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Syrian-American Wes Nakour demonstrates against potential strikes on the Syrian government in Seattle, Washington.

A Syrian-American man demonstrates against potential strikes on the Syrian government in Seattle, Washington.

Photograph by David Ryder, Reuters

Sharon Jacobs

National Geographic

Published September 13, 2013

Before war broke out in Syria two years ago, Moaz Sinan, a Syrian American from West Bloomfield, Michigan, spent every summer in Damascus with his family. He hasn't returned since 2010, but he's noticed changes in news reports he's seen.

"You're watching videos [taken] in the same streets that you spend your summer in, and seeing these streets destroyed," says Sinan. "The same streets I used to play soccer in, the same markets I used to buy stuff from—some of those are gone."

The Syrian-American community, at least 159,000 strong according to U.S. Census estimates, spans the political, religious, and cultural spectrum. It includes families whose ancestors peddled goods in New York City in the late 19th century, and medical students who came to the U.S. over the last few decades to complete residencies and find work.

Across this breadth of backgrounds, many Syrian Americans, like Sinan, retain strong ties to their homeland and feel the strain of the conflict threatening to tear it apart.

First Wave

Syrians started trickling into the U.S. during the mid-19th century, cresting into a major wave of immigration between 1880 and 1920.

By the 1930s, 130,000 to 350,000 Arab immigrants had entered the U.S. Most of the early immigrants came from "Ottoman Syria," which included the modern-day countries of Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel, as well as the Palestinian territories.

Up to three-quarters of the early immigrants were Christian, according to Akram Khater, director of the Khayrallah Program for Lebanese-American Studies at North Carolina State University. (Among Arab Americans, Christians still outnumber Muslims.) Some came to escape religious persecution, while others followed the well-trodden path toward a better life in America.

Most of the early immigrants settled in Lower Manhattan, along Washington Street, an area that came to be known as "Little Syria." The neighborhood boasted several Arabic-language newspapers, two churches, and numerous Arab restaurants and cafes. Little Syria's residents hailed from around the world—Marian Sahadi Ciaccia, who grew up in the neighborhood in the '20s, counted ethnic Greeks and Russians among her neighbors. But most of the neighborhood, especially in its early years, was Arab.

 

A Syrian restaurant in New York City, circa 1900.

Photograph from Buyenlarge/Getty Images

 

"You'd smell them making the baklava and Syrian ice cream," says Ciaccia, who now lives in Brooklyn. "Everybody knew each other; everybody shared each other's happiness, sadness, problems."

A Community on the Move

From their landing point in Little Syria, early immigrants spread, some settling in surrounding suburbs in New York and New Jersey, and others traveling as far as Detroit or Oklahoma City. Many were peddlers who traversed the country selling their wares. Some eventually became wealthy enough to settle down, forming communities along old peddling routes.

Father Anthony Sabbagh leads the congregation of St. George Orthodox Church in Allentown, in Pennsylvania's Lehigh Valley. The church was built in 1916 to serve 15 families. "The panorama of the mountains, of the greenery" in the Lehigh Valley reminded the early immigrants of home, says Sabbagh. Many of his congregants come from towns in Syria's Wadi al-Nasara—"the Christian valley" in Arabic.

The first Syrian Jewish immigrants also arrived in the U.S. around the turn of the century, many seeking economic opportunity in New York City like their Christian and Muslim counterparts. But Syrian Jews stayed largely separate from other Arab Americans there, and from other Jews.

"They all know each other," says Jennifer Abadi, who authored a cookbook of her family's Syrian Jewish recipes. And, she says, "they're very insular." Part of their insularity stems from "the Edict," a ban by the community's rabbis against marrying anyone unable to prove Jewish ancestry, including converts to Judaism.

Today the largest Syrian Jewish population, estimated at 20,000 or more, is centered in Brooklyn's Gravesend neighborhood. The most recent wave of immigrants came in 1992, when Syrian president Hafez al-Assad opened the doors for Syria's remaining 4,000 Jews to emigrate. Nearly all of them left for the U.S. or Israel.

Members of the Alawite sect, the Muslim denomination of Syria's ruling Assad family, have immigrated to the U.S. in smaller numbers than Sunni Muslims, Christians, and Jews. Alawites generally weren't able to leave the country until the 1920s and '30s, toward the end of the first wave of U.S. immigration.

"You had to have the means to get on one of those boats and make your way to America. Alawites didn't often have that," says Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma. Alawites were an underprivileged group in Syria until the Assad family took the country's reins in 1970.

Some Alawites found mining jobs in towns around Pittsburgh—the population in New Castle, Pennsylvania, is estimated to have reached several hundred in the 1930s and had its own social club, El-Fityet Alaween. More Alawites came with later waves of Syrian immigrants. They now live across the U.S., but their numbers are uncertain since Alawites don't have mosques that could collect population information.

Temporary Stay

A second large wave of Syrian immigration began after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished national quotas for immigrants. Previously, immigrants from countries in Northern and Western Europe had been favored over those from other regions.

Suddenly more Arabs could come to the U.S.—and they did. A mixture of economic necessity and political strife prompted at least 35,000 Syrians to enter the U.S. between 1967 (when the law went into effect) and the present.

Many belonged to the professional class and came to the U.S. for better educational or work opportunities than they could find in Syria. Muslims outnumbered Christians among the newcomers.

"My dad came here in 1988," says Sinan. "He did his internal medicine residency, and went back to Syria and got married, and brought my mom here."

Sinan's story is common among his Syrian neighbors in southeast Michigan, where many immigrants are doctors from Damascus. Many of the families in Sinan's community hoped to someday return to Syria.

"Our parents would say all the time that our time in America would be temporary, and that we'd be going back soon," Sinan says.

Today, though, that expectation has changed.

America Is Now Home

"After the war started, a lot of parents realized that America is their home and that they should start getting situated," says Sinan. "I had to sit at night and think to myself that I am now American. I am Syrian, but I'm just not going to think about that anymore."

Rana Kazkaz, a Syrian-American filmmaker whose work focuses on Syria, returned to Damascus with her Syrian French husband in 2006. She fled with her family when the conflict broke out.

"I literally left with a suitcase for me and my kids. So everything we own is still there," she says.

Kazkaz would like to go back to Syria with her family, but won't return until it's safe. Her family members' experience in Syria show how dangerous the situation is. Kazkaz's uncle was kidnapped, a cousin was tortured, and rockets hit her mother-in-law's apartment building. Her uncle and cousin have since been released.

Members of Sabbagh's church in Allentown have stayed connected with Syria over the decades through their religion and with regular visits. Some congregants have returned to Syria to marry or to baptize their children.

Since the fighting began, the arrival of refugees from Syria has strengthened the community's link to its homeland. The St. George Orthodox Church has welcomed 15 Syrian refugee families to date. They had expected more, but travel restrictions (both in Syria and for refugees trying to come to the U.S.) have made it difficult for families to make the journey. It's not uncommon for households in the Allentown community to personally host new arrivals—Sabbagh himself plans to take in one refugee family.

Civil War Comes Home

"The Syrian community in Oklahoma used to get along together," says Landis. Sunni and Alawite neighbors "would have parties together, they sent their kids to the same school—now they don't."

Since the war broke out, arguments have erupted between longtime friends in person and on social media sites like Facebook. Kazkaz says friends and family have stopped speaking to each other because of their political differences.

For the most part, the same sectarian divisions that plague Syria have continued in the U.S., but even family members can find themselves on opposite sides. Kazkaz disagrees with her father's and husband's support for U.S. intervention.

"I know that we all have Syria's best interests at heart," she says. "And there isn't an easy solution to this problem."

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