Syrian American History
The First Syrians In America

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 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.


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.

This information is borrowed from Multicultural America, where you can find more information about Syrian Americans. To go to the website, click here.

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