Back to overview

The Arabs of Honduras

Contributed by Pat Samour on 22.09.2008:

Sent to me by my aunt, who lives in Honduras.

Commemorating Honduras’ Independence: The Arabs of Honduras


Yesterday at 4:48am

Although there are no official statistics, it’s generally agreed that between 150,000 and 200,000 of Honduras’ six million inhabitants are of Arab descent, and of these, the great majority are Palestinian. No other country in the Western Hemisphere has a higher proportion of Arab immigrants and, in absolute numbers, Honduras ranks fourth after the United States, Canada and Chile. And though three percent is a small minority of the Honduran population, it includes a good many of the country’s political and business leaders, among them the country’s former president, Carlos Roberto Flores Facussé. His mother, like many of the early settlers, hailed from Bethlehem. In business, the names of free-trade-zone and textile entrepreneur Juan Canahuati, mattress-maker George Elias Mitri and shoe manufacturer Roberto Handal are all well known.

Honduras received its first Arab immigrant in 1893, recounts António Jacobo Saybe, founder of a farm-equipment factory, Fundidora del Norte SA. The immigrant’s name was Constantino Nini, and he was a merchant who peddled dry goods door-to-door in the little towns along the northern Honduran coast. Later on, Nini established a mop and broom factory in the coastal town of La Ceiba. Another early settler was Rosa Handal, who arrived on December 22, 1898 from Bethlehem. Other Palestinians who came at that time included Elías Yuja, Juan Kawas and Jacobo Saybe, Antonio’s father. But what really brought a wave of immigrants—to all of the Americas—was World War I, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the delay of the Arab drive for independence from colonial rule. “Many of our fathers and grandfathers in Palestine were saving their money to go to America,” says Saybe. “They bought third-class tickets, which were all they could afford. 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 to a country that really opened its arms to them.” Hardware-store owner Elías Larach, whose family came to Honduras in 1900, adds that “our fathers and grandfathers were very innocent, simple people. They worked hard and eventually became successful.”

Indeed: By 1918, according to a local survey, Arab immigrants owned just more than 41 percent of the businesses in San Pedro Sula, the country’s second-largest city. On June 27, 1936, in commemoration of the 400th anniversary of the death of the Honduran warrior Lempira, the city’s Arab community expressed its gratitude to its adopted home by dedicating a statue of him. Immigration picked up again after World War II and the Middle East war of 1948. “My father, Bishara, was forced to come to Honduras because of the war,” says Selim B. Canahuati, who was born in Bethlehem in 1949 and arrived in San Pedro Sula two years later. Canahuati’s father already had relatives here, so establishing a business wasn’t difficult. The family opened a hardware store in Puerto Cortés, and they run it to this day—along with a San Pedro Sula garment factory that employs 150 workers and assembles shirts on contract for Macy’s, Burdine’s and other US-based department-store chains.

José Segebre, whose family also came from Beit Jala, recalls Palestinians swarming to Marseille, France, where “we’d see a ship in the harbor and ask where it was going. If we were told it was going to America, that was enough for us. We hurried to get on, and we got off wherever it went.” In Honduras, he says, “a friend gave me yarn and clothes, and I opened a store in downtown San Pedro Sula, though I had no experience.” He adds that he did well nonetheless, and his parents joined him shortly thereafter.

One major expression of Arab community identity came in 1968, when a local group founded the Centro Social Hondureno-Arabe in the suburbs above San Pedro Sula. From a single swimming pool, it has grown into a $15-million complex with an Olympic-sized pool, tennis courts, a gym, three restaurants and three ballrooms—named Palestina, Jerusalem and Belén. Some 1600 families are members. The restaurants offer both Palestinian dishes—falafil, kibbe and baba ghanoush—and Honduran dishes such as beef filet with rice, beans, plantains and tortillas. A recent New Year’s Eve party attracted more than 1000 people.

All this is a long way from the 1930’s and 1940’s, when Arabs and other Honduran immigrant minorities—mostly Chinese and Jews— were often denied entrance to the country’s top restaurants and clubs. “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. “Today we have no more such social problems in Honduras. There are always some people who don’t understand us, just as 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 (Hello) included Sakhel-Morales, Handal-Rodríguez and Castelain-Nasralla.

Today, as many as 25 percent of the city’s 800,000 inhabitants are at least related to someone Arab, according to Nancie González, author of a 1992 study Dollar, Dove and Eagle: One Hundred Years of Palestinian Migration to Honduras. In other Honduran cities, from the capital, Tegucigalpa, to San Lorenzo, Comayagua, Puerto Cortés and El Progreso, the numbers are much smaller. In San Pedro Sula, González notes, some 75 percent of the stores in the six-square-block downtown area are Arab-owned, but because the Arabs are neither residentially segregated nor very distinct physically from other Hondurans, “they tend to fade into the general fabric of Honduran life when viewed casually by outsiders.”

Beyond political service, Honduras’s Arab community has lately embarked on a number of charitable enterprises. After the devastation of Hurricane Mitch in late 1998, 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 has established Fundacion Mhotivo, a school on the outskirts of San Pedro Sula where many children from the poorest sections of the city receive free education in both Spanish and English. Funding for the $2-million school comes from local businesses, and while the Arab community isn’t supporting the project alone, a good many of the names on the plaque at the school’s entrance have a distinctly Arab flavor. “We are conscious that only through education can we provide the tools people need to search for new opportunities,” says foundation president Mario 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.”

Ventures such as these weave the Arabs of San Pedro Sula ever more tightly into the warp and weft of their adopted country. “This has taken a long time. It didn’t happen overnight,” says Selim Canahuati. “But I don’t think we’re going to disappear, because the people would like us to keep our way of life. We Hondurans, whether or not we are Arabs, have a traditional way of life, with strong family traditions. We’re a small country and this has helped to keep things normal.”

Article edited by Nora Keller please read original article at by Larry Luxner ( and Fanny Hawit of the Hotel Real Inter-Continental San Pedro Sula.

There are no comments. Add one!