Latinamerica Press / July 16, 2001
By Larry Luxner
SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras -- In a small, brightly decorated classroom at the Escuela Trilingue San Juan Bautista in San Pedro Sula, 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 46-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 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 Arabs.
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 Honduran captains of industry are free-zone entrepreneur Juan Canahuati; textile magnate Gabriel Kattan; mattress maker George 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 Beit Jala, a village near 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 said in a recent interview. "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.
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. By the onset of World War I, Palestinians were flocking to Honduras.
"The Turks used to treat the Arabs like dogs," said Saybe, who is 70 years old but still shows up every day at his factory, Fundadora 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."
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.
The influx of Palestinians picked up again 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 in Jerusalem, in the part that came under Israeli control, and making good money. Then suddenly found himself without a job."
Canahuati's father already had relatives here, so establishing a business wasn't difficult. The family opened a hardware store in Puerto Cortés and runs it to this day.
"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."
Canahuati, 52, still has 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 violence in the Middle East.