Kuwait Times - - WEEKENDER -

Shak­ifa Ha­lal was a Syr­ian im­mi­grant on a New York-bound ship, her dreams rolled up in a piece of em­broi­dery made from silk­worms she grew, fab­ric she wove and cloth dyed with flow­ers picked in her home­land. “She rolled that up and brought it be­cause she said she wanted to be able to prove that she had skills ... This to her was like show­ing a diploma,” said Ha­lal’s grand­daugh­ter, Vicki Ta­moush, her voice catch­ing and tears stream­ing.

Ha­lal’s flo­ral art­work, which she brought to Amer­ica in 1910 at the ten­der age of 13, now hangs in the El­lis Is­land Na­tional Mu­seum of Im­mi­gra­tion, part of an ex­hi­bi­tion called “Lit­tle Syria, NY: An Im­mi­grant Com­mu­nity’s Life and Legacy.” Through doc­u­ments, ar­ti­facts and pho­tos, the ex­hi­bi­tion tells the story of a Mid­dle East­ern com­mu­nity that once flour­ished in Lower Man­hat­tan. The show is on view through Jan. 9 in the build­ing where some 12 mil­lion im­mi­grants from around the world first set foot in Amer­ica. And it doc­u­ments the van­ished neigh­bor­hood of Lit­tle Syria in ways that still res­onate, at a time when Syr­ian refugees and im­mi­grant rights are mak­ing head­lines.

From the 1880s to the 1940s, Lit­tle Syria sprawled from the New York wa­ter­front, where El­lis Is­land fer­ries dock to­day, up to the site where the twin tow­ers were later built. It was a slum and a promised land, way sta­tion and des­ti­na­tion. The neigh­bor­hood served as an in­cu­ba­tor for other Arab en­claves, as res­i­dents moved on to build com­mu­ni­ties in Brook­lyn, Detroit, Cleve­land, Los An­ge­les and else­where. Shak­ifa Ha­lal was among those who didn’t stay long, mov­ing on to join rel­a­tives in Ore­gon, then Cal­i­for­nia. There she found work as a seam­stress, likely us­ing that trea­sured em­broi­dery dis­played at El­lis Is­land to get the job. Tan­gi­ble proof

But oth­ers re­mained in Man­hat­tan, cre­at­ing a com­mu­nity in the early 1900s - also known as the Syr­ian Quar­ter or Syr­ian Colony - that was home to some 3,000 im­mi­grants from the Syr­ian Ot­toman Re­pub­lic. Most of the neigh­bor­hood was torn down in the 1940s to make way for the Brook­lyn Bat­tery Tun­nel. Just three orig­i­nal build­ings sur­vive on Wash­ing­ton Street, and to­day, the area’s eth­nic his­tory is largely un­known, even to na­tive New York­ers. When a cor­ner­stone of a Syr­ian Ma­ronite church turned up in the rub­ble of the twin tow­ers in 2002, it pro­vided tan­gi­ble proof that many Arabs once lived, worked and wor­shipped here.

“We didn’t come out of a ge­nie lamp,” said Char­lie Sa­hadi, whose fam­ily came from Le­banon to Lit­tle Syria in the late 1800s. They launched Sa­hadi Im­port­ing, one of many busi­nesses that helped in­tro­duce Mid­dle East­ern goods to con­sumers here. The El­lis Is­land ex­hi­bi­tion fea­tures a 1920s-era pic­ture of Sa­hadi’s great un­cle, Abrahim Sa­hadi, along with A Sa­hadi & Co tins and a 1930s or­der­ing book. The Sa­hadi store moved to Brook­lyn’s At­lantic Av­enue in the 1940s, but re­mains a pop­u­lar gourmet gro­cery to this day. The Sa­hadi story res­onates with Devon Ak­mon, a fourth-gen­er­a­tion Arab Amer­i­can and di­rec­tor of the Arab Amer­i­can Na­tional Mu­seum in Dear­born, Michi­gan. The mu­seum cre­ated the Lit­tle Syria ex­hi­bi­tion, which de­buted at its fa­cil­ity in 2012. Arab Amer­i­cans

“You have to honor, cel­e­brate and com­mem­o­rate who first came, then look at what’s hap­pen­ing now,” said Ak­mon, who at­tended the show’s El­lis Is­land open­ing Oct 1. “Arab Amer­i­cans just be­came folded into the Amer­i­can nar­ra­tive and lost in the his­tory of New York City. We’re try­ing to pull that back out.” Re­claim­ing sto­ries is “es­sen­tial,” he said, as peo­ple flee war-torn Syria and amid anti-im­mi­grant rhetoric on the cam­paign trail: Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­date Don­ald Trump has pro­posed ban­ning or strictly lim­it­ing Syr­i­ans and Mus­lims from en­ter­ing the US and many gov­er­nors have sought to curb or change refugee re­set­tle­ment.

Todd Fine, pres­i­dent of the Wash­ing­ton Street His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, leads tours of the strip where the three struc­tures from Lit­tle Syria sur­vive: a ten­e­ment build­ing, va­cant com­mu­nity house and for­mer Syr­ian Catholic church that now houses two restau­rants. “Some peo­ple would say it’s kind of mirac­u­lous that when ev­ery­thing else is de­stroyed ... these three lit­tle build­ings (sur­vive),” he said.

Fine’s group and oth­ers seek to pre­serve the his­toric row, but only the church fa­cade has se­cured pro­tec­tive land­mark sta­tus from New York City of­fi­cials. Mean­while preser­va­tion­ists are pleased a mon­u­ment soon will honor the com­mu­nity’s lit­er­ary legacy in a nearby park. Lit­tle Syria’s writ­ers in­cluded famed po­et­philoso­pher Khalil Gi­bran. And Wash­ing­ton Street once housed of­fices for the in­flu­en­tial “Al Hoda” Ara­bic news­pa­per. — AP

Peo­ple take pho­tos of Lower Man­hat­tan where the Lit­tle Syria neigh­bor­hood was lo­cated, in New York.

This 1910 photo shows a Syr­ian pas­try counter in the Lit­tle Syria neigh­bor­hood of Lower Man­hat­tan in New York.

— AP pho­tos

Photo shows the for­mer St Ge­orge’s Syr­ian Catholic Church is seen in the fi­nan­cial district of New York in Man­hat­tan.

In this pic­ture taken Oct 1, 2016, Vicki Ta­moush, 60, poses for a pic­ture in New York City’s Lower Man­hat­tan af­ter she vis­ited the “Lit­tle Syria, NY: An Im­mi­grant Com­mu­nity’s Life and Legacy” ex­hibit at the El­lis Is­land Na­tional Mu­seum of Im­mi­gra­tion.

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