Nineteenth century missionaries, many of them American Presbyterians, sowed the seeds of new educational systems, and sowed the seeds of adventure among the Syrian Lebanese. They yearned to go to America. By the end of the American Civil War, new incentives were creating a restlessness in the peoples of Europe and Asia to seek out new horizons of promise. The Arabs emigrated out of the old society to new challenges in South Africa, South America, and Australia. For many, these continents were stopping off places until the shores of the great America could be reached. The impetus often came from the women who yearned to better their childrens' life.
When news of the Homestead Act of 1862 reached Syria, some farmers from Becherre, in the Lebanon Mountains, found their way to America to accept the offer of a piece of America's big land. Between 1864 and 1870, the Land Grant Register of Receipts contained names like Nasser, Bader, and Farris, common names among the Syrians and Lebanese.
Most of the new immigrants landed in New York, though New Orleans welcomed many, and by 1875, Syrians had opened hotels to accommodate other Syrians on their way south and west. From New York, many travelled west to Pennsylvania, to Ohio, to Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana. They peddled "Holy Land" goods, and hundreds of sundry items for the housewives--
safety pins, matches, needles, thread, cloth, art goods, and embroideries. They went on across the plains -- to wheat country and corn country, into California and New Mexico, where the citrus and grape were so much like the groves and vineyards of home. They travelled south to the cotton mills, and east to New England -- to Springfield, Worcester and Lawrence in Massachusetts. Pawtucket and Fall River in Rhode Island, became centers for Arab immigrants.
Their social patterns slowly changed and the father of the family was no longer the only breadwinner. The mother was no longer simply the mistress of the house. She joined her husband at the looms and sorting tables of the New England textile mills, her earnings adding to the little hoard of money which would be sent back to the old country to bring the children, the old parents, the aunts, uncles and cousins to the new land.
While the unskilled and poorly educated turned to labor, the intellectuals established newspapers and printing presses in New York City. Washington Street became a cultural center for the editors, writers, speakers and philosophers of the new Arabic communities. Kowkab America, (The Constellation of America), published by the famous Arbeely family from Damascus around 1890, was the first Arabic newspaper in the new world. Soon to follow were Al Ayam (The Days) founded by Joseph Malouf; Al-Hoda (The Guidance) published by the brothers, Nahum and Salloum Mokarzel; Najeeb Diab's Murrayat el Gharb, (Mirror of the West); Al Islah, (The Reform) founded by Shibli N. Damus; and As-Sameer (The Entertainer) which was published by Elia D. Madey.
It was not only the people from the villages and farms of the mountains of Syria, or from the busy cities of Beirut and Damascus who found
their way to the land of liberty. Between 1877 and 1879, a group of Algerians fled from French Guiana and finally, after months of misadventure and hardship in the high seas, managed to make their way to free America.
Another drama of determination was enacted by a group of young Syrian men who had been refused permission to disembark and were forced to return to their ship. They did not sail back to Syria, however, but jumped ship in Nova Scotia and walked back to New York City, entering America by land rather than by sea. It was March of 1888, and they had to battle a great blizzard before finally making their way to Washington Street and the shouted welcomes of their landsmen.
The immigrant experience was often a painful and bitter one. Sailing the high seas from Europe and Asia, their hearts filled with high hopes for the better life, they suffered unbelievable crowding in the steerage of old ships, illness, frustrations in communication, countless hardships, with patience and forbearance. Often, upon reaching the long promised shore, new humiliations still lay ahead for them. Let us read from Harper's, 1884: "These immigrants are a motley crowd. New York contains representatives of forty-four nationalities. Those Armenians in red fez and oriental costume will swell the number to forty-five!"
At the time of these immigrations, Asia Minor as well as the Arab world were under domination by the Ottoman Empire, and there was often confusion about nationality. A Syrian living in Armenia might be mistaken for Armenian; an Armenian living in Syria might be thought to by Syrian; and both would be Turkish subjects, carrying a Turkish passport. Armenians,
Syrians, Egyptians, Lebanese and Greeks were often included by customs and immigration authorities under the one classification of "Turk."
On January 1, 1892, seven hundred passengers from the City of Paris and the Victoria went through the turnstiles of Ellis Island, the first to enter America from this new Gateway, forerunners of the more than sixteen million who would go through its examining rooms and line up at the windows of its money exchange for more than forty years. Here at this first but not final stop on the road to America doctors would make the decision, whether this man, this woman, this child might enter the longed-for country.
Among the Syrians sometimes whole families would have to return to the ship because of trachoma among the children. Sometimes young boys would be forced to return to the last port of call, usually Marseilles, while their parents and siblings took the train to the mill towns of America. Here, the family would work, sacrificing every comfort, to send money to the child in France or Italy until his eyes were cured and he could book passage back to his family. Many a fourteen and fifteen year old Syrian youth spent a year, two or three years on the docks of Marseilles, eking out a miserable existence, yearning for the day of reunion, the day of promise, when his feet would touch the American shore.
The Syrian mother, hoarding every possible penny, would gather her courage, leave husband and children behind in Worcester or Boston or Lawrence, and return to France, to the lost child, able to bear no longer the pangs of separation from one wrenched away from the others. Here she would find lodgings, ration her meager little cache of money, and she and this exiled son would walk from doctor to doctor, seeking the cure that would reunite them with the rest of the family.
The experiences at Ellis Island were painful for the Arab immigrant, who was even less understood or respected than his European counterpart. The color of his hair and skin and eyes made a difference in an America that was Nordic and Anglo Saxon in culture and philosophy. In an America that advocated white supremacy long after the Emancipation Proclamation, the olive, ruddy or sallow complexions, dark eyes and dark hair of most of the Arabs entering American cities were less acceptable than the fair skins, blue eyes and blond hair of the middle European peasants, or the freckled face and blue and green eyes, of the Irish immigrant whose English could be understood.
The barrier of language was difficult. Arabic? Who of these inspectors, physicians, nurses, or money changers understood Arabic? French? Perhaps the educated Arab knew French; the peasant did not. It was not always simple to match up the interpreters, since the Arab immigration was, except for the few hardy pioneers of the decades before, happening all at once. And who of the physicians, money changers, and inspectors even knew French? The money exchange? Here gold coins must be exchanged for paper money. To a young mother with small children around her who had just travelled strange seas, arrived in a strange land, and was anxiously waiting to be reunited with her husband who would take her to a strange city, this was one more frightening experience on the eventful journey. Her father had told her at the port of Beirut, "Be careful of your money. Tie it in a handkerchief and hide it in your clothing. Do not let anyone take it from you." Usually the young woman would pin it in a camisole or tie it in a belt around her petticoat. She would guard it well for this was to see her across a vast ocean, and bring her and her children to the husband and father who had come before to get a job and earn their passage. Now she had to be
convinced by knowledgeable friends that she must exchange the Turkish gold pieces for American gold. But what of this which was not gold? How many a weeping mother rocked and moaned, her sobbing children clinging to her, in her hands a package of green paper, where she had held moments before a kerchief full of gold. Long years later how her grandchildren would laugh with her over the story of the green paper gold.
The language barrier often caused new lineages to be created with the stroke of a pen.
"What is your name? You, who are you. Your name? What are you called?"
"Mil? Never mind, let's say William. What is your last name. Your family?"
"Mak. . .well never mind, McCall will do." And so Milhem Makhoul became William (Bill) McCall. Jamil Khalil, by the same process of expediency became James (Jimmy) Kelly, and, in the next generation. Bill McCall, Junior, would marry Marguerite (Mag) Kelly, daughter of James and Widad (changed to Betty or Margaret or Winnie), and the tracing of Arab Americans would become a little more difficult.
Family names were sometimes discarded altogether, and a man might get off the train from New York to greet his landsmen with a name like Thomas George, which had been hooked together from his first name and his father's first name. It was just not worth the trouble for some recorders to list
Tannous ibn Juryus Azaar, Thomas son of George Azaar. Thus the family names became lost, sometimes forever, and genealogies and family trees would take years to unscramble.
Throughout America today, family names like Abraham, Alexander, Hanna, George, Moses and Elias, among many others are really names adopted from the father's or grandfather's given name, the custom beginning either at Ellis Island directly, or through the efforts of assimilation following immediately upon entrance into the American way of life. A family name too difficult for the American employer or neighbor to pronounce was often discarded in favor of the more easily pronounced given name. Sometimes, even when an Arabic sounding name was retained, it would again be the given name, which would be simpler to pronounce than the long and often complicated family name. Habeeb, Rashid, Maroon, Khalil, Sliman, Antoon, and Najib are but a few of such names. Adjustment to the new life was difficult enough without the added burden of attempting to explain to the Americans the complex process by which the original family name had been derived. We are in America; we will be Kelly and all the other names the Americans can understand.
When one considers the attitudes of many Americans during this time of mass immigration, and the sparse information which the average American had of the people from the Near East, the logic of the early Arab arrival becomes more understandable and less contemptible to his American children and grandchildren. For an insight into the attitudes of even well-educated Americans of the period, let us go to Scribner's Magazine of July, 1892. Joseph Kirkland, in his article, "Among the Poor of Chicago" says:
For depth of shadow in Chicago low life one must look to the foreign element, the persons who are not only of alien birth but of unrelated blood. . .the Mongolian, the African, the Slav, the semi-tropic Latin. . .At 406 Clark Street, in the very midst of all that is alien to our better nature, rises the Clark Street Mission. Here are daily gathered in a free kindergarten, some scores of the little unfortunates whom a cruel fate has planted in this cesspool. It is a touching sight; they are so innocent as yet, mere buds springing up in the track of a lava stream. There is a creche here as well as a kindergarten, and tiny creatures, well fed and cared for, swing in hammocks, or sit, stand, walk or creep all about in charge of kind devoted young women. Curiously enough, many of the little ones are born of Arabian mothers. There are some hundreds of Arabs housed nearby. The attendant thinks they are Christian converts in charge of Church folk who were formerly missionaries in Arabia. The women are occupied in peddling small wares and trinkets which they carry about in packs and baskets.
In today's more enlightened and bettered travelled American society, Kirkland's falacious information and inbuilt bias is immediately apparent. Was the non-Christian less than the Christian? Was it expected that these infants of foreign mothers were to spend the rest of their lives as refuse of Chicago?
The vast majority of Arab immigrants to the United States at that time were the minorities of the countries of the Middle East, the Christians of Syria or the Lebanon, who were either politically or economically deprived. These were the same Christians whose ancestors were converted from Judaism or paganism by Christ and His apostles a long time before Western missionaries reached their villages. If there was a further conversion in the latter day, it was from eastern Catholicism to Protestantism, usually the Lutheran, Presbyterian or Episcopalian denominations. There were few immigrants from Arabia. Numbers of Muslims, however, as well as Arab Jews, from Baghdad, Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo and Beirut had begun to arrive with their Christian compatriots.
These non-Christian immigrants would have less need for social assistance, however, since they had come to take advantage of an economic situation which would permit them to establish trade centers in the large cities. They were merchants, importing the beautiful inlaid woods, brasses, and fine jewelry, which had been first displayed for the American buyer at the Centennial celebration in Philadelphia in 1876.
The Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 gave these enterprising merchants an even greater showcase for their wares and talents. A whole Cairo Street known as "Bein al Kasrein," complete with its ornately decorated buildings, was reproduced for the Exposition. The artware and textiles displayed drew excitement and admiration from writers and commentators at the Exposition. The Mosque of Sultan Selim was considered one of the finest of all exhibits.
The St. Louis Fair of 1904 further introduced the culture of the East to the West, interweaving the religious heritages of Jews, Christians and Muslims in the exquisitely reproduced walled city of Jerusalem. Twenty-two streets gave the visitor new insights into the society and culture of the city of three great faiths.
While Arab culture was attracting great interest at the Columbian Exposition, many Americans were less than enthusiastic about the immigrant waves that were flooding the country. This new invasion was a source of cheap labor in the mills and factories, keeping some Americans from better jobs or wages.
While the Nordic Europeans, British and other Anglo Saxons were acceptable to native born Americans, the southern and Eastern Europeans,
and the Asiatics were considered by many to be inferior. More than others, they were not only an economic threat but a genetic threat as well. It was feared that they would mix with the Anglo Saxon population and that inevitably this would result in a "deterioration" of the American stock. In 1894, the Immigration Restriction League was formed in Boston, and, although its early efforts failed, eventually it succeeded in convincing many politicians and civic groups that restriction of immigration was necessary. The years of the First World War -- 1914 to 1918 -- enflamed these prejudices and finally the Quota Acts of 1921 and 1924 put a virtual end to the free movement of Europe and Asia to the New World.
For the Arabs, the greatest immigration had been between the years of 1890 and 1914 -- less than twenty-five years. In that time, at least one hundred twenty-five thousand Arabs arrived to become part of the American story. Most were Syrians from the mountain regions of the Lebanon which became a separate state in 1943. Let us now follow the Arabs into one city, which, like other American cities, became home to the Arab immigrants, and, in the next generation, to their children, the Arab-Americans.