Immigration History of Arab Americans
The late Dr. Philip Hitti, Professor of History at Princeton University and author of many books on Arabs and the Arab-American community, wrote the following article during World War II, in which he briefly describes the history of the Arab-American immigration to the United States:
Our people are among the more recent immigrants into the United States. It was not until the 1880’s that the Arabs reached America. The pioneers were Syrian, Lebanese, and Palestinians. Few were members of the educated class for Egypt had formed the chief center of attraction for such men. Friendless, penniless, and helpless, they landed at Kees al-Khardal (Castle Garden) in lower Manhattan. Ignorant of the language of the land and the customs of its people, and with no consuls or counselors to guide or advise them, they had to struggle and struggle hard to keep body and soul together. They were mostly men, hardly any women; young men who had heard that the streets of “Na-Yurk”( New York) overflowed with gold. They were intent on getting their share and returning to their native villages in Syria or Lebanon to build a house with a red brick roof and enjoy life forever after.
Their first experience must have been very disheartening, but they proved worthy descendants of their adventurous ancestors, the Phoenicians and Arabs. As peddlers, trying to sell crosses, rosaries, and icons from the Holy Land, and later laces and notions, they wandered with their Kashshis from street to street and from town to town until they covered almost every city in the United States. Snow and rain did not stop them, nor did they lose heart. Signs at the doors reading: “No beggars, no peddlers” meant nothing to them, as they could read no English. It was these peddlers who laid the basis of our economic prosperity in this country. All honor to their memory!
At the turn of the century, the Syrian peddler transformed into a petty storekeeper. His store lay on the east or the lower side of the big industrial city or “across the tracks.” By this time, women from Syria had become more numerous. Humble flats and tenement houses were occupied by Syrian and Lebanese families close to the slums of New York, Boston, Chicago, and other crowded cities. “Little Syrias” arose near “Little Italys” and other foreign colonies. The Americans did not understand these newcomers any more than the newcomers understood the Americans. They called them “Turks,” “Assyrians,” and all kinds of other names.
By the beginning of the First World War, a new step had been taken. The peddler had become a storekeeper, and the storekeeper had become a manufacturer of kimonos, negligees, laces, dresses, and other apparel.
“I believe that even as your fathers come to this land to produce riches, you were born here to produce riches by intelligence, by labor.”
Read more from Kahlil Gibran’s article published in the first edition of The Syrian World Magazine, New York, July 1926, addressing “Young Americans of Syrian Origin”