El­lis Is­land ex­hibit re­vives lost Lit­tle Syria

Daily Freeman (Kingston, NY) - - STATE NEWS - By Jeff Karoub

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.

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