The first Syrians in America

In 1878, the Arbeelys immigrated to the United States. They were the first Syro-Arab family to come to America; or, at the very least, they were the first prominent Syrians in America. Najeeb Arbeely founded the first Arab-American newspaper, Kawkab America, and he also held the post of immigration inspector at Ellis Island. His brother Abraham was instrumental in bringing St. Raphael Hawaweeny to the United States.

A couple of years after their arrival in this country, Abraham did an extensive interview with the St. Louis Globe-Democrat (7/22/1880). It’s long, but it’s also extremely interesting, so I’m reprinting the whole thing here:

“A native of Syria — of Damascus?”

“Yes; Dr. A.J.A. Arbeely;” and the person addressed bowed with Oriental grace, as he made himself known to the reporter.

“When did you arrive?”

“This morning,” answered the Doctor.

“Are you connected with the Syrian family that arrived in New York a couple of years ago?”

“The same; the party was composed of my father and mother, five brothers — I am the eldest — and sister. They are all in Tennessee now except my mother. She is dead.” And as he conveyed this last item of information the Doctor took off the red turban he wore, and bowed his head a moment in reverie. Then he continued: “The family are in Maryville, Tennessee. I have been in Texas eighteen months practicing medicine. My younger brother is also a doctor in practice in Tennessee.”

“Tell me about your coming to this country.”

“Well, you see we are Christians — my father being a Doctor of Divinity in the Greek Church, as well as a Doctor of Medicine — and we were subjected to great persecution at the hands of the Turks.”

“You were converts, then?”

“No; the family had always been Christian, that is, as far back as we have any record. My ancestors, as Christians, ante-dated the invasion of the Turks. My father, prior to coming here, was employed for many years in teaching the Syrian language to the missionaries from America. He had incurred the displeasure and hostility of the Turkish authorities. We were in the massacre of Christians in Damascus in 1860 — I was only 10 years old then — but my father, although hunted like a wild beast, succeeded in makign his escape. The murderous Turks made several other attempts upon his life, but a kind Providence protected him so that not a hair of his head was harmed. The Mohammedan persecution finally became so great that my father resolved to leave the land of our nativity, and upon consultation with the American missionaries he concluded to emigrate to America. In the summer of 1878, during the Parish Exposition, a passport was obtained for the entire family to visit the Exposition, and they started, but stayed only a few days in Paris, and then came to the United States, landing in New York in September. They spent a month in that city, but concluding that the weather would be too severe for them they went to Maryville, East Tennessee, and settled. Thus the first Syrian family that ever emigrated to this country came and took up their residence under the aegis of the stars and stripes.”

“Is it not difficult to leave Damascus — to emigrate — or are the Turks glad enough to get rid of Christians?”

“The Sultan and the Turkish Pasha (Governor) at Damascus look with great disfavor upon emigration of Syrians, and so many obstacles have to be overcome by emigrants that very few leave indeed, and thus it happens that we are the only Syrians in America. Passports are withheld, and as no one is allowed to leave there without these documents, the disfavor amounts to really a prohibition. That’s the reason no other family of that nationality has ever come to this country before. Our friends are very anxious to come, and thus establish a Syrian colony  here in America, but such a scheme was then impracticable. We promised to look the country over, however, and if possible find a suitable locality.”

“How much have you done already in this direction? Missouri, you see, is making an effort to induce immigration.”

“Well, the difficulty is to find a section suitable in every respect. The great obstacle is the climate. It is too changeable and uneven in those localities I have visited — a marked contrast to Damascus, where the climate is always even. Still we may yet find a suitable locality. We went to Texas in 1878, and it was hard getting along at first, as we could not speak English very well, as you observe I can now. When we arrived at Austin, Texas, I concluded to stop there for a time and see how the country agreed with me. My father went on and visited different parts of the State, but found nothing that suited him, so he returned to his home in Tennessee, where he has resided since. I practiced medicine at Austin for the past eighteen months, when I was called home suddenly by my mother’s death, and coming by the way of Kansas City, where I stopped for a few days, I arrived in St. Louis yesterday, as stated.”

“How do you like the country, generally?”

“It is magnificent — all the parts I have visited — except in respect to climate; and St. Louis is simply magnificent, if the weather could be always like this.”

“You liked Texas?”

“Very much. The people were very kind to me, and assisted me to a large practice. I shall probably return there. Kansas City I also greatly admired, and the professional brethren and others placed me under many obligations for courtesies. I wish I had time to visit all the medical institutions here and meet the doctors, but I shall have to go home in a day or two.”

“What is your school of medicine?”

“Oh, I am regular, as you call it here, or old school. I have several diplomas: one granted by the Syrian Protestant College, located at Beirut, chartered by the State of New York, and, therefore, an American institution. After receiving the parchment I was obliged to go through a very severe examination by the Sultan’s head medicine man, at the Royal Medical College at Constantinople, before I could practice my profession, as the other college is not recognized by the Government.”

He was awarded a diploma from the Royal College, and both of the documents are decorated with seals, indicating their authenticity.

And then the Doctor took his turn at interviewing.

“Are you the religious editor?”

“Not often; why?”

“Because I wonder when I read the Globe-Democrat every day in Texas, how it ever got so much religious matter. Is that the reason why it is called the great religious daily?”

“Yes, and because it is so thoroughly orthodox.”

“I notice that. I am orthodox myself. My father, besides being a Greek ecclesiastic, is very intimate with the Greek Patriarch at Antioch. Oh, yes, we are orthodox. I have letters from a number of clergymen, as well as doctors.”

And here the Doctor showed a number.

“Wasn’t there some talk of uniting the Anglican Church — Protestant Episcopal in America — with the Greek Church?”

“I believe there was some effort in that direction, and there is very little difference between them. Indeed, we are in accord with most evangelical bodies, and I have some very kindly reflections of the Presbyterians.”

“Isn’t there a Greek Church in New York, with which the Episcopal Church is in accord?”

“I believe they agree. But my father could tell you much better of these things than me, as the greater part of his sixty years of life has been spent in that direction.”

The Doctor was then entreated to explain somewhat of the Arabic tongue, and did so to the great interest of his auditors. He incidentally remarked that he believed the Oriental way of writing from right to left more proper and convenient than the English method, from left to right. The Arabic alphabet has twenty-nine letters, with only three vowels and a like number of accents. The Doctor contrasted it with the Greek, with which he is also familiar, and pointed out the differences. His sketch of the Syrian people was very interesting, and, if he is a specimen, they are a fine type of manhood, tall and dignified in appearance. His complexion is dark — olive rather than swarthy — and hair very black. Red heads are rare in Syria.

The population of Damascus he estimated at 150,000, of which about three-fourths are Mohammedan, about 25,000 Christians and the balance Jews. The latter are chiefly bankers or brokers. The Christians are not generally wealthy, and mostly engaged in weaving and the manufacture of damask. The Turks, many of them, live in opulence. There is no inter-marrying between Turk and Christian, or Hebrew and Christian. The Ottoman Government is represented by a Pasha, or Governor, who is a very enlightened man, but the people other than the Turks are not in favor of the Government, and covet independence. The future of Turkey, the Doctor thinks, will be just what the great Powers choose to make it. The Turks are a hindrance to Christian civilization, and must sooner or later be blotted out. Nothing but the jealousy of the Powers prevented them taking the territory, and eventually they will probably assume a protectorate over it. Perhaps Great Britain or France will eventually get Damascus. Further alluding to the manners and customs of his people, the Doctor spoke of prolonged religious fasts among the Turks, at times.

“What do you think of Dr. Tanner?”

“Oh (laughing), I hardly know what to think about his feat. I have been reading your paper every day about it and am much interested. I hardly think he can succeed. It doesn’t seem in accordance with nature. But he may. In this great country I don’t allow myself to be surprised at anything.”

Dr. Arbeely goes hence to Louisville, and from there to Knoxville, Tenn., and a visit to his family. He will probably return West via St. Louis.

A few things… I don’t know who “Dr. Tanner” is, though Arbeely’s comments have piqued my curiosity. His remarks about the fate of Turkey are almost prophetic, coming nearly four decades before the end of World War I. Also, what he says about religious persecution in Turkey is certainly accurate, but it shouldn’t be assumed that the later Syro-Arab immigrants — the “Ellis Islanders,” if you will — were fleeing such persecution. Most of the immigrants in the 1890-1920 period (including my own family) came to the US principally in search of prosperity and opportunity, rather than religious freedom.

The Arbeelys ultimately ended up back in New York, where, as I said earlier, Najeeb Arbeely became an immigration inspector and newspaper editor, and Abraham organized the Syro-Arab Orthodox and worked to bring St. Raphael to America.