Syrian Americans

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Syrian Americans
Total population
Regions with significant populations
New Jersey,[2] New York, Massachusetts, Michigan, Louisiana, Ohio, Iowa, Texas
American English, Arabic (variants of Syrian Arabic), Neo Aramaic, Kurdish, Western Armenian, French
Majority: Christianity (Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic)
Minorities: Islam (Sunni), Druze, and Judaism
Related ethnic groups
Other Syrians · Lebanese Americans · Palestinian Americans · Egyptian Americans · Jordanian Americans · Armenian Americans · Assyrian Americans

Syrian Americans are Americans of Syrian descent or background. Syrian Americans may be members of a number of differing ethnicities, including Arabs, Armenians, Arameans, Assyrians, Syrian Jews, Kurds, Syrian Turkmens and Circassians. It is believed that the first significant wave of Syrian immigrants to arrive in the United States was in 1880.[3] Many of the earliest Syrian Americans settled in New York City, Boston, and Detroit. Immigration from Syria to the United States suffered a long hiatus after the United States Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which restricted immigration. More than 40 years later, the Immigration Act of 1965, abolished the quotas and immigration from Syria to the United States saw a surge. An estimated 64,600 Syrians emigrated to the United States between 1961 and 2000.[4]

The overwhelming majority of Syrian immigrants to the U.S. from 1880 to 1960 were Christian, a minority were Jewish,[5] whereas Muslim Syrians arrived in the United States chiefly after 1965. According to the United States 2000 Census, there were 142,897 Americans of Syrian ancestry, about 12% of the Arab population in the United States.[6]


Syrian immigrant children in New York City

The first Syrian immigrants arrived in the United States from Ottoman Syria. Most of them came from Christian villages around Mount Lebanon (before the creation of Republic of Lebanon), while around 5-10% were Muslims of different sects. A small number were also Palestinians.[7][8] According to historian Philip Hitti, approximately 90,000 "Syrians" arrived in the United States between 1899 and 1919.[9] An estimated 1,000 official entries per year came from the governorates of Damascus and Aleppo, which are governorates in modern-day Syria, in the period between 1900 and 1916.[10] Early immigrants settled mainly in Eastern United States, in the cities of New York, Boston and Detroit and the Paterson, New Jersey area. In the 1920s, the majority of immigrants from Mount Lebanon began to refer to themselves as "Lebanese" instead of "Syrians".[11]

Syrians, like most immigrants to the United States, were motivated to pursue the American Dream of economic success.[12] Many Christian Syrians had immigrated to the United States seeking religious freedom and an escape from Ottoman hegemony.[13] Thousands of immigrants returned to Syria after making money in the United States; these immigrants told tales which inspired further waves of immigrants. Many settlers also sent for their relatives.

Although the number of Syrian immigrants was not sizable, the Ottoman government set constraints on emigration in order to maintain its populace in Greater Syria. The United States Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1924, which greatly reduced Syrian immigration to the United States.[14] However, the quotas were annulled by the Immigration Act of 1965, which opened the doors again to Syrian immigrants. 4,600 Syrians immigrated to the United States in the mid-1960s.[4] Due to the Arab-Israeli and religious conflicts in Syria during this period, many Syrians immigrated to the United States seeking a democratic haven, where they could live in freedom without political suppression.[13] An estimated 64,600 Syrians immigrated to the United States in the period between 1961 and 2000, of which ten percent have been admitted under the refugee acts.[4]

According to the United States 2000 Census, there are 142,897 Americans of Syrian ancestry living in the United States.[6] New York City has the highest concentration of Syrian Americans in the United States. Other urban areas, including Paterson, New Jersey, Boston, Dearborn, New Orleans, Toledo, Cedar Rapids, and Houston have large Syrian populations.[10] Syrian Americans are also numerous in Southern California (i.e. the Los Angeles and San Diego areas) and Arizona, many are descendants of farm laborers invited with their farm skills to irrigate the deserts in the early 20th century.[citation needed]. Many recent Syrian immigrants are medical doctors who studied at Damascus and Aleppo Universities and pursued their residencies and fellowships in the United States.[citation needed]



Paterson, New Jersey, especially its Little Ramallah neighborhood, is an increasingly popular destination for Syrians and home to the second largest Syrian American population, after New York City.[2][15][16]
Syrian man selling cold drinks in Lower Manhattan, circa 1908

The traditional clothing of the first Syrian immigrants in the United States, along with their occupation as peddlers, led to some xenophobia. Dr. A. J. McLaughlin, the United States health officer at Marine Hospital, described Syrians as "parasites in their peddling habits." However, Syrians reacted quickly to assimilate fully into their new culture. Immigrants Anglicized their names, adopted the English language and common Christian denominations.[17] Syrians did not congregate in urban enclaves; many of the immigrants who had worked as peddlers were able to interact with Americans on a daily basis. This helped them to absorb and learn the language and customs of their new homeland. Additionally, military service during World War I and World War II helped accelerate assimilation. Assimilation of early Syrian immigrants was so successful that it has become difficult to recognize the ancestors of many families which have become completely Americanized.[10]


Since 1965, immigration has been mostly Muslim. Generally, they are not overly desirous of giving up their identity as Arabs, which might be a result of the bloom in multiculturalism to respect their Islamic religious customs and traditions in the United States.[17]


"The Foreign element in New York, the Syrian colony, Washington Street." Drawn by W. Bengough

Christian Syrian Americans arrived in the United States in the late 19th century. Most Christian Syrian Americans are Greek Orthodox.[18] There are also many Catholic Syrian Americans; most branches of Catholicism are of the Eastern rite, such as Maronite Catholics, Melkite Greek Catholics, Armenian Catholics, Syrian Catholics, and Assyrian Chaldean Catholics. A few Christian Syrian Americans are Protestant. There are also members of the Assyrian Church of the East and Ancient Church of the East. The first Syrian American church was founded in Brooklyn, New York in 1895 by Saint Raphael of Brooklyn.[19] There are currently hundreds of Eastern Orthodox churches and missions in the United States.[10][20] Saint Nicholas and Saint George are popular saints for the Orthodox.

Muslim Syrian Americans arrived chiefly after 1965.[21] The largest sect in Islam is the Sunni sect, forming 74% of the Muslim Syrian population.[22] The second largest sect in Islam in Syria is the Alawite sect, a religious sect that originated in Shia Islam but separated from other Shiite Islam groups in the ninth and tenth centuries.[23] Most, if not all, Alawi Syrians come from the rural areas of Latakia Governorate. Muslim Syrian Americans have often found it difficult practicing their religion in the United States; For example, some Muslims, who are required to pray five times a day as part of Muslim rite, argue that there aren't enough mosques in the United States.

Druzes form the third largest sect in Syria, which is a relatively small esoteric monotheistic religious sect. Early Syrian immigrants included Druze peddlers.[10]

Syrian Jews first immigrated to the United States around 1908 and settled mostly in New York.[24] Initially they lived on the Lower East Side; later settlements were in Bensonhurst and Ocean Parkway in Flatbush, Brooklyn. The Syrian Jewish community estimates its population at around 50,000.[25]


Early Syrian Americans were not involved politically.[13] Business owners were usually Republican, meanwhile labor workers were usually Democrats. Second generation Syrian Americans were the first to be elected for political roles. In light of the Arab-Israeli conflict, many Syrian Americans tried to affect American foreign policy by joining Arab political groups in the United States.[26] In the early 1970s, the National Association of Arab-Americans was formed to negate the stereotypes commonly associated with Arabs in American media.[26] Syrian Americans were also part of the Arab American Institute, established in 1985, which supports and promotes Arab American candidates, or candidates commiserative with Arabs and Arab Americans, for office.[13] Mitch Daniels, who served as Governor of Indiana from 2005-2013, is a descendant of Syrian immigrants with relatives in Homs.[27]


Syrian peddlers in Lower Manhattan

The majority of the early Syrian immigrants arrived in the United States seeking better jobs; they usually engaged in basic commerce, especially peddling.[12] Syrian American peddlers found their jobs comfortable since peddling required little training and mediocre vocabulary. Syrian American peddlers served as the distribution medium for the products of small manufacturers. Syrian peddlers traded mostly in dry goods, primarily clothing. Networks of Syrian traders and peddlers across the United States aided the distribution of Syrian settlements; by 1902, Syrians could be found working in Seattle, Washington.[28] Most of these peddlers were successful, and, with time, and after raising enough capital, some became importers and wholesalers, recruiting newcomers and supplying them with merchandise.[28] By 1908, there were 3,000 Syrian-owned businesses in the United States.[10] By 1910, the first Syrian millionaires had emerged.[29]

Syrian Americans gradually started to work in various métiers; many worked as physicians, lawyers, and engineers. Many Syrian Americans also worked in the bustling auto industry, bringing about large Syrian American gatherings in areas like Dearborn, Michigan.[30] Later Syrian emigrants served in fields like banking, medicine, and computer science. Syrian Americans have a different occupational distribution than all Americans. According to the 2000 census, 42% of the Syrian Americans worked in management and professional occupations, compared with 34% of their counterparts in the total population; additionally, more Syrian Americans worked in sales than all American workers.[31] However, Syrian Americans worked less in the other work domains like farming, transportation, construction, etc. than all American workers.[31] According to the American Medical Association (AMA) and the Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS), which represents American health care providers of Syrian descent, there are estimated 4000 Syrian physicians practicing in the United States representing 0.4% of the health workforce and 1.6% of international medical graduates.[32] However the reported number of Syrian American physicians does not include the second and third generation of Syrian descent, therefore it is estimated that 10,000 Syrian American physicians practice in the United States.[citation needed]

The median household income for Syrian families is higher than the national earning median; employed Syrian men earned an average $46,058 per year, compared with $37,057 for all Americans and $41,687 for Arab Americans.[31] Syrian American families also had a higher median income than all families and lower poverty rates than those of the general population.[31]


Syrians value strong family ties. Unlike young Americans, young Syrians find leaving their family unnecessary to set up their independence; the reason being, is that Syrian society just like Southwest Asia, North Africa and the wider Eastern world, places great emphasis on the group rather than the individual. In the West the individual is key and the group is secondary. Respect and social status are important in Syrian societies. Men are respected for their financial success or their honesty and sincerity. Syrians are characterized by their magnanimity and graciousness, ethics which are integral to Syrian life.[28][33] However, much of the Syrian traditions have diminished with time, mainly due to the fast pace of life in America which encourages individual independence.[citation needed]


A garnished dish of tabbouleh

Syrians consider eating an important aspect of social life. There are many Syrian dishes which have become popular in the United States. Unlike many Western foods, Syrian foods take more time to cook, are less expensive and usually more healthy.[34] Pita bread (khubz), which is round flat bread, and hummus, a dip made of ground chickpeas, sesame tahini, lemon juice, and garlic, are two popular Syrian foods. Baba ghanoush, or eggplant spreads, is also a dish made by Syrians. Popular Syrian salads include tabbouleh and fattoush. The Syrian cuisine includes other dishes like stuffed zucchini (mahshe), dolma, kebab, kibbeh, kibbeh nayyeh, mujaddara, shawarma, and shanklish. Syrians often serve selections of appetizers, known as meze, before the main course. Za'atar, minced beef, and cheese manakish are popular hors d'œuvre. Syrians are also well known for their cheese. A popular Syrian drink is the arak beverage. One of the popular desserts made by Syrians is the baklava, which is made of filo pastry filled with chopped nuts and soaked in honey.[34]


Typical kanun with a 79-tone mandal configuration

Syrian music includes several genres and styles of music ranging from Arab classical to Arabic pop music and from secular to sacred music. Syrian music is characterized by an emphasis on melody and rhythm, as opposed to harmony. There are some genres of Syrian music that are polyphonic, but typically, most Syrian and Arabic music is homophonic. Syrian music is also characterized by the predominance of vocal music. The prototypical Arabic music ensemble in Egypt and Syria is known as the takht, and relies on a number of musical instruments that represent a standardized tone system, and are played with generally standardized performance techniques, thus displaying similar details in construction and design. Such musical instruments include the oud, kanun, rabab, ney, violin, riq and tableh.[35] The Jews of Syria sang pizmonim.

Modern Syrian music has incorporated instruments from the West, including the electric guitar, cello, double bass and oboe, and incorporated influences from jazz and other foreign musical styles.[citation needed]

Traditional clothing

Traditional dress is not very common with Syrian Americans, and even native Syrians; modern Western clothing is conventional in both Syria and the United States. Ethnic dance performers wear a shirwal, which are loose, baggy pants with an elastic waist. Some Muslim Syrian women wear a hijab, which is a headscarf worn by Muslim women to cover their hair. There are various styles of hijab.


Syrian Americans celebrate many religious holidays. Christian Syrian Americans celebrate most Christian holidays usually celebrated in the United States. They celebrate Christmas and Easter, but since most Syrians are Eastern Orthodox, they celebrate Easter on a different Sunday from most other Americans. Some Christians celebrate various Saints' days. Syrian American Jews celebrate the Jewish holidays, such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Purim, Passover and Shavuot. Few Syrians celebrate Syria's independence day, April 17. As American citizens, many Syrians celebrate American holidays like Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving Day.[citation needed]

Muslim Syrian Americans celebrate three main Muslim holidays: Ramadan, Eid ul-Fitr (Lesser Bairam), and Eid ul-Adha (Greater Bairam). Ramadan is the ninth month of the Islamic year, during which Muslims fast from dawn to sunset; Muslims resort to self-discipline to cleanse themselves spiritually. After Ramadan is over, Muslims celebrate Eid ul-Fitr, when Muslims break their fasting and revel exuberantly. Muslims also celebrate Eid ul-Adha (which means The Festival of Sacrifice) 70 days after at the end of the Islamic year, a holiday which is held along with the annual pilgrimage to Mecca, Hajj.[36]

Dating and marriage

Many Syrian Americans prefer traditional relationships and disfavor casual dating. Muslims can only date after completing their marriage contact, kitabt al-kitab (Arabic: كتابة الكتاب, which means "writing the book"), a period that ranges from a few months to a year or more to get used to living with one another. After this time period, a wedding takes place and fulfills the marriage. Muslims tend to marry other Muslims only. Unable to find other suitable Muslim Syrian Americans, many Muslim Syrian American have married other Muslim Americans.[10]

Syrian American marriages are usually very strong; this is reflected by the low divorce rates among Syrian Americans, which are below the average rates in the United States.[10] Generally, Syrian American partners tend to have more children than average American partners; Syrian American partners also tend to have children at early stages of their marriages. According to the United States 2000 Census, almost 62% of Syrian American households were married-couple households.[31]


35% of Syrians 25 years and older have a Bachelor's degree or more, compared to 24.4% of all Americans

Syrian Americans, including the earliest immigrants, have always placed a high premium on education. Like many other Americans, Syrian Americans view education as a necessity. Generally, Syrian and other Arab Americans are more highly educated than the average American. In the 2000 census it was reported that the proportion of Syrian Americans to achieve a bachelor's degree or higher is one and a half times that of the total American population.[31] Many Syrian Americans now work as engineers, scientists, pharmacists, and physicians.[citation needed]


Syrians are mainly Arabic speakers. While some may speak the formal literary Arabic, many Syrians speak Syrian Arabic, a dialect which belongs to the Levantine Arabic family of dialects. There are also sub-dialects in Syrian Arabic; for example, people from Aleppo have a distinct and distinguishable accent, one that differs considerably from that of people from Homs or Al-Hasakah. Syrians can usually comprehend and understand the dialects of most Arabs, especially those who speak any form of Levantine Arabic.[citation needed]

Many old Syrian American families have lost their linguistic traditions because many parents do not teach their children Arabic. Newer immigrants, however, maintain their language traditions. The 2000 census shows that 79.9% of Syrian Americans speak English "very well".[31] Throughout the United States, there are schools which offer Arabic language classes; there are also some Eastern Orthodox churches which hold Arabic services.

Aramaic dialects are spoken also, mainly by ethnic Assyrian Christians, and Western Armenian by those of Armenian ethnicity.

Notable people and contributions

Sometimes some confusion occurs between Greater Syria and the modern Syria when determining the place of origin of the earliest Syrian Americans. However, the following list comprises notable Americans who are originally people of modern Syrian heritage.

See also


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