In attempting to trace the history of the Arab-Americans in Cleveland, one fact is sadly apparent--that the early Arab settlers and their first generation children were living their history, not writing or documenting it. Because they were busy with the priorities of making a living, getting an education, and preserving their traditions and customs within the limited boundaries of the ethnic group, much of the history of the first years unfortunately has died with the people who made it.
Life for the Arab immigrant no matter where he settled, was a traumatically different experience from his life back home. From an agrarian society where often land was registered in the names of two or three men who were leaders of the entire community, and where the family was subordinate to the father, the new immigrants were thrust into an industrialized community where everyone worked, and where the community leadership did not control the economics of the individual family.
Arab women in America found that their domestic skills could be put to use not only for the requirements of the family, but also to add to the family's income. They were accustomed to sewing for their husbands and children; now they could sew for "rich" ladies and supplement their husband's earnings.
The children went out and got odd jobs, peddled small goods or hawked newspapers. When husband and wife went into a small business there were grandparents or an old aunt at home to care for the children. These patterns were similar in most of the cities in which immigrants found themselves. However, if they went to the mill towns of Massachusetts or Rhode Island, the rubber city of Akron, Ohio or the infant automotive centers in Detroit or Cleveland, they did not always continue to work in the mills and the factories or on the railroad arteries carrying industry in and out of the cities. By inclination, the Arab tends toward self-employment and a desire to be his own boss. So it was in Cleveland.
Immigration into Cleveland is believed to have begun in the 1870's, coinciding with that of the Lithuanians, but no documentation has been found to indicate whether many of the first immigrants remained in the city, made their way to other American towns, or having made some money, returned home to Syria. The greatest likelihood is that these newcomers were itinerant salesmen, peddling their Holy Land olivewood crosses and rosaries and mother of pearl artifacts and shrines. Those who came later, in the 1890's, put down the roots which would establish the present Cleveland Arab-American community.
From about 1890, the immigration of Syrians into Cleveland escalated until it peaked around 1910. Many of these immigrants were from the agricultural villages and towns surrounding the cities of Beirut and Damascus, the majority coming from the rich and fertile Bekaa Valley of the Lebanon, the ancient Coele-Syria. Most came from the towns of Zahle and Aiteneet, while some came from northern Lebanon, from Aramoon and Kuba.
There were no olive or fig, orange or lemon groves in Cleveland, and the apple, peach and grape industries accepted little help from immigrants, so the industrious Syrian-Lebanese set about to establish themselves in whatever trades they might find. Some went to work in the steel mills, and others in the new automotive factories. They went on road building jobs and worked for sewer contractors. Some found jobs in carpentry and the housing trades. They began as unskilled laborers, but as the years progressed, they established their own contracting businesses, and their own building and real estate companies.
From their day laborers' wages they opened grocery stores, fruit and vegetable stands in the West Side and Central Markets, restaurants and diners, and some dry goods stores. Out of these grew wholesale houses jobbing tobaccos, candy, paper products, appliances and gift items; large first class restaurants serving downtown and suburban clienteles; super-markets, automobile agencies, and specialty shops.
Some of the women, particularly those from families settling in the Haymarket District, took their handmade laces and tatting, their embroideries and finely sewn aprons, dresses, and baby clothes, and, with their children at their side, went to such parishes as Old Stone Presbyterian to sell their crafts to more affluent and longer established Americans.
Most of the early settlers lived in the Haymarket District on Woodland, Orange, Carnegie and Webster Avenues, Bolivar Road, Eagle Street and the areas between East 9th and East 22nd Streets. There were also large settlements on Cleveland's near West Side in the old Ohio City, and on West 14th Street from the Central Viaduct to Clark Avenue.
Downtown on the East Side, the children were enrolled at Eagle and Brownell schools, and at St. John's Cathedral school, and, on the West Side, most went to St. Patrick, St. Mary, West Commerce and Lincoln schools.
From the beginning, the parents, like the East European immigrants, recognized that there was only one direct route for their children out of the factories, fruit stands, confectioneries and peddling itineraries in which they, themselves, earned their livings. This was the path of education denied to the parents by the circumstances of government and class in the mother country. Since education was now open to their children in an American system which enforced learning, the children would one day be the doctors, lawyers, businessmen, teachers, and government leaders which their forbears could never have hoped to become. In the 1890's, gaslight illuminated the little copy books the children studied by, and some of them managed to get through a few grades of elementary school before they had to go to work, or, as in the case of many of the girls, to be married at the age of fourteen or fifteen. These were, for the most part, not the American born generation, but those children who had accompanied their parents on the long hard voyage to America.
After the 1900's, when the American-born generation was enrolled in the schools, more and more young people continued from elementary education to commercial training in two-year high schools, to college preparatory courses in the private schools, and on to all the colleges and the universities for advanced degrees.
It was not easy. Economic circumstances did not change rapidly for the first families. Gradually, through struggle, failure and success, the long-sought ambitions were realized. This philosophy was handed down to the younger generations.
Those early settlers, like the immigrants from other countries, were a generation of Titans. They were "stronger than ten" in their physical prowess and durability. The women endured hardships, embarrassment, and humiliation with a good will. Both men and women made friends of their skeptical and often inconsiderate neighbors. They rose, step by step, to positions of acceptance, trust, and respect in the community.
These people were themselves trusting and faithful. Their word was their bond. Their basic values were simple, honest, and unaffected. An eight-hour day was a foreign concept to them. They worked in their businesses from dawn to late night and taught their children that hard work was a proper way of life.
Life centered around the home and the church, and all its special events -- births, baptisms, weddings, and funerals -- took place within those sheltering walls. On Bolivar Road, phonographs playing Arabic records sounded throughout the street, and the people took part in the simple pastimes of their own Mediterranean cultures. The men, Greeks and Syrian-Lebanese, sat on stools and soda fountain chairs on the sidewalks in front of their stores and engaged in friendly if somewhat volatile matches in the "Towlee," that ancient game of backgammon which enjoys rediscovered popularity today. The boards were exquisitely inlaid with mother of pearl on fine woods. Immigrant craftsmen took pride in producing each piece more elegant than the previous one. Card games were popular.
These included Basra, a form of casino, and, in later years, Whist. The children could spend an entire Saturday afternoon in the movie houses for five or ten cents. In the evenings, families visited each other's houses for card parties, or to exchange the old country news coming from New York in one of the Arabic language newspapers, to read letters from the village back home, or just to sit in parlors before a stove in winter, reminescing about life in the village or discussing plans for new partnerships or ventures in this new land.
On summer evenings everyone came out to sit on the sidewalks, to call to each other over tenement balconies, to rock on a porch or front stoop, sip lemonade flavored with mazzaher, an orange flower water, and to nibble at Kahik, Sambousek, or Mamouhl, Arabic pastries. They could be equally delighted with the new tastes of pretzels or good American sugar cookies.
A new arrival from the old country meant days of reunion and celebration, everyone coming to greet him and make him welcome. If the arrival was a young man cousin or young girl cousin, the visitors came with a speculative eye that here might be a suitable match for a son or daughter.
Sometimes there were tears. An old grandfather, having stayed a few years, would be leaving America to spend his last moments on his own bit of land, anxious to be buried in the mother soil. When someone, young or old, made plans to return to the old country, the farewell was one of terrible grief. This was a funereal moment, for a return almost certainly meant a parting forever from the loved ones in this land. The tears and farewells were loud and agonized, and songs of lament would be heard along