Syrian in Sioux Falls

Episode 390




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In the years after the world war that ravaged the Ottoman Empire, Hassan left his native village in modern-day Lebanon to join his parents and siblings in the growing Midwest town of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. To do so, he had to sidestep the stringent immigration quotas newly implemented by the US. But years later, when the authorities learned that he entered and was living in the US illegally, he was threatened with deportation. Through Hassan's story, we'll learn about the experience of Arab migration to the United States and get to know the Syrian-American community that despite numbering in the hundreds of thousands by the 1920s, found itself repeatedly compelled to prove its worthiness to be included in a society where nativism was on the rise and being entitled to full citizenship often meant being considered white.

This episode is part of our investigative series Deporting Ottoman Americans.

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Explore the Sources

Studying the Mahjar

The above map shows the distribution of Syrians in the US circa 1924. It comes from the book Syrians in America by Philip Hitti. Note that this map did not even capture the full picture, as there are no dots on states like South Dakota, Iowa, and Nebraska where Syrians were known to have settled.


The United States was one of the major destinations for Arabic-speaking migrants from the Ottoman Empire beginning in the late 19th century. Most of these people came from modern-day Lebanon, but these Arabic-speaking migrants were generally referred to collectively as Syrians. Major centers of settlement were around New York City, Boston, and Detroit, but by the 1920s, Syrians could be found all over the country. Many worked as peddlers, a profession that took them to small towns in rural areas of the Midwest, where they established small communities bolstered by chain migration.



As Reem Bailony explains in the above interview, most Syrians in the US were Christian, but Muslims from all the communities of Greater Syria came as well. There were mosques founded in cities of the Midwest as early as the 1920s. The oldest standing purpose-built mosque in the United States is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Alixa Naff (1919-2013) was a pioneer in the study of the Arab-American experience. Recordings and transcripts of her oral history interviews conducted in the Arab-American community over the decades, as well as many other resources pertaining to the history of Arabs in America, are open to researchers at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. They have been vital to understanding of the process by which Arabic-speaking migrants established new roots in the United States. In the clip below, Grant Farr talks to prominent Arab-American activist Aliya Hassan about the rise of the Highland Park and Dearborn communities during the 1920s.


The US was not the only destination for Syrian migrants. Over 500,000 Arabic-speaking migrants and their descendants lived in the Americas. Listen to our interview with Lily Pearl Balloffet to learn about one of largest Syrian diaspora communities located in Argentina. Or try our interview with Andrew Arsan, author of a history of the Lebanese diaspora in the French colonial empire in West Africa.

Modern-day Lebanon was a large migrant sending region primarily due to its highly commercialized economy and connection to global markets and migration routes. During the 19th century, the inhabitants of Mount Lebanon began to devote much of their land to the cultivation of mulberry trees to feed silk worms (see image below). Their silk was exported via Beirut to markets in France and elsewhere. But when demand for silk began to dry up, the people of Mount Lebanon and Beirut began to move abroad in search of new economic opportunities.

Feeding of silk worms in Mount Lebanon circa 1914. Source: Library of Congress. Note that one of the boxes containing the silk worms reads "Made in Russia," further testament to Lebanon's globally-connected economy.


Just as Syrian migrants transformed the places where they settled, return migrants brought new ideas and cultural practices back with them to the home country. In the lecture below, Akram Khater reflects on this process, which he studied in the book Inventing Home.


The diaspora played an important role in the lives of people from Lebanon and Syria particular throughout the First World War and its aftermath. As historian Stacy Fahrenthold argues in her forthcoming book, the diaspora was central to political debates about the future of the post-Ottoman Middle East. But people in Syria and Lebanon had also come to rely on the diaspora as a source of income. This was one reason why Lebanon in particular suffered such high mortality from famine during the First World War, when starvation as severe as the Great Famine of Ireland in percentage terms unfolded in 1915. As Graham Pitts has recently shown in a new GIS-mapping project, the US consulate in Beirut did continue to try to process transfers that were blocked as wartime hostilities and a British and French blockade severed Lebanon's ties to the outside world. The map below shows the uneven distribution in the destinations of remittances processed by the American Consulate in Beirut during the war.

The screenshot above plots data from the research of Graham Pitts published on the NCSU Khayrallah Center website indicating the destinations of remittances from the US processed by the American consulate in Beirut during the World War I period. The data suggests that certain regions were more reliant on remittances from abroad than others. While remittances that arrived may have helped people survive the famine, regions that were more reliant on remittances were also more vulnerable during the war. 

It is often forgotten that the Middle East and Lebanon in particular have been shaped by constant waves of migration that occurred under Ottoman rule and have continued up until the present. As Nadim Shehadi noted in our interview, the story of the Lebanese diaspora has often overshadowed the long history of migration into Lebanon. And as Sumayya Kassamali explains in another interview on our website, the treatment of migrants remains a heated political issue in Lebanon today.


Syrians and Race in the United States

During the 1920s, a rising tide of nativism in the United States began to manifest as law and state policy. In 1924, the Johnson-Reed Act created a new system of immigration quotas aimed at stemming the influx of non-white or "less-white" immigrants from Southern Europe, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. As Linda Gordon explains in the interview below, Albert Johnson, one of the authors of that act, was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, which was reborn as a mass political movement during the 1920s and claimed millions of members at the time.


Syrians had already been migrating and naturalizing in the US for decades, and they had fought court cases to certify their status as "white" under the law. But during the 1920s, anti-Syrian sentiment accompanied the nativist backlash that continued into the Great Depression. As Sarah Gualtieri explains in the book Between Arab and White, a Syrian grocer in Florida was the victim of a lynching that rocked the entire Syrian-American community.

At the end of the 1930s, the Democratic administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt began reintroducing the idea of America as a nation of immigrants into official rhetoric as part of efforts to combat the increasingly illiberal aspects of far-right politics and the rise of fascism. The radio series called Americans All, Immigrants All featured episodes on the history of immigrant communities in the US that demonstrated their contribution to the nation and commitment to American values. Episode 18 dealing with "Near Eastern Peoples" is available through the WNYC archives. In the NPR interview below, historian Jill Lepore talks about this program and radio in combating an "attack on democracy" during the 1930s.

Even though programs like Americans All, Immigrants All valorized stigmatized migrant communities like Syrians, in doing so, they reified assimilationist discourses that placed pressure on immigrants to adopt American customs and to perform their Americanness in various ways. This "respectability" discourse was the flip-side of a similar discourse that villified immigrants and presented them as corrupting influence; both were consistent with eugenicist logics of the time in different ways. As a result, from the rise of the Syrian diaspora during the late 19th century to the Arab-American community of post 9/11 America today, identity has been the subject debate, controversy, and transformation for successive waves of Arabic-speaking migrants.

Excerpt of letter to the editor by Salloum Mokarzel in response to New York Times article entitled "Is the Turk a White Man?" published in 1909. For more, see this article by Sam Dolbee in Tozsuz Evrak.


Syrian food vendors in Lower Manhattan, the site of the Syrian Colony or "Little Syria" neighborhood of New York City. Source: Library of Congress. By the 1920s, many thousands of Syrian migrants lived in the small enclave, most of which was demolished decades later in the construction of the Battery Park Tunnel. For more, listen to our "Ottoman New York" episode with Bruce Burnside and Sam Dolbee.

Members of the Sioux Falls, South Dakota El Riad Temple pose with their instruments and a totem pole circa 1923. Note the costumes typical of Shriner attire, which adopted the aesthetics of Ottoman dress such as fezzes and crescent moon emblems associated with Islam. What did the Syrians of Sioux Falls, including the Syrian men who may have participated in Shriner events, make of this appropriation? Source: Library of Congress.
Advertisement for Americanization courses circa 1936. Americanization schools promoted literacy and were intended to inculcate American values and culture among immigrants in order to carry out their "assimilation." Source: Library of Congress

Deporting Hassan

A portrait of Hassan contained within his deportation file

Hassan's deportation case file was contained within the records of the American Consulate in Beirut for the year 1934 at the US National Archives and Records Administration in College Park, MD. Not every deportation the US carried out can be studied through the embassy and consular files in the archives; only those that involved diplomatic questions. In this case, the US had to correspond with the French Mandate government in Lebanon in order to ascertain Hassan's identity and obtain a travel document so that he could be deported. Hassan had reportedly lost his passport.

Deportation case files contain a wealth of autobiographical information about a migrant due to the sometimes very long interrogation records about their life history and familial relationships. Hassan's deportation file was especially rich because his lawyer brought character witnesses and submitted letters testifying to the law-abiding and upstanding nature of Hassan, his family, and the Syrians of Sioux Falls. In the letter below, a salesman who knew Hassan from the period during which he helped run his father's store in Sioux Falls vouched for Hassan and his family as good citizens of the small South Dakota town.


Credits


Chris Gratien, Producer and Host
Chris Gratien is Assistant Professor of History at University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on global environmental history and the Middle East. He is currently preparing a monograph about the environmental history of the Cilicia region of the former Ottoman Empire from the 1850s until the 1950s.
Reem Bailony, Episode Consultant
Reem Bailony is an assistant professor of Middle East history at Agnes Scott College. She is currently working on her book, Transnational Rebellion: The Syrian Revolt of 1925-1927, which explores Syrian-Lebanese diasporic mobilizations during the 1925 revolt against the French Mandatory government. Before joining Agnes Scott, Reem was the American Druze Foundation postdoctoral fellow at Georgetown University.
Sam Dolbee, Script Editor
Sam Dolbee is a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University's Mahindra Humanities Center. He completed his PhD in 2017 at NYU in History and Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies. He works on the environmental history of the Jazira region in the late Ottoman and post-Ottoman periods.
Emily Pope-Obeda, Series Consultant
Emily Pope-Obeda received her PhD in History in 2016 from the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. She spent the 2016-2017 academic year as a Visiting Fellow at the James Weldon Johnson Institute for the Study of Race and Difference at Emory University. She is currently a lecturer in the History and Literature program at Harvard University, where she working on a book manuscript on the American deportation system during the 1920s.

Featured Contributors

Akram Fouad Khater is University Faculty Scholar, Professor of History, and holds the Khayrallah Chair in Diaspora Studies at North Carolina State University, where he also serves as the Director of the Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies. He is the author of many publications, including Embracing the Divine: Passion and Politics in the Christian Middle East (2014).
Graham Pitts is a currently the American Druze Foundation Fellow at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies. His work explores the history of the modern Middle East and in particular the history of famine in Ottoman Lebanon during the First World War.
Linda Gordon is a professor of history and a University Professor of the Humanities at New York University. Her latest book is entitled The Second Coming of the KKK: the Klu Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition.
Victoria Saker Woeste is a Research Professor at the American Bar Foundation (ABF). She is the author of three books: Jews and the Law (Quid Pro Books, 2014); Henry Ford's War on Jews and the Legal Battles Against Hate Speech (Stanford University Press, 2012); and The Farmer’s Benevolent Trust (The University of North Carolina Press, 1998).
Nadim Shehadi is the current director of The Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University and an Associate Fellow at Chatham House.
Mohamed Okdie served for over twenty one years in the Detroit Public Schools as a School Social Worker. He is also a former member of the Detroit Board of Police Commissioners as well as the Board of Regents at Eastern Michigan University.


Bibliography

Arsan, Andrew. Interlopers of Empire: The Lebanese Diaspora in Colonial French West Africa. London: Hurst & Company, 2014.

Fahrenthold, Stacy D. 2016. "Former Ottomans in the Ranks: Pro-Entente Military Recruitment Among Syrians in the Americas, 1916–18". Journal of Global History. 11, no. 01: 88-112.

Gordon, Linda. Second Coming of the KKK: The Ku Klux Klan of the 1920s and the American Political Tradition. Liveright Publishing, 2018.

Gualtieri, Sarah M. A. Between Arab and White Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009.

Hester, Torrie. Deportation: The Origins of U.S. Policy. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2017.

Hitti, Philip Khuri. The Syrians in America. New York,: George H. Doran company, 1924.

Hourani, Albert and Nadim Shehadi. The Lebanese in the World: A Century of Emigration. London: IB Tauris, 1992.

Howell, Sally. Old Islam in Detroit: Rediscovering the Muslim American Past. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2014.

Kanstroom, Dan. Deportation Nation: Outsiders in American History. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2010.

Khater, Akram Fouad. Inventing Home: Emigration, Gender, and the Middle Class in Lebanon, 1870-1920. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001.

Moloney, Deirdre M. National Insecurities: Immigrants and U.S. Deportation Policy Since 1882. Univ Of North Carolina Pr, 2016.

Naff, Alixa. Becoming American The Early Arab Immigrant Experience. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993.

Nail, Thomas. The Figure of the Migrant. Stanford University Press, 2015.

Ngai, Mae M. Impossible Subjects: Illegal Aliens and the Making of Modern America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2014.

Pope-Obeda, Emily. "When in Doubt, Deport!": U.S. Deportation and the Local Policing of Global Migration During the 1920s (Ph.D. Thesis). University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, 2016.

Zolberg, Aristide R. A Nation by Design: Immigration Policy in the Fashioning of America. 2008.

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