Syrian americans

by J. Sydney Jones


Modern Syria is an Arab republic of southwest Asia, bordered by Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east and southeast, Jordan to the south, and by Israel and Lebanon to the southwest. A small strip of Syria also lies along the Mediterranean Sea. At 71,500 square miles (185,226 square kilometers), the country is not much larger than the state of Washington.

Officially called the Syrian Arab Republic, the country had an estimated population in 1995 of 14.2 million, primarily Muslim, with some 1.5 million Christians and a few thousand Jews. Ethnically, the country is comprised of an Arab majority with a large number of Kurds as a second ethnic group. Other groups include Armenians, Turkmen, and Assyrians. Arabic is the primary language, but some ethnic groups maintain their languages, especially outside of the urban areas of Aleppo and Damascus, and Kurdish, Armenian, and Turkish are all spoken in various areas.

Only about half of the land can support the population, and half of the population resides in cities. The coastal plains are the most heavily populated, with the cultivated steppe to the east providing wheat for the country. Nomads and semi-nomads live in the huge desert steppe in the far east of the country.

Syria was the name of an ancient territory, a strip of fertile land that lay between the eastern Mediterranean coast and the desert of Northern Arabia. Indeed, ancient Syria, Greater Syria, or "Suriya," as it was sometimes called, was for most of history synonymous with the Arabian peninsula, encompassing the modern nations of Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan. However, after partition in the First World War and independence in 1946, the country was confined to its present boundaries. This essay deals with immigrants from Greater Syria and the modern state of Syria.


From ancient times, the area that came to be known as Syria had a succession of rulers, including Mesopotamians, Hittites, Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians, Persians, and Greeks. Pompey brought Roman rule to the region in 63 B.C. , making Greater Syria a Roman province. The Christian era brought centuries of unrest until the Islamic invasion of 633-34 A.D. Damascus surrendered to Muslim troops in 635; by 640 the conquest was complete. Four districts, Damascus, Hims, Jordan, and Palestine, were created, and relative peace and prosperity, as well as religious toleration, were the hallmark of the Umayyad line, which ruled the region for a century. The Arabic language permeated the region at this time.

The Abbasid dynasty, centered in Iraq, followed. This line, which ruled from Baghdad, was less tolerant of religious differences. This dynasty disintegrated, and Syria fell under the control of an Egyptian line based in Cairo. The culture flourished in the tenth and eleventh centuries, though the Crusaders made European incursions to recapture the Holy Land. Saladin took Damascus in 1174, effectively expelling the Crusaders from their occupied positions, and established centers of learning, as well as built trading centers and a new land system that stimulated economic life.

Mongol invasions during the thirteenth century wracked the region, and in 1401 Tamerlane sacked Aleppo and Damascus. Syria continued to be ruled from Egypt during the fifteenth century by the Mameluk dynasty until 1516, when the Turkish Ottomans defeated Egypt and occupied all of ancient Syria. Ottoman control would last four centuries. The Ottomans created four jurisdictional districts, each ruled by a governor: Damascus, Aleppo, Tripoli, and Sidon. Early governors encouraged agriculture by their fiscal system, and cereals as well as cotton and silk were produced for export. Aleppo became an important center for trade with Europe. Italian, French, and English merchants began to settle in the region. Christian communities were also allowed to flourish, especially during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

By the eighteenth century, however, Ottoman rule was beginning to weaken; Bedouin incursions from the desert increased, and general prosperity and security declined. A brief period of Egyptian domination was again replaced by Ottoman rule in 1840, but tensions were growing between the religious and ethnic groups of the region. With the massacre of Christians by a Muslim mob in Damascus in 1860, Europe began to intervene more in the affairs of the moribund Ottoman Empire, establishing an autonomous district of Lebanon, but leaving Syria for the time under Ottoman control. Meanwhile, French and British influence gained in the region; the population steadily westernized. But Arab-Turk relations worsened, especially after the Young Turk revolution of 1908. Arab nationalists then came to the fore in Syria.


In World War I, Syria was turned into a military base of the Ottoman Empire, which fought with the Germans. However, nationalist Arabs, under Faysal, stood along side the British, with the legendary T. E. Lawrence and Allenby. After the war, the region was ruled for a time by Faysal, but a French mandate from the League of Nations set the newly partitioned region under French control until independence could be arranged. In fact, the French had no interest in such independence, and it was only with the World War II that a free Syria was finally established. British and Free French troops occupied the country until 1946, when a Syrian civilian government took over.

There were manifold challenges for such a government, including the reconciliation of a number of religious groups. These included the majority Sunni Muslim sect with the two other dominant Muslim groups, the Alawites , an extreme Shi'ite group, and the Druzes, a pre-Muslim sect. There were also Christians, divided into a half dozen sects, and Jews. Additionally, ethnic and economic-cultural differences had to be dealt with, from peasant to westernized urbanite, and from Arab to Kurd and Turk. The colonels took over in 1949 with the failure of a civilian government made up mostly of Sunni landowners. A bloodless coup brought Col. Husni as-Zaim to power, but he was, in turn, soon toppled.

A series of such coups followed, as did an abortive union with Egypt from 1958 to 1961. Increasingly, governing power rested with the Pan Arabist Ba'th Socialists in the military. On March 14, 1971, Gen. Hafiz al-Assad was sworn in as president of the titular democracy after seizing power from Col. Salah al-Jadid. Assad has remained in power since that time, enjoying a measure of popularity from nationalists, workers, and peasants for his land reform and economic development. As recently as 1991, Assad was re-elected in a referendum.

Modern Syrian foreign policy has largely been driven by the Arab-Israeli conflict; Syria has suffered several defeats at the hands of the Israelis. The Syrian Golan Heights remains a contentious issue between the two countries. Arab relations were strained by Syria's support of Iran against Iraq in the ten-year Iran-Iraq War; Syrian-Lebanese relations have also proved to be a volatile issue. Syria continues to maintain over 30,000 troops in Lebanon. During the Cold War, Syria was an ally of the USSR, receiving arms aid from that country. But with the fall of Communism, Syria turned more to the West. With the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Syria sent troops to aid in the U.N.-led liberation of Kuwait. During its long reign, the Ba'th regime has brought order to the country, but largely at the cost of true democratic government; foes of the government are harshly repressed.


It is difficult to discuss the time periods and numbers of early Syrian immigration to America because the name "Syria" has meant many things over the centuries. Before 1920, Syria was in fact Greater Syria, a chunk of the Ottoman Empire that stretched from the mountains of southeastern Asia Minor to the Gulf of Aqaba and the Sinai Peninsula. "Syrian" immigrants were therefore as likely to hail from Beirut or Bethlehem as they were from Damascus. A further complication in official records results from past Ottoman rule of the region. Immigrants might have been classified as Turks at Ellis Island if they came from Syria during the Ottoman period. Most often, Syrian-Lebanese are confused with immigrants from the modern state of Syria. However, it is probable is that there was little Syrian or Arab immigration in any significant numbers until after 1880. Moreover, a number of immigrants who came during and after the Civil War returned to the Middle East after earning sufficient funds to do so.

Until World War I, a majority of "Syrians" came in fact from the Christian villages around Mount Lebanon. Estimates of the number of early immigrants run between 40,000 and 100,000. According to Philip Hitti, who wrote an authoritative early history titled The Syrians in America, almost 90,000 people from Greater Syria arrived in the United States between 1899-1919. He further noted that at the time of his writing, in 1924, "it is safe to assume that there are at present about 200,000 Syrians, foreign-born and born of Syrian parents, in the United States." It is estimated that between 1900 and 1916, about 1,000 official entries a year came from the districts of Damascus and Aleppo, parts of modern-day Syria, or the Republic of Syria. Most of these early immigrants settled in urban centers of the East, including New York, Boston, and Detroit.

Immigration to the United States occurred for several reasons. New arrivals in America from Greater Syria ranged from seekers of religious freedom to those who wished to avoid Turkish conscription. But by far the largest motivator was the American dream of personal success. Economic improvement was the primary incentive for these early immigrants. Many of the earliest immigrants made money in America, and then returned to their native soil to live. The tales told by these returning men fueled further immigration waves. This, in addition to early settlers in America sending for their relatives, created what is known as chain immigration . Moreover, the world fairs of the time — in Philadelphia in 1876, Chicago in 1893, and St. Louis in 1904 — exposed many participants from Greater Syria to the American lifestyle, and many stayed behind after the fairs closed. Some 68 percent of the early immigrants were single males and at least half were illiterate.

Though the number of arrivals was not large, the effect in the villages from which these people emigrated was lasting. Immigration increased, reducing the number of eligible males. The Ottoman government put restrictions on such emigration in effort to keep its populace in Greater Syria. The United States government helped in this effort. In 1924, Congress passed the Johnson-Reed Quota Act, which greatly reduced immigration from the eastern Mediterranean, though by this time, Syrians had migrated to virtually every state of the union. This quota act created a hiatus to further immigration, one that lasted over forty years until the Immigration Act of 1965 opened the doors once again to Arab immigration. Another wave of immigration thus started in the mid-1960s; more than 75 percent of all foreign-born Arab Americans identified on the 1990 census came to this country after 1964. According to that same census, there were about 870,000 people who identified themselves as ethnically Arab. Immigration statistics show 4,600 immigrants from modern Syria arrived in the United States from 1961-70; 13,300 from 1971-80; 17,600 from 1981-90; and 3,000 alone in 1990. Since the 1960s, ten percent of those emigrating

These Syrian American children are all from immigrant families that settled in New York's Syrian Quarter.
These Syrian American children are all from immigrant families that settled in New York's Syrian Quarter.
from the modern state of Syria have been admitted under the refugee acts.


Syrians have settled in every state, and they continue concentrate in urban centers. New York City continues to be the largest single draw to new immigrants. The borough of Brooklyn, and in particular the area around Atlantic Avenue, has become a little Syria in America, preserving the look and feel of ethnic business and traditions. Other urban areas with large Syrian populations in the east include Boston, Detroit, and the auto center of Dearborn, Michigan. Some New England as well as upstate New York communities also have large Syrian communities as a result of the peddlers who plied their trade in the region and stayed on to open small mercantile operations. New Orleans has a significant population from the former Greater Syria, as does Toledo, Ohio and Cedar Rapids, Iowa. California received an increasing number of new arrivals since the 1970s, with Los Angeles county becoming the hub of many new immigrant Arab communities, among them a Syrian American community. Houston is a more recent destination for new Syrian immigrants.

Acculturation and Assimilation

Several factors combined to promote the rapid assimilation of early Syrian immigrants. Primary among these was that instead of congregating in urban ethnic enclaves, many of the first immigrants from Greater Syria took to the road as peddlers, selling their wares up and down the Eastern seaboard. Dealing daily with rural Americans and absorbing the language, customs, and mannerism of their new homeland, these peddlers, intent on making business, tended to blend in rapidly with the American way of life. Service in the military during both World War I and World War II also hastened assimilation, as did, ironically, the negative stereotyping of all immigrants from the eastern Mediterranean and southern Europe. The traditional clothing of the first arrivals made them stand out from other recent immigrants, as did their occupation as peddlers — the very omnipresence, of Syrian immigrants, despite their relatively low numbers vis-a-vis other immigrant groups, led to some xenophobia. New immigrants thus quickly Anglicized their names and, many of them being Christian already, adopted more mainstream American religious denominations.

This assimilation has been so successful that it is challenging to discover the ethnic antecedents of many families who have become completely Americanized. The same is not true, however, for more recent arrivals from the modern state of Syria. Generally better educated, they are also more religiously diverse, with greater numbers of Muslims among them. In general, they are not overeager to give up their Arab identity and be absorbed in the melting pot. This is partly a result of renewed vigor of multiculturalism in America, and partly the result of a different mentality in the recent arrival.


Family is at the heart of Syrian tradition and belief systems. An old saying has it that "myself and my brother against my cousin; myself and my cousin against the stranger." Such strong family ties breed a communal spirit in which the needs of the group are more determinant than those of the individual. In contrast to traditional American society, the Syrian young saw no need to break away from the family in order to establish their own independence.

Honor and status are important in all Arab societies, particularly among men. Honor can be won through financial achievement and the exertion of power, while for those who do not achieve wealth, respect as an honest and sincere man is an essential. The virtues of magnanimity and social graciousness are integral to Syrian life, as ethics reinforced by Islamic codes. The downside to these virtues is, as Alixa Naff pointed out in Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience, a tendency toward "overstatement, equivocation, intractability, intense emotionalism, and at times, aggressiveness." Women are to be protected by the man who is head of the household. Such protectiveness was not initially seen as oppressive, but rather as a sign of respect. Oldest sons also play a significant role in this family structure.

Much of this traditional system has unraveled with life in America. The old system of village communal aid often breaks down in the fast-paced world of America, setting families on their own with both parents in the work force. The fabric of the tightly knit family has definitely loosened in an environment which encourages so much individual achievement and personal freedom. As a result, much of the sense of family honor and the fear of family shame, social mechanisms at work in Syria itself, have diminished among immigrants in America.


It is difficult to separate specifically Syrian foods from those made popular by the Greater Syrian population. Such standard fare in America as pita bread and crushed chick pea or eggplant spreads, hommos and baba ganouj, both come from the former Syrian heartland. The popular salad, tabouli, is also a Greater Syrian product. Other typical foods include cheeses and yogurts, and many of the fruits and vegetables common to the eastern Mediterranean, including pickles, hot peppers, olives, and pistachios. While pork is forbidden to followers of Islam, other meats such as lamb and chicken are staples. Much of Syrian food is highly spiced and dates and figs are employed in ways not usually found in typical American food. Stuffed zucchini, grape leaves, and cabbage leaves are common dishes. A popular sweet is baqlawa, found all over the eastern Mediterranean, made from filo dough filled with walnut paste and drizzled with sugar syrup.


Arabic or Middle Eastern music is a living tradition that spans some 13 centuries. Its three main divisions are classical, religious, and folk, the last of which has been expanded in modern times into a newer pop tradition. Central to all music from Syria and Arab countries are monophony and heterophony, vocal flourishes, subtle intonation, rich improvisation, and the Arab scales, so different from those of Western tradition. It is these characteristics which give Middle Eastern music its distinctive, exotic sound, at least to Western ears.

"I n the first place, I wasn't learning the language. To spare me embarrassment as well as to expedite conversation between us, my Syrian friends were speaking to me in my own tongue. In the packing plant it was no better, for most of the workers around me were foreigners like myself. When they talked to each other they used their own language; when they talked to me they used profanity."

Salom Rizk, Syrian Yankee, (Doubleday & Company, Garden City, NY, 1943).

Maqam, or melodic modes, are basic to music of the classical genre. There are set intervals, cadences, and even final tones to these modes. Additionally, classical Arabic music uses rhythmic modes similar to medieval Western music, with short units that come from poetic measurements. Islamic music relies heavily on chanting from the Koran and has similarities to Gregorian chant. While classical and religious music have regular characteristics throughout a vast amount of land and culture, Arabic folk music reflects individual cultures Druze, Kurdish, and Bedouin, for example.

Musical instruments used in classical music are primarily stringed, with the ud, a short-necked instrument similar to the lute, being the most typical. The spike-fiddle, or rabab, is another important stringed instrument that is bowed, while the qanun resembles a zither. For folk music, the most common instrument is the long-necked lute or tanbur. Drums are also a common accompanying instrument in this vital musical tradition.

This Syrian American man is a food peddler in New York City's Syrian Quarter.
This Syrian American man is a food peddler in New York City's Syrian Quarter.


Traditional clothing such as shirwal, which are baggy black pants, are reserved exclusively for ethnic dance performers. Traditional dress is almost completely a thing of the past for Syrian Americans, as well as native Syrians. Western dress is typical now both in Syria and the United States. Some Muslim women wear the traditional hijab in public. This can consist of a long-sleeved coat, as well as a white scarf that covers the hair. For some, the scarf alone is sufficient, derived from Muslim teaching that one should be modest.


Both Christian and Muslim Syrian Americans celebrate a variety of religious holidays. Adherents of Islam celebrate three main holidays: the 30-day period of fasting during the daytime hours known as Ramadan ; the five days marking the end of Ramadan, known as 'Eid al-Fitr ; and Eid al-Adha, "The Feast of Sacrifice." Ramadan, held during the ninth month of the Islamic calendar, is a time, similar to the Christian lent, in which self-discipline and moderation are employed for physical and spiritual cleansing. The end of Ramadan is marked by 'Eid al-Fitr, something of a cross between Christmas and Thanksgiving, an ebullient festival time for Arabs. The Feast of Sacrifice, on the other hand, commemorates the intervention of the Angel Gabriel in the sacrifice of Ishmael. According to the Koran, or Quran, the Muslim holy book, God asked Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael, but Gabriel intervened at the last moment, substituting a lamb for the boy. This holiday is held in conjunction with the Pilgrimage to Mecca, an obligation for practicing Muslims.

Saints' days are celebrated by Christian Syrians, as are Christmas and Easter; however, the Orthodox Easter falls on a different Sunday than the Western Easter. Increasingly, Arab Muslims are also celebrating Christmas, not as a religious holiday, but as a time for families to get together and exchange gifts. Some even decorate a Christmas tree and put up other Christmas decorations. Syria's independence day, April 17, is little celebrated in America.


No medical conditions are specific to Syrian Americans. There are, however, incidences of higher-than-average rates of anemia as well as lactose intolerance in this population. Early Syrian immigrants were often turned back by immigration officials because of trachoma, a disease of the eye particularly prevalent in Greater Syria of the day. It has been pointed out, also, that Syrian Americans tend to rely on solving psychological problems within the family itself. And while Arab medical doctors are common, Arab American psychologists and psychiatrists are more difficult to find.


Syrians are Arabic speakers who have their own dialect of the formal language, one that separates them as a group from other Arab-speaking peoples. Sub-dialects can be found their dialect, depending on the place of origin; for example Aleppo and Damascus each has a distinctive sub-dialect with accent and idiomatic peculiarities unique to the region. For the most part, dialect speakers can be understood by others, especially those closely related to the Syrian dialect such as Lebanese, Jordanian, and Palestinian.

There was once a rich profusion of Arab newspapers and magazines in the United States. However, the rush to assimilate, as well as the decreased number of new immigrants because of quotas led to the decline of such publications and of spoken Arabic. Parents did not teach their children the language and thus, their linguistic traditions were lost within a few generations in America. Among newer immigrants, however, language traditions are stronger. Arabic classes for young children are once again common, as well as Arabic church services held in some churches and sight of Arabic in commercial signs advertising Arab businesses.


Syrian greetings often come in triplets with response and counter-response. The most typical greeting is the casual, Hello, Marhaba, which elicits the response Ahlen —Welcome, or Marhabteen, Two hellos. This can earn the counter-response of Maraahib, or Several hellos. The morning greeting is Sabaah al-kehir, The morning is good, followed by Sabaah an-noor– The morning is light. The evening greeting is Masa al-kheir responded to with Masa nnoor. Greetings understood throughout the Arabic world are Asalam 'a laykum —Peace be with you— followed by Wa 'a laykum asalaam– Peace be upon you, too.

The formal introduction is Ahlein or Ahlan was Sahlan, while a popular toast is Sahteen May your health increase. How are you? is Keif haalak ?; this is often responded to with Nushkar Allah– We thank God. There are also elaborate linguistic differentiations made for gender and for salutations made to a group, as opposed to an individual.

Family and Community Dynamics

As has been noted, Syrian American families are generally closely-knit, patriarchal units. Nuclear families in America have largely replaced the extended family of the Syrian homeland. Formerly, the oldest son held a special position in the family: he would bring his bride to his parents' house, raise his children there, and care for his parents in their old age. Like much else about traditional Syrian life styles, this custom has also broken down over time in America. Increasingly, men and women share a more equal role in Syrian American households, with the wife often out in the workplace and the husband also taking a more active role in child rearing.


A tradition of higher education was already in place with many immigrants of the old Greater Syria, especially those from the area around Beirut. This was in part due to the preponderance of many Western religious institutions established there from the late nineteenth century onward. Americans, Russians, French, and British operated these establishments. Immigrants from Damascus and Aleppo in Syria were also accustomed to institutions of higher education, though generally the more rural the immigrant, the less emphasis was placed on his or her education in the early Syrian American community.

Over time, the attitude of the Syrian community has paralleled that of America as a whole: education is now more important for all the children, not just the males. College and university education is highly prized, and in general it has been shown that Arab Americans are better educated than the average American. The proportion of Arab Americans, for example, who in the 1990 census reported attaining a master's degree or higher, is twice that of the general population. For foreign-born professionals, the sciences are the preferred area of study, with large numbers becoming engineers, pharmacists, and doctors.


Though traditional roles from Syria do break down as the longer families stay in the United States, women are still the heart of the family. They are responsible for the house and raising the children, and may also assist their husbands in business. In this respect, the Syrian American community is different from American families. An independent career for Syrian and Arab women in America is still the exception rather than the norm.


Just as gender roles still hold sway in the work force, so to do the traditional values regarding dating, chastity, and marriage. More conservative Syrian Americans and recent immigrants often practice arranged marriages, including endogamous (within group) ones between cousins, which will benefit the prestige of both families. Courtship is a chaperoned, heavily supervised affair; casual dating, American style, is disapproved of in these more traditional circles.

Among more assimilated Syrian Americans, however, dating is a more relaxed situation and couples themselves make the decision to marry or not, though parental advice weighs heavily. In the Muslim community, dating is allowed only after a ritual engagement. The enactment of a marriage contract, kitb al-kitab, sets up a trial period for the couple months or a year in which they get accustomed to one another. The marriage is consummated only after a formal ceremony. Most Syrian Americans tend to marry within their religious community, if not their ethnic community. Thus an Arab Muslim woman, for example, unable to find an Arab Muslim to marry, would be more likely to marry a non-Arab Muslim, such as an Iranian or Pakistani, than a Christian Arab.

Marriage is a solemn vow for Middle Easterners in general; divorce rates for Syrian Americans reflect this and are below the national average. Divorce for reasons of personal unhappiness is still discouraged within the group and family, and though divorce is more common now for assimilated Syrian Americans, the multiple divorce-remarriage pattern of mainstream America is frowned upon.

In general, Syrian American couples tend to have children earlier than Americans, and they tend to have larger families as well. Babies and younger are often coddled, and boys are often given more latitude than are girls. Depending upon the level of assimilation, boys are brought up for careers, while girls are prepared for marriage and child rearing. High school is the upper limit of education for many girls, while boys are expected to continue their education.


Islam is the predominant religion of Syria, though most of the early emigrants from Greater Syria were Christian. More modern immigration patterns reflect the religious make-up of modern Syria, but the Syrian American community is made up of a hodge-podge of religious groups from Sunni Muslims to Greek Orthodox Christians. Islamic groups are divided into several sects. The Sunnite sect is the largest in Syria, accounting for 75 percent of the population. There are also Alawite Muslims, an extreme sect of the Shi'ites. The third largest Islamic group is the Druzes, a breakaway Muslim sect which has roots in earlier, non-Islamic religions. Many of the early Syrian immigrant peddlers were Druze.

Christian denominations include various branches of Catholicism, mostly of the Eastern rite: Armenian Catholics, Syrian Catholics, Catholic Chaldeans, as well as Latin-rite Roman Catholics, Melkites, and Maronites. Additionally, there are Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Nestorians, and Protestants. The first Syrian churches built in New York between 1890 and 1895 were Melkite, Maronite, and Orthodox.

Religious affiliation in Greater Syria was equivalent to belonging to a nation. The Ottoman developed a so-called millet system, a means of dividing citizens into political entities by religion. Such affiliation, over the centuries, became a second theme of identity, along with family ties, for Syrians. Though all Middle Eastern religions share common values such as charity, hospitality, and respect for authority and age, the individual sects compete with one another. The differences between the various Catholic faiths are not major dogmatic ones; for example, the churches differ in their belief in papal infallibility, and some conduct services in Arabic and Greek, others only in Aramaic.

As noted, the earliest Syrian immigrants were largely Christian. Currently there are 178 churches and missions in America serving the Orthodox. Discussions between Orthodox and Melkite priests are being held for a possible reuniting of the two faiths. Melkite, Maronite, and Orthodox churches confirm and baptize the faithful and use wine-soaked bread for the Eucharist. Often, ceremonies are done in English to serve the assimilated membership. Popular saints for the Maronites are St. Maron and St. Charbel; for the Melkites, St. Basil; and for the Orthodox, St. Nicholas and St. George.

Though some Muslims and Druzes arrived in the early waves of immigration, most have come since 1965. In general, they have found it more difficult to maintain their religious identity in America than have Christian immigrants from the same region. Part of Muslim ritual is praying five times a day. When no mosque is available for worship, small groups get together and rent rooms in commercial districts, where they can hold mid-day prayer.

Employment and Economic Traditions

Naff pointed out in Becoming American that if a Syrian immigrant's goal was to gain wealth, peddling was the means to earn it. The writer noted that "90 to 95 percent arrived with the express purpose of peddling notions and dry goods and did so for a period in the immigrant experience." Young men from villages all over Greater Syria immigrated in the late-nineteenth century in hopes of getting rich quick in the relatively lucrative endeavor of door-to-door peddling in America's under-served hinterland. Such work had obvious advantages for immigrants: it took little or no training and investment, a limited vocabulary, and provided instant if meager remuneration. Eager Syrian immigrants were herded into ships and headed off to "Amrika" or "Nay Yark," and many of them ended up in Brazil or Australia as a result of unscrupulous shipping agents.

America at the time was in transition. As few rural families owned carriages, peddlers were a common sight at the turn of the twentieth century. Carrying articles from buttons to suspenders to scissors, such peddlers were the distribution system of many small manufacturers. According to Naff, "These petty roving entrepreneurs, thriving in the age of great capitalistic merchandising, seemed like something suspended in a time warp." Armed with their backpacks and sometimes with carriages full of goods, these enterprising men plied their trade on back roads from Vermont to North Dakota. Networks of such peddlers spread across America to every state and helped account for the distribution of settlement of Syrian Americans. While the Syrians were not unique in peddling, they were different in that they stuck primarily to backpack peddling and to rural America. This resulted in the far-flung communities of Syrian Americans, from Utica, New York to Fort Wayne, Indiana, to Grand Rapids, Michigan and beyond. Muslims and Druzes were among these peddlers, too, though in fewer numbers. The largest of these early Muslim groups was centered in Providence, Rhode Island, from which its members peddled up the eastern seaboard. Large

This young Syrian American man is selling drinks in the Syrian Quarter in New York City.
This young Syrian American man is selling drinks in the Syrian Quarter in New York City.
Druze communities could be found in Massachusetts, and by 1902, Muslim and Druze groups could be found in North Dakota and Minnesota and as far west as Seattle.

Many immigrants used peddling as a step up toward earning their own businesses. It has been reported that by 1908, there were already 3,000 Syrian-owned businesses in America. Syrians soon also filled positions in the professions, from doctors to lawyers to engineers, and by 1910, there was a small group of Syrian millionaires to give proof to the "land of opportunity." Dry goods were a particular Syrian specialty, especially clothing, a tradition that can be seen in the modern clothing empires of Farah and Haggar, both early Syrian immigrants. The auto industry also claimed many early immigrants, resulting in large communities in Dearborn and near Detroit.

Later immigrants tend to be better trained than the first wave of immigrants. They serve in fields from computer science to banking and medicine. With cutbacks in the auto sector in the 1970s and 1980s, factory workers of Syrian descent were particularly hard hit, and many were forced to go on public assistance, an extremely difficult decision for families for whom honor is synonymous with self-reliance.

Looking at the Arab American community as a whole, its distribution in the job market reflects fairly closely that of American society in general. Arab Americans, according to the 1990 census, do appear to be more heavily concentrated in entrepreneurial and self-employed positions (12 percent versus only 7 percent in the general population), and in sales (20 percent as against 17 percent in the general populace).

Politics and Government

Syrian Americans were initially quiet politically. Collectively, they never belonged to one political party or the other; their political affiliation reflected the larger American population, with business owners among them often voting Republican, blue-collar workers staying with the Democrats. As a political entity, they traditionally have not had the clout of other ethnic groups. One early issue that roused Syrian Americans, as it did all Arab Americans, was the 1914 Dow case in Georgia, which established that Syrians were Caucasians and thus could not be refused naturalization on the grounds of race. Since that time, second-generation Syrian Americans have been elected to offices from judgeships to the U.S. Senate.

Syrian American political action of the mid- to late-twentieth century has focussed on the Arab-Israeli conflict. The partitioning of Palestine in 1948 brought behind-the-scenes protests from Syrian leaders. After the 1967 war, Syrian Americans began to join political forces with other Arab groups to try and affect U.S. foreign policy regarding the Middle East. The Association of Arab University Graduates hoped to educate the American public as to the real nature of the Arab-Israeli dispute, while the National Association of Arab Americans was formed in the early 1970s to lobby Congress in this regard. In 1980 the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee was founded to counteract negative Arab stereotyping in the media. In 1985 the Arab American Institute was founded to promote Arab American participation in American politics. As a result, smaller regional action groups have also been organized, supporting Arab American candidates for office as well as candidates sympathetic to the Arab American viewpoint in international and domestic affairs.

Individual and Group Contributions

It should be noted that there is not always a clear distinction between places of origin when dealing with Syrian immigration history. For individuals as well as for immigration records, the confusion between Greater Syria and modern Syria poses some difficulties. However, the following list is mostly comprised of individuals who either arrived in the first wave of Greater Syrian immigration or were the offspring of such immigrants. Thus, in the largest possible sense, these notable individuals are Syrian American.


Dr. Rashid Khaldi of the University of Chicago and Dr. Ibrahim Abu Lughod have both become well known commentators in the media on issues dealing with the Middle East. Philip Hitti was a Syrian Druze who became a prominent scholar at Princeton and a recognized expert on the Middle East.


Nathan Solomon Farah established a general store in New Mexico Territory in 1881, later becoming a developer in the region, fostering the growth of both Santa Fe and Albuquerque. Mansur Farah, arriving in America in 1905, began the trouser manufacturing company that still bears the family name. Haggar, of Dallas, also started as a Syrian business, as did the food-processing company of Azar, also in Texas, and Mode-O-Day, founded by the Malouf family of California. Amin Fayad, who settled in Washington, D.C., was the first to establish a carryout food service east of the Mississippi. Paul Orfalea (1946–) is the founder of Kinko's photocopying chain. Ralph Nader (1934–) is a well-known consumer advocate and candidate for U.S. president in 1994.


F. Murray Abraham was the first Syrian American to win an Oscar, for his role in Amadeus ; Frank Zappa was a well known rock musician; Moustapha Akkad directed Lion in the Desert and The Message as well as the Halloween thrillers; Casey Kasem (1933– ) is one of America's most famous disc jockeys.


Najib Halaby was defense advisor during the Truman and Eisenhower administrations; Dr. George Atiyeh was appointed curator of the Arabic and Middle East section of the library of Congress; Philip Habib (1920-1992) was a career diplomat who helped negotiate an end to the Vietnam War; Nick Rahal (1949– ) has been a U.S. congressman from Virginia since 1976; Donna Shalala, a prominent Arab American woman in the Clinton administration, has served as Secretary of Health and Human Services.


William Blatty (1928–) wrote the book and screenplay to The Exorcist ; Vance Bourjaily (1922–), is the author of Confessions of a Spent Youth ; the poet Khalil Gibran (1883-1931), was the author of The Prophet. Other poets include Sam Hazo (1926–), Joseph Awad (1929–), and Elmaz Abinader (1954–).


Paul Anka (1941–), writer and singer of 1950s popular songs; Rosalind Elias (1931–), soprano with the Metropolitan Opera; Elie Chaib (1950–), dancer with the Paul Taylor Company.


Michael DeBakey (1908–) pioneered bypass surgery and invented the heart pump; Elias J. Corey (1928–) of Harvard University, won the 1990 Nobel Prize for Chemistry; Dr. Nadeem Muna developed a blood test in the 1970s to identify melanoma.




International Arabic newspaper printed in English and Arabic.

Contact: Raji Daher, Editor.

Address: P.O. Box 416, New York, New York 10017.

Telephone: (212) 972-0460.

Fax: (212) 682-1405.

American-Arab Message.

Religious and political weekly founded in 1937 and printed in English and Arabic.

Contact : Imam M. A. Hussein.

Address: 17514 Woodward Ave., Detroit, Michigan 48203.

Telephone: (313) 868-2266.

Fax: (313) 868-2267.

Journal of Arab Affairs.

Contact: Tawfic E. Farah, Editor.

Address: M E R G Analytica, Box 26385, Fresno, California 93729-6385.

Fax: (302) 869-5853.

Jusoor (Bridges).

An Arabic/English quarterly that publishes both poetry and essays on the arts and political matters.

Contact: Munir Akash, Editor.

Address: P.O. Box 34163, Bethesda, Maryland 20817.

Telephone: (212) 870-2053.

The Link.

Contact: John F. Mahoney, Executive Director.

Address: Americans for Middle East Understanding, Room 241, 475 Riverside Drive, New York, New York 10025-0241.

Telephone: (212) 870-2053.

Middle East International.

Contact: Michael Wall, Editor.

Address: 1700 17th Street, N.W., Suite 306, Washington, D.C. 20009.

Telephone: (202) 232-8354.

Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

Contact: Richard H. Curtiss, Executive Editor.

Address: P.O. Box 53062, Washington, D.C. 20009.

Telephone: (800) 368-5788.


Arab Network of America.

Broadcasts one to two hours of Arabic programming weekly in urban areas with large Arab American populations, including Washington, D.C., Detroit, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

Contact: Eptisam Malloutli, Radio Program Director.

Address: 150 South Gordon Street, Alexandria, Virginia 22304.

Telephone: (800) ARAB-NET.


Arab Network of America (ANA).

Contact: Laila Shaikhli, TV Program Director.

Address: 150 South Gordon Street, Alexandria, Virginia 22304.

Telephone : (800) ARAB-NET.

TAC Arabic Channel.

Contact: Jamil Tawfiq, Director.

Address: P.O. Box 936, New York, New York 10035.

Telephone: (212) 425-8822.

Organizations and Associations

American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC).

Combats stereotyping and defamation in the media and in other venues of public life, including politics.

Address: 4201 Connecticut Avenue, Washington, D.C. 20008.

Telephone: (202) 244-2990.

Arab American Institute (AAI).

Fosters participation of Arab Americans in the political process at all levels.

Contact: James Zogby, Executive Director.

Address: 918 16th Steet, N.W., Suite 601, Washington, D.C. 20006.

Arab Women's Council (AWC).

Seeks to inform the public on Arab women.

Contact: Najat Khelil, President.

Address: P.O. Box 5653, Washington, D.C. 20016.

National Association of Arab Americans (NAAA).

Lobbies Congress and the administration regarding Arab interests.

Contact : Khalil Jahshan, Executive Director.

Address: 1212 New York Avenue, N.W., Suite 300, Washington, D.C. 20005.

Telephone: (202) 842-1840.

Syrian American Association.

Address: c/o Tax Department, P.O. Box 925, Menlo Park, California, 94026-0925.

Museums and Research Centers

The Faris and Yamna Naff Family Arab American Collection.

Contact: Alixa Naff.

Address: Archives Center, National Museum of History, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.

Telephone: (202) 357-3270.

Sources for Additional Study

Abu-Laban, Baha, and Michael W. Suleiman, eds. Arab Americans: Continuity and Change. Normal, Illinois: Association of Arab American University Graduates, Inc., 1989.

El-Badry, Samia. "The Arab Americans," American Demographics, January 1994, pp. 22-30.

Kayal, Philip, and Joseph Kayla. The Syrian Lebanese in America: A Study in Religion and Assimilation. Boston: Twayne, 1975.

Saliba, Najib E. Emigration from Syria and the Syrian-Lebanese Community of Worcester, MA. Ligonier, PA: Antakya Press, 1992.

Younis, Adele L. The Coming of the Arabic-Speaking People to the United States. Staten Island, NY: Center for Migration Studies, 1995.

User Contributions:

G J Graves
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Mar 4, 2007 @ 10:10 am
I am hoping that you could advise me as to where there was a large Syrian population in California in the late 1950's, specifically OUTSIDE of Los Angeles County.
Thank You. gjg
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Oct 17, 2007 @ 11:23 pm
What a great article. I am a second generation Syrian. My grandparents were Christian Syrian immigrants who settled in the Pittsburgh area. My Situ lived with my parents and I was blessed to have her presence in our home until she passed away when I was 24 years old.

Any information regarding the immigration of Syrians at the turn of the century is fascinating to me.

Thank You!
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Jul 23, 2008 @ 7:07 am
Thank you for sharing the pride in being a Syria-American! I concur with Niki regarding the close family relationships that are fostered in the Syrian/Lebanese community-I count myself fortunate to call myself Middle Eastern.

I am writing to ask if there is any TV or radio progamming in the U.S. that focuses on our community? The only thing I am aware of is Dish Network and their programming is limited.

Thank you for your assistance!
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Nov 21, 2008 @ 3:15 pm

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Oct 28, 2009 @ 1:13 pm
After reading this great summary I felt I should add few words, first I would like to thank the writer for taking the time to write about the Syrian American history, and I appreciate the photos too.
I am a first generation of Syrian American, and I have been lucky to be able to visit Syria every other year, I do encourage all of you to go and visit this beautiful country with a lot of History for you to explore and to see,
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May 21, 2010 @ 11:23 pm
Thank you very much sir for this great and well researched article. I was stunned by the accuracy and the detailing of the Syrian life and tradition.
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Jan 26, 2011 @ 5:05 am
Can you tell me where you found these marvelous pictures to reproduce? thank you.
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Jul 12, 2011 @ 1:01 am
I have enjoyed reading about my heritage thank you. My grandparents immigrated in 1893. I have searched Ellis Island records and every other type of record possible, different spellings of our surname still nothing.
Other relatives of theirs I have found just can't understand why I can't find anything on them. I know that in 1898 they were living in Donaldsonville, Louisiana. Is there any where else I might be able to search? I have searched Ellis Island, footnotes,, rootsweb, family serch and no records. Is there any where else?
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Jan 10, 2012 @ 11:11 am
please help all the Syrian , most of them are so kind and wronged
Gordon P.Gay
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Feb 17, 2012 @ 5:17 pm
How may I contact the Syrian-American community in Seattle?
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Dec 31, 2012 @ 8:08 am
Phillip Kouri Hitti was of Christian Lebanese background, and not as you state Syrian Druze.
D.J. Davis
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Aug 5, 2018 @ 2:14 pm
Can anyone direct me to information about how and why two of our ancestors would have emigrated through New York City and gone on to Alabama and Georgia around 1825? Thank you.
Bob Dylan
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Oct 3, 2018 @ 12:12 pm
This was a great website for me. It helped me a lot on my History project.
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Apr 9, 2019 @ 10:10 am
My great-grandfather was Syrian and he entered the US through Mexico, just putting that out there for people who are having trouble finding their ancestors coming in through Ellis island.
Debby Wheat
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Jul 27, 2019 @ 10:22 pm
I am trying to find any record of my great grandfather coming to American and the area he came from, records suggest he was from Damascus, Syria area, or possibly Zahle. He came sometime around 1890. I. cannot find any record at Ellis Island or any record until 1899 when he married in Woods County, OK and that record indicates he was born in Assyria. His name Joseph J, Abboud, or misspelled Abbond. Mother Shahdey or possibly Shaddey. Any help appreciated, finding where he came from, entered the US and got to Oklahoma in 1899.
Jan Bassett
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Aug 14, 2019 @ 8:08 am
Really enjoyed reading this article. My great grandparents came from Syria in the late 1800’s Making their way to Washington DC where my grandfather was born in 1896. Their first child did not survive the trip. They opened a corner grocery in Washington DC. When my grandfather was a young child he would deliver groceries to the Whitehouse when President Teddy Roosevelt was in office. When he finished high school he came to Seattle and went to the University Of Washington Law school. He passed in 1971. The family stories say that my great grandparent had been Lebanese but records show they came from Syria. My great grandparents were Jacob and Lizzie Bassett.
Glory Shabouk
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Jun 29, 2020 @ 12:00 am
Really enjoyed.. I’m first gen Syrian American. my dad came To US (68’ i think) via Venezuela -and my stto & jiddo came from Aleppo about that time. My jidjiddo ( never met) came to US via Ellis Isl. in early 1900s , went to Rhode Island where he worked in a mine. Unfortunately he died of black lung. My dad left Syria in 1954 (on the back of a donkey )his dad took him to Beirut through the mountains to get the boat. He was 14.
Sadly I have not been to Syria . Yet.

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