Syria's War Hits Home for Immigrants

Syrian Americans feel the strain of conflict tearing their families' homeland apart.

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

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.