Américas / March-April 2002
By Larry Luxner
In a small, brightly decorated classroom at the Escuela Trilingue San Juan Bautista in San Pedro Sula, Honduras, 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," Kafati told Américas recently. "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.
"I was born in 1930, and I grew up in the business," Kafati said. "I later joined the diplomatic corps, and was ambassador to Egypt for three years, from September 1995 to mid-1998. I went to Rome as the Honduran ambassador to Italy, but resigned after Hurricane Mitch because our business lost a lot of money, and because of the psychological damage our family suffered as a result. Then, in March 2000, President Flores offered me the Ministry of Industry and Commerce job, and he's a good friend of mine, so I accepted."
Kafati, 72, 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.
In addition, Esteban Handal is active in the Liberal Party, while Victoria Asfoura's brother, Elias Asfoura, is equally active in the National Party. A third political party, Pino, was founded by Miguel Andonie, a Honduran Arab from Bethlehem.
How Arabs came to be so successful -- and influential -- in Honduras is a fascinating yet little-known story that is a microcosm of the Arab immigrant experience in the Americas as a whole.
Old-timer Antonio Jacobo Saybe says Honduras received its first Arab immigrant in 1893: Constantino Nini, a Palestinian merchant who peddled dry goods door-to-door in the little towns along the northern Honduran coast. Later on, Nini established a factory in La Ceiba that produced mops and brooms.
Another early settler was Rosa Handal, who arrived on Dec. 22, 1898, from Bethlehem; other Palestinians who came at that time included Elias Yuja, Juan Kawas and Jacobo Saybe, Antonio Saybe's father.
But what really set things off was World War I.
"The Turks used to treat the Arabs like dogs," said Saybe, who is 69 years old but still shows up every day at his factory, Fundidora del Norte S.A., which makes farm equipment for the coffee and sugar-cane industry. "So when the Ottoman Empire joined the war in 1914, fighting on the side of the Germans, the English and French got together with the Arabs, and promised our independence."
"Many of our fathers and grandfathers in Palestine were saving their money to go to America," he continued. "They bought third-class tickets, the most they could afford. But they weren't too smart geographically. The first stop was either the Caribbean or Central America. They didn't speak English, and they didn't speak Spanish. So they came without any papers, and without a penny in their pockets, and were admitted into a country that really opened their arms. As things worsened, this became their second home. They started a new life and made money. Some of them came single and got married here."
Adds hardware-store owner Elias Larach, whose family came to Honduras in 1900: "The situation in Palestine and the Middle East at that time was not very easy. The Arab people were obliged by the Ottoman Empire to fight against the Allies. Often they didn't come back. So our grandmothers tried to help us leave the country for awhile. Our fathers and grandfathers were very innocent, simple people. They worked hard and eventually became successful."
Between 1920 and 1945, few Palestinians settled in Honduras because Palestine was by then under British control, and the region enjoyed relative prosperity. So did those immigrants already living in Honduras. By 1918, Arabs owned 41.5% of the businesses in San Pedro Sula, according to a local survey.
In 1928, the British-American Tobacco Co. (known today as Tabacalera Hondureña S.A.) bought a small Arab-owned Abud y Blanco cigarette factory. Three years later, the Canahuati family founded the Elías Canahuati y Hermanos tobacco company in San Pedro Sula. And on June 27, 1936 -- exactly 400 years after the death of Honduran warrior Lempira -- San Pedro Sula's flourishing Palestinian community unveiled a statue marking the occasion, as an expression of gratitude to their newly adopted city.
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.
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."
José Segebre, whose family also came from Beit Jala, recalls Palestinians swarming to Marseilles, France, "where we'd see a ship in the harbor, ask where it was going and be told it was going to America. That was enough for us. We hurried to get on, and get off wherever it went." That's how he ended up in Honduras.
"A friend gave me yarn and clothes, and I opened a tienda in downtown San Pedro Sula, though I had no experience," says Segebre, adding that he did well and that his parents followed him to Honduras shortly thereafter.
Canahuati, 53, still runs his family's hardware store in Puerto Cortés, along with a San Pedro Sula garment factory that employs 150 workers and assembles men's shirts on contract for Macy's, Burdine's and other large U.S. department-store chains. One of his many cousins, Nawal Canahuati de Burbara, is owner of Comisariato Los Andes, one of the largest supermarkets in Honduras.
"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."
Indeed, 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 ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict.
In fact, at least a dozen Jews are full-fledged members of the Centro Social Hondureño Arabe -- an elegant country club located in the suburbs above San Pedro Sula.
Here, on a 25,000-square-meter plot of land, eight Honduran Arabs got together in 1968 and built a little swimming pool. That eventually grew into the current complex of buildings, which represent an investment of around $15 million.
About 1,600 families are members, says local free-zone industrialist Juan M. Cana-huati, who has been president of the club since its inception. Each must pay 60,000 lempiras ($4,000) to join, and 1,000 lempiras ($65) in monthly dues. The club's ballrooms, the Palestina, Jerusalem and Belén -- can accommodate up to 1,400 people. It also boasts tennis courts, a gymnasium, an Olympic-sized swimming pool, a jacuzzi, a juice bar and three restaurants -- the Mediterraneo, Las Parrillas Bar & Grill, and the Make Sushi Bar.
At the Centro Social Hondureño-Arabe, one can order either Arab dishes like felafel, kibbe and babaganush, or typical Honduran dishes like fajitas or a "Plato Típico Hondureño" -- which consists of beef filet with rice, beans, plantains and tortillas.
A recent New Year's Eve party attracted over 1,000 people who enjoyed the rhythms of the Armando Rodríguez Orchestra and Guatemala's La Banda Brava salsa band.
That's a long way from the 30s and 40s, when Arabs, Chinese, Jews and other immigrants were denied entrance to the country's poshest casinos and nightclubs.
"There wasn't hate against the Palestinians, but there was jealousy, because we worked hard and made money. This was the only way," says Tewfik Canahuati, 71. "Today we have no more social problems in Honduras. There are always some people who don't understand us, just like there are some people who tell Americans 'Yankee Go Home.' But we are integrated in all aspects of life here."
So integrated, in fact, that marriages recently announced in the community's bimonthly bulletin Marhaba included Sakhel-Morales, Handal-Rodríguez, Ramírez-Boquín and Castelain-Nasralla. "We have very good relations with [non-Arab] Hondurans," says Saybe. "I have two sons -- one is married to a Díaz, the other to a Córdoba."
Walking around downtown San Pedro Sula, it's virtually impossible to tell who's Palestinian and who isn't. Although many shops display names that might be Middle Eastern in origin, there are few actual signs in Arabic, and only one Arabic restaurant: Almanarah.
Nevertheless, up to 25% of the city's 800,000 inhabitants have some connection to Palestine, says Nancie González, author of the 1992 study "Dollar, Dove and Eagle: One Hundred Years of Palestinian Migration to Honduras." Palestinians can also be found in Tegucigalpa, and in smaller cities like San Lorenzo, Comayagua, Puerto Cortés and El Progreso.
"Once pariah entrepreneurs, they are now among the most wealthy and powerful industrialists in the country," writes González, noting that 75% of the stores in a six-square-block area of downtown San Pedro Sula are Palestinian-owned. But because the Arabs are neither residentially segregated nor physically distinguishable from other Hondurans, "they tend to fade into the general fabric of Honduran life when viewed casually by outsiders."
Typical of these shops is Ferretería La Corona, a busy hardware store run by Elias Larach, who has 18 employees and over 40,000 items on stock -- ranging from nails to power saws to battery-powered electric generators. Larach works from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. six days a week, and has done so every day since opening his popular store in 1956.
Says merchant Farouk Yuja: "Most Palestinians run businesses. There are poor ones too, but we like to work hard and live well. We tend to live in very nice neighborhoods."
In order to deflect occasional criticism from non-Arab Hondurans, the Palestinian community has attempted to channel some of its wealth into helping less fortunate Hondurans. After the devastation wrought by Hurricane Mitch in late 1998, two women's organizations -- the Association of Arab Orthodox Women and the Honduran-Arab Ladies' Association -- worked hard to help hurricane victims.
In addition, the local chamber of commerce -- dominated by Palestinian-owned businesses -- has established Fundación Mhotivo, a modern school on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula where 320 children from the poorest sectors of Honduran society receive a first-rate education in both English and Spanish.
Mario Canahuati, president of the foundation, says the children's families don't pay a penny; rather, local businesses sponsor the kids' education by funding scholarships at 1,000 lempiras ($65) a month.
While the Palestinian business community wasn't alone in funding the $2 million project, most of the names on the plaque at the school's entrance -- names like Emilio Hawit Lara, Jacobo Faraj and George Charur -- have a distinctively Arab flavor.
"We are conscious that only through education can we provide the tools people need to search for new opportunities," said Canahuati. "We make sure the parents participate, and we're getting pretty good results. We're seeing some changes almost immediately. The parents realize that something different is happening in their lives."
In between making a living and adjusting to life in a strange country, the Palestinians of Honduras have always managed to find time for God. At least 99% of them profess Christianity, though a handful of Muslims have also found their way to Honduras and have established a small mosque in Colonia Prado Alto, a suburb of San Pedro Sula.
Egyptian-born Fuli Abd el-Jawad Abd el-Fatah, sheikh of the Fundación Islámica de Honduras, says the mosque was built about four years ago and is regularly attended by about 65 Muslims -- including Indonesians, Bangladeshis, Palestinians and Lebanese.
"The Arabs didn't used to care so much about religion," says Selim Canahuati. "This has taken a long time. It didn't happen overnight. But I don't think we're going to disappear, because the people would like us to keep our way of life. Here, whether or not we are Arabs, we have a traditional way of life, with strong family traditions. We're a small country and this has helped to keep things normal."