small community, it is dramatic,” Samhan said. “That really hurts our political efforts. We spend most of our energy on politics and campaigns and promoting our policy issues in the political arena.”
But Census officials defended the numbers in their report, which was released last week.
“We’re confident that we accurately tabulated what we have,” said Arthur Cresce, chief of the ethnicity branch at the Census. “We took what people said about themselves. . . . What we have is what we received.”
The Census does not include Arabs as a racial or ethnic category on the short form that goes to all Americans every 10 years. The data for the report came instead from a write-in section on the Census long form — which goes to about every sixth household in the country — in which people were asked to describe their ancestry or ethnic origin.
Generally, people who reported that they came from Arab-speaking countries or regions such as North Africa, Iraq or Syria were defined as Arab in the report. It acknowledged that not everyone from such countries identifies as an Arab — Kurds, for example — but they were counted as Arabs for the sake of consistency.
In Maryland, the Census said the number of Arabs grew from 15,862 in 1990 to 20,401 in 2000. Forty percent, or 8,247, of all Arabs in the state lived in Montgomery County, followed by Baltimore County with 2,652.
The largest Arab populations in the state were Lebanese with 6,608; Egyptians with 3,246 and Syrians with 2,201. That closely resembled the nation, where Egyptians were the largest group, followed by Lebanese and Syrians.