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The Syrian Migrant Crisis You’ve Never Heard of—and Why It Matters Today

As millions of Syrians are forced to flee their home country, the descendants of earlier migrants enjoy a life of cultural and economic assimilation.
Syrian immigrant children in New York City.

Syrian immigrant children in New York City.

The ongoing political and legal controversy over President Donald Trump’s revised executive order banning visitors from six Muslim-majority countries is the latest flashpoint in what has become one of the great moral conundrums of our time: What to do about the refugees of the Syrian Civil War?

Since 2011, the Syrian Civil War has forced some five million Syrians out of the country. And as millions flee and risk their lives trying to find a stable land, surrounding countries, Europe, and the Americas have struggled to deal with the unprecedented inflow of people. Many have effectively closed their borders, with the new restrictions in some ways merely crystallizing a wider pattern — an iron immigration curtain now descending across much of the West. The United Nations calls the Syrian refugee crisis the “single largest … for almost a quarter of a century.”

At the same time, nationalism and inward-looking policy ideas have taken hold in many Western societies, from the rise of Marine Le Pen in France to Brexit and the election of Theresa May in the United Kingdom. And while the United States did admit substantially more Muslim refugees in the final year of the Obama administration, that trend is sure to end.

The Syrian refugee crisis can seem a catastrophic historical anomaly, one wholly without precedent or hint of a solution. But virtually unknown today — buried in the historical annals — is a parallel event that furnishes an alternative path. In the late 19th century, a massive wave of Arabic-speaking peasants left greater Syria, in search of opportunities elsewhere. Even though they found obstacles in destination countries, many migrants were eventually integrated to the host societies, making expressive contributions to their new economy and culture.

Decades later, the descendants of the Syrian-Lebanese migrants — now working in law, medicine, politics, and business across societies in the Americas — still see this lost chapter in history come to life in the form of family tales shared over feasts of falafels, hummus, kafta, and other Arab delicacies.

The First Migration

Between 1890 and 1920, an estimated 360,000 migrants spilled from the area that now includes Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and Jordan. (It wasn’t until after 1890 that missionaries and intellectuals popularized the existence of a specific region called “greater Syria.”)

In the early migration outflow, about one-third of the region’s population left, motivated by a number of factors: the debt-ridden Ottoman Empire was falling apart; economic recession, drought, and eventually famine hit the region hard; and the world was lurching toward World War I.

“At that time, people were moving because they were poor, and they were looking for good life conditions,” says Kazim Baycar, of Yildiz Technical University in Istanbul, whose research has focused on Ottoman history.

In contrast with today, these migrants went primarily to the Americas: The U.S., Brazil, and Argentina, among others, saw tens of thousands of Syrians come to their shores. They spread out across major cities and small towns in the New World.

“We’ve been here a long time, and, in fact, we are very much part of the fabric of what makes this country what it is today,” says Akram Khater, a history professor at North Carolina State University.

The experience of peoples from lands in the Arabic-speaking world has long been characterized, he says, both by cultural acceptance and assimilation, as well as suspicion and challenge. “The Syrian refugees of today, of course, are another episode in this long narrative arc.”

Arab Migrants’ Contribution to Booming Economies

Many in the earlier Syrian migration came with the idea of making money and returning, but about two-thirds of them wound up staying in the U.S. Once “pioneer” family members got established, they began bringing over other kin. It was the beginning of a classic “chain migration” pattern.

An estimated 129,000 persons of Syrian-Lebanese-Palestinian origin were in the U.S. by 1920, according to researchers at the Moise A. Khayrallah Center for Lebanese Diaspora Studies at North Carolina State. Arab-Americans settled in northeastern states such as New York, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania, as well as in Ohio, Michigan, and even Texas.

“Migration at the time was destined to countries that had flourishing economies — the U.S., Canada, Brazil, and the like — that needed labor,” says Guita Hourani, director of the Lebanese Emigration Research Center at the University of Notre Dame in Kesrwan, Lebanon. “The migration of the Lebanese and Syrians was part of a world phenomenon that was taking place at the time. The so-called New World was offering opportunities not found at the time in Europe.” According to experts, the Arabs joined a large flow of Europeans who themselves were escaping adverse economic conditions.

“The Arabs were the ‘free riders’ of this immigration because those routes were already well established — boats were already going to those very important harbors, like Buenos Aires, Santos [harbor near São Paulo], and New York. They were just taking the same boats as the Europeans,” says Cecilia Baeza, a professor at PUC-SP and FGV in Brazil who studies the Arab diaspora in South America.

“We’ve been here a long time, and, in fact, we are very much part of the fabric of what makes this country what it is today.”

In the Americas, many went on to work in factories, others started peddling or opened small businesses, a mercantile tradition that still distinguishes some Syrian-Lebanese families across the Americas today. “It seemed like they gravitated toward certain places that had lots of people who had to buy stuff,” says Tylor Band, assistant professor at the American University of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates. “So the Lebanese and Syrians made a lot of their money through these merchant activities.”

Subsequent generations have gone into the professions and climbed the social ladder. While evidence of social mobility across the Americas may be largely anecdotal, Syrian immigrants and persons of Lebanese origin in the U.S. are generally better educated and have lower unemployment rates, as compared with both other foreign-born and native-born populations.

“Syrian and Lebanese had larger economic and social mobility in Brazil than in the U.S.,” says Oswaldo Truzzi, a professor at UFSCAR-Federal University of São Carlos, Brazil. In the U.S., the migrants from Ottoman Syria joined huge waves of European immigrants, perhaps diluting their overall impact and visibility.

“In Brazil, you can see how they shaped our commercial practices, our food, our culture,” Truzzi adds. “There’s a reciprocal influence.”

War and Climate Change Destabilize the Region

In both our current and past migration flows, war and climate change played a major role. Cecilia Baeza notes that modernization policies in the Ottoman Empire around 1908 included new conscription rules, prompting many families to accelerate the ongoing exodus. The Ottomans became involved in violent internal and regional conflict, for which they needed soldiers.

“For these reasons, especially the Christian families, to avoid the military conscription, started to send their sons where they already had relatives,” Baeza says. “They were already living in the Americas.”

Adding to the chaos were naturally shifting climate conditions around the time of World War I. “What seems to have happened is that there was an El Niño event around the time of the war,” says Band of the American University of Sharjah. Adverse conditions and a literal plague of locusts, combined with military blockades and an Ottoman policy of neglect, created area-wide famine, particularly in Mount Lebanon, where the so-called “Great Famine” claimed tens of thousands of lives.

“Sources say that the amount of crops lost was equal to 40 to 60 percent of the Syrian crop in 1915,” Band notes. While migration largely halted during World War I, the horrific regional conditions prompted further waves of immigrants at the conflict’s end.

All of that echoes today. As researchers have documented, climate change also likely helped foster the conditions that led to the contemporary Syrian civil war. Rural Syrians were displaced by historic drought beginning in 2007 and migrated to cities in massive numbers, contributing to political unrest.

Syrians or Turks?

Around 98 percent of current Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S. are Suni Muslims. The proportion is similar among the two million Syrian refugees registered with UNHCR: Ninety-nine percent are Suni Muslims and only 1 percent, Christians. Shiites are a very small part of this population. This distribution does not include the 2.9 million Syrian refugees living in Turkey, because the country is responsible for registering them, not UNHCR.

In contrast, many earlier migrants were Christian, although there were a fair number of both Shiite and Sunni Muslims. There is anecdotal evidence that Muslims represented between 8 and 17 percent of all greater Syria migrants, although the numbers are highly imprecise, scholars say. Roughly one-third of Argentina’s estimated 105,000 to 136,000 immigrants may have been Muslim, according to Khater.

“Syrian and Lebanese had larger economic and social mobility in Brazil than in the U.S.”

While the modern-day states would only be established later in the region, the original notion of being “Syrian” emerged to distinguish locals from the Ottoman population, which carried with it traditional and highly prejudiced stereotypes of the “terrible Turk,” Khater says. They wanted to escape, for example, being mistakenly called Turcos, as they frequently were in Latin America.

“In some ironic way, it carries with it the same pejorative and threatening and ‘othering,’ if you will, notion as Muslim does today,” he notes. “That’s exactly what a ‘Turk’ was [at that time] — a Muslim.”

These stereotypes were Western, scholars note, and some Christians in greater Syria had relatively good relations with Ottoman authorities during that period.

Closed Borders

According to the Department of State, almost 20,000 Syrian refugees from the current conflict have been accepted by the U.S.— the majority admitted in the final year of the Obama administration. Canada, by contrast, has recently become a welcoming haven — it took in more than 40,000 Syrian refugees to date, having resettled around 25,000 — while most nations in the Americas have seen only a trickle of Syrian refugees this time. Meanwhile, more than 90 percent of Syrian refugees remain in a semi-permanent holding pattern in Turkey, Lebanon, and Jordan, with little hope of asylum there.

The European Union as a whole has a very mixed record: With the exception of Germany (as of the end of 2015 it had accepted more than 115,600 Syrian refugees) and Sweden (more than 52,700), the remaining 26 countries in the E.U. have pledged a tiny number of resettlement places — “around 0.7 percent of the Syrian refugee population in the main host countries” such as Turkey and Jordan, according to Amnesty International.

Some Latin American countries have pledged greater “open door” policies, as Lilly Ballofet of the Khayrallah Center at North Carolina State has noted. Still, the overall numbers of migrants taken in are not huge measured against the enormity of the problem. Through 2015, Brazil had taken in 2,300 Syrian refugees, while Argentina had taken in about 300, according to UNHCR data.

Reviving the Narrative

If there is any positive news on the horizon, it may be the potential of the current generation of Syrian migrants arriving in the West. “People who are ending up in Europe and the U.S. now are highly educated,” Khater says. “They are coming in with a major advantage in some ways in the sense of their ability to work and to integrate. The disadvantage is that they are not coming into ethnic enclaves.” Meanwhile, it’s worth mentioning that there have been no fatal terrorist attacks post-9/11 by persons from any of the countries covered under Trump’s executive order.

In any case, this largely unknown history remains poignant and relevant across many societies. It is deeply rooted in the experience of millions of persons with Arab and Greater Syrian roots across the New World whose families have been here for generations.

As a consequence of their integration in the Americas a century ago, Arab immigrants became entrepreneurs, professionals, and even politicians — so why couldn’t the same happen with today’s Syrian refugees?

“I think it would be good, not only drawing upon the history of the Syrian immigration itself,” says Baeza, the researcher in Brazil, “but in general, of having been an immigration country, to revive this narrative to be even more welcoming to the immigrants and refugees.”