Syrian Migrants: The Long View on Transatlantic Migration

Immigrants at Syrian Restaurant pastry counter in New York, undated. (Library of Congress)

by Reem Bailony

This article is from the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies’ Newsmagazine, Fall/Winter 2017, available here.

With nearly 11 million externally and internally displaced refugees, the Syrian war has forced the world’s attention to focus on the significance of the migrant condition. Coverage has largely focused on the threat or victimhood that the Syrian refugee ostensibly embodies. The year 2015, in particular, marked an upsurge in global attention to the crisis as the body of Alan Kurdi washed ashore in Turkey that September. Global discourse on the Syrian crisis juxtaposed his plight against the stories of terrorist attacks across Europe and North America, linked directly or indirectly to the Islamic State. In the United States, this has coincided with an ongoing debate over the potential consequences of increased Syrian immigration. In December 2015, the House of Representatives passed a bill (H.R. 158) to restrict the visa waiver program, making ineligible nationals of states designated as sponsors of terrorism—including Syria, Iran, Sudan, and others. More recently, President Trump issued an executive order on January 27, 2017 banning immigration from Syria and six other Muslim-majority states. While the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled to uphold a block of the travel ban, the admission of Syrian refugees is indefinitely suspended. From 2011 to 2106, the United States resettled 18,000 refugees, a number that trails behind Canada’s estimate of nearly 39,000.

Selling cool drinks in Syrian Quarter of New York. (Library of Congress)

The hysteria around the question of Syrian migration to the United States misleadingly suggests that it is a novelty. Syrian migration across the Atlantic has a much longer history dating to the late nineteenth century. Responding to fluctuations in the global capitalist economy, Ottoman migrants from Greater Syria—mostly Christian—made their way to North and Latin America in search of greater economic opportunity. By World War I, there were nearly 100,000 Ottoman Syrians residing in the United States. Manhattan’s “Little Syria”—with its Arabic restaurants, businesses, churches, social clubs, and publishing houses—confirmed the visibility and success of the Syrian migrant community. Despite being stigmatized, Syrians immigrants successfully lobbied for naturalization on the basis of “whiteness” during the 1910s and 1920s. Nevertheless, similar to today’s political climate, mounting nativism resulted in the Immigration Act of 1924, which effectively limited immigration from countries not in Western Europe.

In 1925, the Druze of southern Syria rebelled against French mandate authorities, launching what would soon become a widespread anticolonial revolt that lasted for two years. With striking parallels to today’s Syrian expatriate organizations, Syrians in the diaspora debated the meaning, significance and value of the 1925 rebellion through a robust diasporic press. Beyond a discursive engagement, skeptics and supporters lobbied the League of Nations, as well as solicited financial aid for rebels and civilians alike. Syrians émigrés also clandestinely coordinated with rebel leaders for the transfer of weapons and funds, while offering strategic advice based on the political climates in Paris and Geneva. Most importantly, key groups like the Syro-Palestinian Congress in Cairo and Geneva played a critical role in defining the revolt, and formulating its program from their positions abroad.

Nevertheless, the Syrian diaspora’s bid to represent rebels within Syria was fraught with controversy. With the end of the revolt in 1927, many questioned the loyalties and vision of the diaspora. Syrians worldwide redoubled their efforts to serve the homeland, giving rise to Arab-American political institutions that remain influential today. Much like their historical predecessors, Syrians in the United States today—through their lobbying efforts, philanthropy, and political clout—hope to influence Syrian politics and civil society.

Though one should avoid celebrating the Syrian migrant experience at the expense of recognizing the hardships attendant to displacement, Syrian migrants—past and present—have been industrious and influential members of their host societies. Recognizing the agency of Syrian migrants is central to contesting the national agenda against today’s refugees.

Reem Bailony is the 2016-2017 American Druze Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at CCAS. She is currently working on her book manuscript, Transnational Rebellion: The Syrian Revolt of 1925-1927, which uncovers the critical role Syrian-Lebanese migrants played in defining and shaping the anticolonial rebellion. She received her doctorate in history from the University of California, Los Angeles, and currently teaches a course on the history of minorities in the modern Middle East at Georgetown University.