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Why So Many Palestinians Call the Chicago Area Home; Cook County Has Largest Population in US

CHICAGO (WLS) — Driving through the southwest side of Chicago you can easily find yourself in Little Palestine. Cook County has the largest Palestinian population in America.

All you have to do is drive down Harlem Avenue in the city’s Bridgeview neighborhood. Before you know it, you’ll see signs in Arabic for stores, law offices, barber shops and restaurants lining the streets.

“You can find pretty much any business you want, and it’s probably going to lead back to a Palestinian,” said Village trustee Kalid Baste.

Baste said generations of Palestinians have settled in the Chicago area for more than a century.

“Many came here in the late 1800s early 1900s and that’s predominantly because Chicago was a hub for both agriculture and for small businesses,” he explained. “It was a melting pot of everything.”

Khamis Akel opened the Harlem Food grocery store, a community staple, 25 years ago. He came to the U.S. from Palestine in 1968 when he was just six years old.

“I was young. I was in kindergarten or first grade,” he said. But some of his relatives arrived decades earlier. “My grandfather, he came here in 1917. Life was tough over there. They come from a small town.”

In fact, he said, most of his hometown in the Palestine region have all now immigrated to Chicago.

“There’s like 3,000 people left in my hometown, but there’s 40,000 in Chicago,” Akel said.

Today, the Chicagoland area is home to more Palestinians than anywhere else in America, with over 18,000 living in Cook County. The second largest population is in Wayne County, Michigan, which covers the Detroit metro area and has four times less than Cook County.

So why do so many Palestinians call Chicago home?

Baste said that dates back to the 1890s, when Palestinians first arrived. They were willing to work all kinds of jobs, selling goods in untouched parts of the city.

“If we date back to my dad, my dad was just that. He was a peddler when he first came here. Literally door-to-door,” said Baste.

Their early success, he said, put Chicago on the map for future generations. So when more than 700,000 Palestinians were displaced after the 1948 war, they came here.

“Any immigrant story is a hard story. But ours is unique because there is no home to go back to,” said Jeanean Othman, Mosque Foundation food pantry volunteer whose father immigrated to Chicago in 1949.

Her kids are now second generation Palestinian-Americans. Othman said Palestinians are part of the fabric of this city, proud of where they came from and proud to call Chicago home.

“As much as we love Chicago, we love Palestine too,” she said. “I’m blessed to be a Chicagoan, and I’m blessed to be Palestinian.”

Source : ABC 7