Middle Eastern Immigrants

A small but vibrant segment of the Iowa immigrant population includes immigrants from the Middle East. A large Lebanese population grew in the vicinity of Cedar Rapids brought by a wave of immigration from 1895 through 1945. In 1895 the first immigrants from what is now known as Lebanon fled poverty in their homeland to find refuge in Iowa. Like the other 90,000 Lebanese immigrants who had arrived in the United States by 1900, they were fleeing harsh rule of the Ottoman Empire which then controlled their homeland.

Many of the Lebanese immigrants to Cedar Rapids were Muslims. In 1920 they worshiped in a rented hall in Cedar Rapids. By 1934 they had constructed an Islamic house of worship called a mosque. The mosque in Cedar Rapids was the very first mosque built in the United States. This is the oldest mosque still in use and is known as “the mother mosque.” In 1948 the Cedar Rapids Muslim community established the first Muslim cemetery in the United States.

While Cedar Rapids maintained the largest Lebanese community, other middle eastern immigrants found homes in Sioux City, Des Moines, Fort Madison and Fort Dodge.

The 2000 U.S. Census reported that Iowa is home to 4,365 people of Arab descent, including 1,200 in Cedar Rapids, 900 in Des Moines, 450 in Iowa City, 320 in Ames and 315 in the Quad Cities. The largest segments of the population are Lebanese, Syrian and Egyptian.


Written for Iowa Pathways by Peter Hoehnle