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Little Syria: The History of Arab Immigration to Boston

Updated: May 23, 2022

Syrian Immigrants

Syrian and Lebanese Immigrants of the 1800s

The United States today has many Syrian and Lebanese communities, but this was not always so. Many of the earliest settlers from the Middle East began to make their way here in the 1880s, departing what we would now call Lebanon and Syria. Conditions in the Ottoman Empire were deteriorating, with cornerstone industries such as silk and agriculture folding under the weight of growing economic issues. Following tax hikes and the introduction of mandatory conscription into the Ottoman Empire's military, families turned to the United States for a fresh start, with Boston being their second most popular destination behind New York.

The initial wave of settlers were mostly males who stayed for a short while before returning home, either to get their families for a more permanent resettlement or to bring them the resources gained on their voyage. It was not uncommon for these men to speak little or no English, and many came encumbered with debt from the precarious situations they were escaping. Not every family had a male to spare, however, and this role was sometimes filled by young women or widows instead. Soon enough, full families had relocated to the States, a trend that would be maintained until the 1920s, when immigration from Syria and Lebanon began to dwindle. This was primarily due to The National Origins Act of 1924, which capped the maximum number of legal immigrants that the United States could take each year.

Where Little Syria Began

Living alongside other recent immigrants from China, the Syrian population congregated in a neighborhood in Boston's South Cove. This neighborhood came to be renamed Little Syria. As they were overwhelmingly Christian, the residents of Little Syria ended up grouped into three main Churches: Maronite, Melkite, and Orthodox.

To read more about the Maronite Church's history in Boston that started in 1893, click here. Just 17 years later, the Melkite church first grew its roots in 1910, which you can read more about here.

As the population grew, smaller communities of immigrants were gradually engulfed by Little Syria. Additional churches sprung up to serve the new families, and countless immigrant owned cafes and bakeries began to open, allowing for the communal mealtime gatherings that they had enjoyed in their native countries to continue undisturbed.

Those who didn't start their own businesses often worked as street vendors or door-to-door salesmen, peddling their goods from packs they carried on their backs. While this was male dominated to start, women would soon be peddling goods of their own. The families who were most successful at their peddling were often able to open grocery stores. I can only imagine the feeling of accomplishment that must have come with building a door-to-door business into a storefront!

Immigrants who opted to work for already established businesses tended to go into the manufacturing field. While they typically ended up as shoemakers or clothiers, others found themselves in textile mills or the candy industry. The more industrial set of immigrants were known to save their money to purchase property, which was sometimes turned into rental housing for other immigrants.

After several decades of lowered immigration rates, post-World War II America saw a resurgence of immigrants from the Middle East. This was in no small part thanks to the Immigration Act of 1965. This new wave of immigrants featured some settlers from Lebanon and Syria, but many more from Egypt and Morocco than before. As a result, there was a far higher proportion of Muslim immigrants than in the previous waves.

Unlike the whole families who transitioned to America in the early twentieth century, these new immigrants consisted mostly of international students who sought an education from America's university system. These students, once graduated, were able to seek higher paying positions in more varied fields when compared to the generation that preceded them. Soon it was not uncommon to see doctors, scientists, and engineers heading immigrant families.

Syrian Immigrants

The Muslim communities did not form around Little Syria, as it was still a landscape dominated by Christian churches at the time. Instead, they formed new neighborhoods in and around Quincy. Other Muslim immigrant communities sprung up near universities, likely due to the high volume of students immigrating. After graduating, it was common for these students to settle in Boston's western suburbs, where they were joined by other young professionals of a similar background.

While immigration had previously been motivated by economic and cultural factors, the late twentieth century saw a series of brutal wars in the Middle East, including the lengthy Lebanese Civil War, which ran from 1975 to 1990. No longer was the decision to venture to America about a change in locale or policy—this third wave of immigration was comprised of refugees who had no choice but to flee their homes in search of stability. While the echoes of those conflicts are, in some cases, still playing out today, this final spike in immigration began to die down in the twenty-first century. This can be attributed, in part, to the cultural shock caused by the terrorist attacks carried out on September 11th, 2001, which led some Americans to develop a stigma against immigrants from the Middle East—regardless of whether the organizations involved in the attacks were operating in their native countries at the time.

Syrian and Lebanese Communities Today

Syrian Immigrants

You can still find a thriving community of Syrian and Lebanese immigrants in modern day Boston, with bakeries and cafes still serving as valuable communal gathering spots. The area known as Little Syria, however, would shift in demographics as time went on. The Chinese population that had always been a feature of Little Syria became more prominent and the area came to be known as Chinatown.

Despite these changes, I find it hard to underestimate the impact that the immigrant community has had on life in Boston over the last century. They might have shifted their communities to new neighborhoods and some of their churches may have moved, but their influence on industry, cuisine, and culture can still be seen today. A population that began with a few thousand people seeking better circumstances has grown into a mainstay of the region with millions of descendants spreading nationwide. Boston simply would not be the same without them.



Images are public domain and referenced from Wiki Commons. The images are historic records of Syrian / Lebanese immigrants around the 1800s and are not necessarily from Boston.

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