As I write my current book, I have researched the early immigration of Syrians. Between the years of 1890-1924, the largest wave of Syrians came into the United States. My great-grandmother and great-grandfather were a part of this first immigration. It isn’t a migration that is often discussed in our US history.
During my research, I came across a part of New York City history I hadn’t known. In the beginning of the 20th Century, there was an area called “Little Syria.” It went from the Manhattan North to the foot of what was the World Trade Center towers.
As these neighborhoods tend to go, it was torn down to make way for the Battery Tunnel. Only three buildings remain from the time period. A church, a tenement house, and a community house that was used as a resettlement house for immigrants.
My great-grandmother came to Syria through Ellis Island, although in my book, I have reimagined her travels to be more exciting than the straight shot from Beirut to NYC. Some unlucky Syrians paid passage to corrupt individuals believing they were heading for America when really the ship was headed for France or South America.
The immigrants who made it to Ellis Island found more challenges. They were often held for fear of an eye disease, regardless of whether they showed signs of illness or not. I do know my great-grandmother was held for 10 days, as it was sorted out whether or not she had sponsorship. Even then, when she was released she was not able to gain citizenship until a court case in 1915 (Dow V United States) determined that Arabs/Middle Easterners were considered “white” and therefore could be naturalized, while other groups such as Asians were not included.
I’m a fiction writer though, so I am not held to the actual facts, which my family and I probably won’t ever really know. I like to imagine her first entering the country and being enfolded in this community of men and women in New York City, who spoke her language, helped her understand the strange customs in America, maybe she made friends who helped her find work. All the possibilities that came with a young person on an adventure in a completely different world.
My character, Rose, started her journey through boredom. She had gone to American schools and learned English from the missionaries there. She didn’t want to get married to the man she had been betrothed to since she was barely a teenager. She wanted to work and keep learning.
I don’t know what brought my family here to the US. But I like to imagine my great-grandmother similar to the character I have written in honor of her. And so in my mind she was courageous, adventurous, trail-blazing. If only her life hadn’t been cut short, I might be writing a different post. Instead, all I have are the stories and experiences of other people who made a similar journey.
And for many, that journey began in Little Syria.
It is important that we all understand our histories. Not only for ourselves, but to make sure more than one story is told about our ancestors. Racial reconciliation happens when we are able to understand what we have lost through our own assimilation. Part of this reckoning for me has been to learn the stories of my Syrian past to better understand the challenges we face as a country today.
Through learning this history, I am able to share with you and hopefully help you tell a different narrative about the past.
To learn more about this historical neighborhood visit these websites: