The first sight that millions of immigrants saw from the decks of steamships arriving in New York City during the 19th and early 20th centuries was the Statue of Liberty standing on an island in New York harbor. The first place they set foot in the United States was nearby Ellis Island. Arab immigrants to America have been a part of this history for over a century.
Origins of a Museum About Origins
Twelve million immigrants entered the United States through Ellis Island during the years that it served as an immigration center, 1892 to 1954. Today about 40 percent of Americans can trace their ancestry to immigrants who passed through Ellis Island.
Recognizing the historical importance of this New York City harbor island, the U.S. government turned it into the Ellis Island Immigration Museum. The museum opened in 1990 with exhibits, photos, historical archives and oral histories to chronicle the story of immigration into the United States.
Most of the immigrants passing through Ellis Island were Europeans, but a significant number came from Arab lands ruled by the Ottoman Empire, which lasted from the 15th to the 20th centuries.
Ottoman Immigrants’ Census
According to an Ellis Island museum document, 212,825 immigrants from the Ottoman Empire passed through Ellis Island into the United States from January 1892 to June 1897 and from 1901 to 1931.
Barry Moreno, a historian at the immigration museum, said that most of the early Arab immigrants to the United States came from the Greater Syria region of the empire, which covered what is present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and what is now the Israeli-occupied West Bank. He said most were Arab Christians, who felt targeted for discrimination by the Ottoman authorities.
Once they arrived in the United States, the tens of thousands of Arab immigrants found themselves in the same tumultuous circumstances as immigrants from other countries. Immigration inspectors verified the physical and mental health of the new immigrants and registered their entry into the United States. Those who failed initial screening were put back on boats to return to their native countries.
Arabs, Mostly Christian, Mostly Talented
Describing the immigrants from the Arab world, immigration historian Moreno said, "Just like the other immigrants, they were highly talented. The children were suddenly living in towns surrounded by Italians, Poles, Jews and other immigrant families and American families." The museum contains photos of Arab immigrants wrapped in flowing burnooses and turbans as they arrived at the immigration center.
Najeeb Arbeely was an early employee at the Ellis Island immigration station, providing interpreting and translation in Arabic and French, according to Moreno. Arbeely arrived in the United States with his family in 1874 and lived briefly in Tennessee before returning to New York City and launching a long career in the immigration service, where he eventually rose to the rank of inspector. American missionaries played an important role in stimulating the Arab Christian migration to the United States.
While Ottoman authorities prohibited proselytizing among Muslims, they did allow missionaries to proselytize among Middle Eastern Christians, he said. With Christians accounting for as much as 50 percent of the population in parts of Greater Syria, Moreno noted, there was a large pool of people for missionaries to work with.
From Foreign Students to Americans
Christian missionaries established institutions of learning in the Middle East that still attract students in the Middle East today, Moreno said. American Presbyterian missionaries established American Universities in Beirut and Cairo and offered scholarships to young Arab Christians to study at universities in the United States.
"That was hard to resist. That's actually how my grandfather came to the United States in the 1930's -- to study," said Moreno, whose mother is the daughter of Coptic Christians from Egypt and whose father is an immigrant from Cuba.
Steamship Marketing in the Hills of Lebanon
Steamship companies took advantage of the wave of immigrants from the Mediterranean region to the United States by going to Christian villages and towns in Greater Syria and advertising in Arabic, Moreno said. The early immigrants writing home about life and work in the United States created a chain reaction that stimulated immigration, Moreno said. "As people wrote home letters in Arabic, talking about their adventures in the States and encouraging villagers and other people to come over and earn the larges wages that were available here, more and more people came," he said.
The museum's American Family Immigration History Center has records about Arab and other immigrants, including oral histories, passenger lists, and other official documents. The museum staff has taped interviews with immigrants from Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Tunisia. In those interviews, the immigrants speak of their stay on Ellis Island, their voyage to America, life in their countries of origin, and their assimilation into American society.
The Doors Shut, and Reopen
The first wave of Arab immigration to the United States ended in 1924 with the passage of the National Origins Act, which set strict quotas on non-European immigration to the United States.
Since the repeal of the National Origins Act in 1965, hundreds of thousands of Arab immigrants have come to the United States, most of them Muslim, Moreno said. This second wave of Arab immigration has come mainly from Egypt, Algeria, Morocco, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Tunisia, Libya, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian areas, he said.
Many of these recent immigrants from the Arab world are highly educated people -- writers, doctors, scientists -- who often are employed in universities, Moreno said. Others, without these skills, drive taxis or sell coffee and newspapers on the sidewalks of New York City.