Syrian immigrants on Hudson Street, Boston 1909. Lace work was a common occupation among Syrian women. Courtesy of the Trustees of Boston Public Library.
Arab immigrants from the Eastern Mediterranean—mainly those from what is now Syria and Lebanon—began settling in the Boston area in the 1880s. Overwhelmingly Christian, these Arab newcomers left an ailing silk industry and a declining agricultural sector as well as a growing burden of taxation and conscription under the Ottoman Empire. Many of them came from the mountainous areas of northern Lebanon (then called Mount Lebanon) around Bsharri and Zahle as well as from Damascus.
Initially, male sojourners made up the bulk of the migrant population, with many returning to their homeland after a few years. By the early twentieth century, however, women and children had joined the migrant stream, and many Syrian families settled permanently in Massachusetts. Younger women and widows, in fact, were sometimes the first to migrate in their families and helped bring other relatives over. At the time, Boston had the second largest Syrian community in the United States after New York.
Syrian immigration was dramatically curtailed in the 1920s, but with the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, a new wave of Arab immigrants arrived in greater Boston. Responding to the postcolonial nation-building efforts of the 1960s and 1970s, many of them first came as students to train at local universities. Those from Syria and Lebanon were now joined by newcomers from Egypt, Morocco, and other Arab countries. Unlike the earlier Syrian arrivals, many were urban, educated professionals and most were Muslims.
Recurrent wars in the Middle East—the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990), the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Persian Gulf War (1991), and the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Syria—also led to refugee crises that fueled further emigration. In the wake of the terrorist attacks of 9/11, though, immigration from many predominantly Muslim countries has become more difficult, while fears of terrorism have fueled a nativist backlash against Arab and Muslim immigrants that continues to the present.
Patterns of Settlement
Prior to World War I, most Syrian immigrants clustered in the South Cove neighborhood that would become known as Little Syria or Syriantown and later Chinatown. The earliest arrivals in the 1880s and 1890s settled alongside Chinese immigrants on Oliver Place (now Ping On Alley) and Oxford and Edinboro Streets. As more newcomers arrived, they spread southward, replacing older native-born and Irish residents along Tyler and Hudson Streets and Harrison Avenue. Anchored by three Christian churches—Maronite, Melkite, and Orthodox—the area south of Kneeland Street became the center of Syrian settlement with numerous churches, bakeries and coffee houses serving as communal centers.
As late as 1920, nearly three quarters of Boston’s Syrian immigrants still lived in Syriantown. But in the interwar period, Syrian settlement spread across the South End, centering along Shawmut Avenue. Muslim immigrants, by contrast, were concentrated in Quincy in a much smaller community near the shipyards in Quincy Point. After World War II, many Syrian and Lebanese families bought homes in West Roxbury and Roslindale, and their Christian churches followed. The Arab students who arrived after 1965 tended to live near universities in Boston and Cambridge; those who stayed after graduating joined a growing community of Arab professionals who settled across the western suburbs.
The first generation of Syrian settlers mainly worked as peddlers. Carrying fabrics, linens, lace, and other goods in boxes on their backs, peddlers went door-to-door in Boston and nearby suburbs selling their wares. Others ventured to rural areas across New England or traveled by train across routes that stretched as far as the Midwest. While men dominated the early peddling trade, Syrian women became a common sight on local streets in the early twentieth century. Successful peddlers might use their profits to buy a horse and wagon, but in the long run, many looked to open their own dry goods and grocery stores.
Syrian immigrants were also drawn to the region’s manufacturing industries. While thousands labored in the textile mills of Lawrence and New Bedford, Syrians in Boston worked mainly in the garment shops along Harrison Avenue. Together with Jewish needleworkers, Syrians became a mainstay of the local garment industry prior to World War II. And like the Jews, the more successful opened their own shops where they employed women and men from their homelands. Syrian workers were also well represented in the local shoe and candy industries.
Like other immigrant groups from the Mediterranean, Syrians aspired to own property and start small businesses. Many used their earnings as peddlers or factory workers to buy small stores or South End town houses that they turned into rooming houses for local workers. It was not until the second generation or after that Syrian Americans entered professional work in large numbers. By contrast, Arab immigrants arriving after 1965 found employment in higher paying fields such as medicine, information technology, engineering, and research science.