From his shop in the Mission District, Samir Koury, the owner of Samiramis Imports, watches on his television set the protests popping up thousands of miles away in the Middle East.
As they have every day recently, he and others in the shop on Wednesday monitored the 20-inch screen behind the cash register at 2990 Mission Street near 26th. As they stared at an Arab newscast, they heard of new protests in Bahrain and Iraq.
“I am impressed, proud a movement like this could happen in the Middle East,” said Koury, who is Palestinian. “This woke up the whole Middle East.”
His friend and loyal customer Haris Bekheet understands well why the revolt succeeded in Egypt. “Our leadership was failing us,” he said in Arabic. “It was sentencing us to be forever lost. It’s good that we are finally speaking.”
The Arab Cultural and Community Center estimates that some 175,000 Arabs live the Bay Area — 85,000 in San Francisco. For decades, many have done business in the Mission District, opening grocery stores, restaurants and other enterprises. Koury, for example, opened Samiramis Imports in 1965 and became a founding member of many Bay Area Arab organizations, including the Arab-American Grocers Association.
While many have been here for years and consider themselves American, they understand well why there are problems in their native countries.
Take Bekheet’s experience as a veteran of the 1967 war between Egypt and Israel, in which he was injured and blinded. Medical attention was stingy, he said. Those who knew the right people got the best care.
“They are thieves,” he said of the Egyptian government. “They steal the money for medical services.”
It wasn’t until Bekheet moved to the United States in 1999 that he received the medical attention he needed. The delay meant that he lost 35 percent of his vision.
“I hope that the Arabs can finally unite and be one hand now,” he said.
Jordan-born Charlie Kanawy, who works at Pager Town Smoke Shop, agreed.
“There is so much corruption, and people are tired of what is happening. Some people in my family back home are educated and can’t get a job. They are 35 years old with no job.”
Facebook and Twitter, he said, have made the Middle East “a small village.”
“Now the kids in Yemen know what is happening in Egypt, and the kids in Yemen know what is happening in Bahrain, thanks to the Internet.”
Awad Faddoul, owner of Café La Boheme, who is also from Palestine, said he was thrilled that the younger generation has taken on change. His generation, he said, didn’t have the courage. “This makes me proud to be Arab. We are gaining the respect we deserve now.”
Many said they would like to see the Arab community here be more active in its support of what’s happening in the Middle East. Koury, who lives in the South Bay, said the Bay Area is lagging behind cities like Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
“This city is asleep,” he said. “Most of the people at Egypt solidarity demonstrations here were non-Arabs.”
Amin, a 28-year-old Yemeni immigrant who works at El Ranchito Grocery store, defended his generation’s lack of active support in politics back home. They are more concerned about getting work, he said. But this doesn’t mean they aren’t following what is happening.
“We are really happy there are protests in Yemen. We need to get that president out!”