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Palestinians Find Home in Honduras
The Tico Times / May 11, 2001

By Larry Luxner

SAN PEDRO SULA -- In a small, brightly decorated classroom at the Escuela Trilingue San Juan Bautista, 18 little 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, who is taking a couple of visitors around this sunny day, peeks in the classroom, exchanges a "Sabah al-Kher"(good morning) with the teacher and continues onto his office, which is dominated by a framed map of 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. We also emphasize religion, but of course it's not the main purpose of the school."

Down the street, at the Iglesia Ortodoxa de Antioquía San Juan Bautista, religion is the main purpose. Father Boulos E. Moussa, known by his parishoners as "Padre Pablo," says 220 families belong to the church, which was consecrated in 1963.

"Most of the Arabs in Honduras are Christians who were escaping injustice," says the 47-year-old Moussa, who was born in Tartus, Syria, and arrived in Honduras in 1995 after ministering to Christian Arabs in Venezuela for 12 years. "Here they live in a free environment. We can never forget this. As long as we respect the laws of Honduras, nobody tells us what to do."

And nobody does. Over the years, Arabs have quietly become a potent force in this small, impoverished Central American country, with an influence in its business and political life that is unparalleled anywhere else in the Western Hemisphere.

Statistics are very difficult to come by, though it's generally agreed that between 150,000 and 200,000 of the six million inhabitants of Honduras are of Palestinian descent -- the highest proportion of any Latin American nation. In absolute numbers, only Chile has more Palestinians.

While 3% of the population may not sound like much -- and it isn't -- the fact is that most of the country's leading businessmen are Arabs. Among them: free-zone and textile entrepreneur Juan Canahuati; mattress maker George Elias Mitri and shoe manufacturer Roberto Handal. Palestinian Arabs also occupy many important positions within the Honduran government, including President Carlos Flores Facussé, whose mother -- like many of the early settlers -- hailed from Bethlehem.

Another influential Honduran of Palestinian descent is coffee exporter Oscar Kafati, who recently became the country's minister of industry and commerce.

"My grandfather was one of the first Arabs in Honduras," said Kafati. "He came at the end of the 19th century, from Beit Jala. 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. Gabriel Kafati S.A. is the principal coffee roaster of Honduras, and the company owns 1,200 hectares of coffee plantations in El Paraiso, near the Nicaraguan border.

Kafati, 71, says he never expected to end up in government -- especially considering the country's past attitudes towards newcomers.

"Twenty or thirty years ago, there was a lot of discrimination," he recalled. "They didn't accept immigrants of Arab origin as elected officials."

These days, of course, things are different. Besides Kafati, important Honduran government officials of Palestinian origin include Vice President William Handal; Victoria Asfoura, president of the Central Bank; Juan Bendeck, minister-at-large, and at least half a dozen of the 120 deputies in the Honduran parliament.

According to oral history, the first Palestinian Arabs immigrated to Honduras in 1843. But it was not until World War I, when the Arab people were obliged by the Ottoman Empire to fight against the Allies, that many Palestinians began to immigrate to the Americas to escape persecution.

By 1918, according to a local survey, the Arabs owned 41.5% of the businesses in San Pedro Sula.

The influx of Palestinians picked up after World War II, with increasing hostilities between Arabs and Jews, and the establishment of Israel in 1948.

"My father, Bishara, was forced to come to Honduras because of the war," said Selim B. Canahuati, who was born in Bethlehem in 1949 and arrived here two years later. "He was working and making good money in Jerusalem, when it came under Israeli control. Then he suddenly found himself without a job.

Canahuati's father already had relatives in Honduras, so establishing a business wasn't difficult. "This was still an undeveloped country, and there were lots of opportunities to make money," he said. "They called us turcos,because we had Turkish passports. This was around the time U.S. companies began developing the banana industry."

"The Arabs were fundamental to the development of Honduras," says Canahuati, who doesn't pull any punches when talking about his country's recent history. "The Honduran people were here for hundreds of years, doing nothing, until the Americans came. Then the Jews and Arabs came. Both were a fundamental part of the development of Honduras. That's the reality of this country."

In the midst of thousands of Arabs also live a handful of Jewish families. Like the Arabs, they are also generally wealthy, and the two groups -- who both got their start as small merchants and pushcart peddlers -- get along quite well despite the history of violence in the Middle East.

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