Ellis Island exhibit revives lost Little Syria
NEW YORK >> 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, N.Y.: 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.
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.
A 1910 photo shows a Syrian pastry counter in the Little Syria neighborhood of Lower Manhattan in New York.