Researching Your Lebanese or Syrian Ancestry


Family with Donkey

Because Lebanon and Syria were under foreign domination for centuries, life was difficult for the common people. Periods of religious warfare between Moslems and Christians, land disputes, and intertribal fighting often occurred. Nevertheless, the impetus for immigration most often was the lure of economic opportunity in the United States. Recruiting efforts of steamship agents and reports of traders returning from the 1876 International Exposition in Philadelphia also spurred immigration. The French Line and Fabre Steamship Lines carried many Lebanese and Syrians to America, docking first Havre or Marseilles, and then New York.

Between 1860 and 1890, a few hundred Lebanese and Syrians entered the United States each year. The first Syrian family was that of Professor Joseph Arbeely who, with his wife, six sons and a niece, arrived in 1878. Two of his sons later founded the first Arabic newspaper in the western world, another was Consul in Jerusalem under President Grover Cleveland, and yet another was in the Immigration Service.

Several thousand Lebanese and Syrians entered the United States each year after 1890, reaching a peak of 9,000 in 1913 and again in 1914. During World War I, the numbers declined. A brief post-war resurgence occurred until the Quota System became law in 1924, at which time there were 200,000 persons of Lebanese/Syrian birth or descent living in this country. By 1940, that number had grown to 350,000.

Passage, particularly in steerage, was not easy, and was relatively expensive. The entire trip took three to six weeks, depending on weather. Sometimes the immigrants came in family groups. More often, young men (or occasionally, young women) came to this country first, hoping to find work and save money for the passage of other family members. They usually came with others from their village, or had friends or relatives awaiting them in America. If the family could afford passage for only some of its members, they split up, the father taking the older children to America, the mother and younger children staying behind until money was earned to send for them.

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