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Arabs have been a part of the fabric of American society for over one hundred years. Lebanese and Syrian immigrants were just as much a part of early twentieth century American immigration as any other ethnic minority group of that era. One woman devoted her life's work to chronicling those experiences, traveling around the country to collect firsthand accounts from Arab immigrants. Now, she rests in peace as her research will live on in one of the nation's most prestigious museums.

Alixa Naff, one of the most notable Arab-American scholars, passed away last week at the age of 93.

Known as "the mother" of Arab-American studies, Naff is best known for starting a historic collection on Arab Americans at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. The Faris and Yamna Naff Arab Collection, named after her parents, contains photographs, audio, books and journals chronicling the lives of Arabs in America since the late 1800s.

Naff came to the United States in 1921 as a toddler. She was born in Rashayya al-Wadi, in an area that is considered part of Lebanon today.

Her family settled in Spring Valley, Illinois, a community with many Syrian and Lebanese immigrants.  But while it was her first time in the United States, her father had already visited the United States from 1895 to 1913, as a peddler.

Her life is a fascinating one-- the daughter of Orthodox Christian Arab immigrants in the United States, struggling their way through the Great Depression, World War II and the Civil Rights Movement.

In the 1950s, Naff went to UCLA, where she first began research in Arabs in America. In 1962, she drove around the United States and eastern Canada collecting firsthand accounts from eighty-seven people-- whom she referred to as "the pioneer generation."

As an early Arab American, her life story mirrors that of many immigrants from the early part of the twentieth century.

But what's interesting is how her experiences mirror those of many Arab Americans now, three-quarters of a century later.

According to the Arab American Institute, Naff wrote about how the Arab-Israeli war of 1967 had a profound impact on her sense of self-identity, much like the events of 9/11 had an impact on the Arabs and Muslims of today.

“A friend came in and said ‘Alixa, you better go home, they're out to get you’. I didn't understand. At that time, I ate the [Arab] food and I loved the dancing, but I was an American. All of a sudden, we all became Arabs.”

Naff is survived by her two brothers, Tom and George.





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