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The earliest Syrians migrants to arrive in the United States were nearly all men, who came as Presbyterian seminarians between the 1830s and 1880s. Many were converts as a result of the American Protestant mission in Syria and only remained in the U.S. for a few years to complete their studies before returning home. The first wave of permanent Syrian immigrants arrived in Manhattan through the Castle Garden landing docks and registration depot by the start of the 1880s. These were mostly rural Christian merchants from the Mount Lebanon area in Ottoman Syria. The majority of these Christians belonged to the Melkite, Maronite, and Eastern Orthodox denominations, with a few Protestants, who had fled Greater Syria due to religious persecution and poverty following the French intervention after the 1860 Syrian Civil War. During this conflict between the Arab Christian and Druze populations, many militias ended up killing several thousands civilians across the Mount Lebanon area and Damascus. In addition, disruptions to the local silk trade caused by the influx of international competition following the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 lead many merchants to leave for port cities across Africa, Latin America, and North America, with Manhattan being one. It is estimated that only 5-10% of the area’s Arab residents were Muslims, mostly coming from the area around present day Palestine. This included a minority of Druze, which although a distinct ethnoreligious community in the Levant, are often counted as Muslim.Cool drinks peddler in Little Syria (1910-15)
In New York City many immigrants would work as pack peddlers. They would often carry forty to eighty pounds of notions, which they would sell uptown during the day and further afield in upstate New York during the summer. Other peddlers would sell luxury goods and religious objects such as damask cloth, embroideries, rosaries and crosses made from olive wood from the Holy Land. In order to maintain this constant flow of these goods many Syrians also started import-export businesses in order to sell directly to these peddlers. Many women worked as peddlers as well, mainly selling sundry goods, however they also labored as seamstresses, mill workers, factory workers, and entrepreneurs in their own right. Marie el-Khoury, a prominent jewelry designer, was one of the most successful Syrian-born business owners in the city. Originally trained as a jeweler under her father, she moved the business from its original location on the boardwalk in Atlantic City, New Jersey to Manhattan after his death.
The Christians in the neighborhood mainly lived on Washington Street, to the south of the site of the World Trade Center, where they established three churches, including St. Nicolas Syrian Orthodox congregation and St. George Chapel of the Melkite Rite, which as of 2010 survives as Moran’s Ale House and Grill, and which was designated a New York City Landmark in 2009.Learn more about Little Syria.