America in the age of immigration, industrialization, and urbanization offers work and opportunities to a massive number of displaced people from Eastern and Southern Europe and the Middle East. Many Lebanese Syrian immigrants head to the textile mills of New England and the Northeast—from Lowell, MA, to Patterson, NJ; the automobile assembly lines in Detroit and southern Michigan; the hat factories in Danbury, CT; and other manufacturing jobs in Rhode Island, upstate New York, and even the Southern United States.

Others choose to be self-employed as peddler merchants in the Northeast and Midwest, reaching as far west as Denver and San Francisco. Consumer society was well suited for the Arab immigrants. Americans became cognizant of the immigrants from the Arab lands through personal contact and dealings, in business, education, and religion. Moreover, at the beginning of the 20th century, popular fiction and cinema, which was a new invention, featured Arab characters and stories that had a long lasting and not necessarily  positive impact. These stereotypes of Arabs persist even today.

In the formative fifty-year period between 1870 and 1920, the priority of first-generation Arab immigrants is on livelihood and settlement, raising their families, and finding their identity in the United States. While they prospered, they also sent money to their kin in Syria and Lebanon—remittances geared for investment in land, property, and businesses. Many brought members of their immediate households through the provision for family reunification after 1965. Like other immigrants who could not adjust to life in the U.S. or the separation from their ancestral homes, many returned to their villages in Mount Lebanon and Syria.

Still others, both Arab and especially Armenian refugees, could not return to the lands where they suffered hardships and persecution. While both groups come from the Ottoman Empire, Armenians suffered massacres, deportations, genocide, and expulsion from their ancestral lands in present-day Turkey. After WWI, the number of immgrants from the Middle East continued to grow in response to economic, political, and social upheaval. Then, immigration is curtailed with the 1924 Exclusion Act setting quotas for Middle Easterners, which were not lifted until 1965.

This unit examines how immigrants from the Middle East contributed to the economic growth of the United States. Part of the great wave of immigration at the turn of the 20th century, Middle Eastern immigrants joined Jews, Italians, Poles, Greeks and other Eastern European groups that made American factories in the East and Midwest the greatest producers in the world. Dealing with low wages and long working hours, these immigrants saved their money and were always looking for new opportunities. Their entrepreneurial bent paved the way for success.


  • Students will be able to identify the "push" and "pull" factors that brought Middle Eastern immigrants to the United States.
  • Students will be able to locate the nations of the Middle East from which immigrants came.
  • Students will be able to compare Arabs to other immigrant groups.

National Standards

Understands massive immigration after 1870 and how new social patterns, conflicts, and ideas of national unity developed amid growing cultural diversity

California State Standards

History/Social Science
Examine the location and effects of urbanization, renewed immigration, and industrialization (e.g., the effects on social fabric of cities, wealth and economic opportunity, the conservation movement).

Language Arts
1.1 Create compositions that establish a controlling impression, have a coherent thesis, and end with a clear and well-supported conclusion
2.4 Deliver persuasive presentations:


  1. Immigrate: To move to another country. (Repeat, l. 2!)
  2. Emigrate: Leave the country you live in. (Repeat, l. 2!)
  3. Migrate: To move from one part of a country to another.
  4. Refugees: People who flee from persecution or war.
  5. Ethnic group: A group of people with a shared history and culture.
  6. Peddler: A person who sells goods on the street or from door-to-door.
  7. Entrepreneur: A person who owns his/her own business.
  8. Assimilation: Taking on the characteristics of the mainstream culture.
  9. Arab: A person who speaks the Arabic language and identifies with Arab culture.
  10. Persian: A person from Iran.
  11. Conscription: Being drafted into the army.
  12. Steerage: The lower part of the ship where the poorest immigrants traveled.


I. Arab Immigration in the Age of Industrialization and Urbanism
A. The area of Greater Syria from which the immigrants came includes modern-day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, and the Palestinian Authority.
Have the students locate and label these places on an outline map of the world.
B. Ask the students to read Handout # 1-Arab Immigration in the Age of Industrialization.
C. Using their text book and/or the Internet, have the students complete the chart in Handout # 2.
D. In a “Warm-Up” activity have the students list the reasons Arab immigrants came to the United States.

II. Using Primary Source Materials: A Far Journey

  • Have the students read Handout #3 –A Far Journey.
  • Using the information in the text book about the immigrant experience and Rihbany’s descriptions of America, ask the students to write a letter from a Middle Eastern immigrant in 1900 describing his or her first day in the new country. Students should include the things that were new and amazing.
  • Discuss with the class how Abraham Rihbany was able to adjust to the new land.
  • In the last excerpt of A Far Journey, Rihbany says that he is helping to “solve America’s problems and realize her wondrous possibilities.
    Have the students create a T chart graphic organizer. On the left side, they should list the things America needed to become an industrial giant. On the right side, they should list the contributions immigrants like Rihbany made to allow the industrial revolution to happen.

III. Using Primary Source Material: Arabs in America

  • Have the students read Handout #4 Arabs in America: One Arab’s Immigration.
  • As a Warm Up activity ask the students to answer the following question: Why did Mohamed Asa Abu-Howah change his name?
  • Discuss with the class why immigrants changed their names. Ask them if they know anyone who came to the United States and changed his or her name. Discuss whether or not immigrants should change their names.
  • Have students pretend they are peddlers of silk or jewelry. Ask them to write a one-paragraph sales “pitch” for the goods they are selling. What persuasive arguments could they use to convince potential customers to buy their goods? Have various students stand and give the class their sales talk.

IV.   Comparing Immigrant Experiences

These lessons employ the two narratives the students have already read. The first is the well-known account of coming and settlng in the United States by the would-be author Abraham (Ibrahim Mitrie) Rihbany (1869-1944). A Far Journey, published in 1913, is a testimony to his early days and travels in America. The second is a 1975 ARAMCO World article that highlights the life and times of A. Joseph Howar (born Mohammed Asa Abu-Howah) who was instrumental in the building of the Islamic Center in Washington D.C.

These two narratives, when compared and contrasted, shed light on the early immigration of Arabs to the United States. Both adopted “Abraham” as their Americanized names, both are young when they came. One was a Christian from Syria, the other a Muslim from Palestine (Holy Land), both regions were under Ottoman rule. One came from an impoverished environment in Lebanon and the other to escape conscription. Rihbani came straight to New York via Ellis Island and Little Syria and eventually settled in New York. Howar’s journey is more complicated, albeit not that uncommon. Both had their hands in different professions (including peddling) before settling down as writers and builders; both constructed personal legacies and enriched this county; both contributed to Chrisitan and Muslim religious life and institutions in the United States; Rihbani a pastor and author and Howar a builder of mosques.

A. Using the two narratives, discuss with the students the following questions:
1. How would you describe Arab immigrants as seen in the two readings?
Possible  answers:

  • Risk takers, adventurous, often religious, sometimes well educated, able to adapt to many situations.

2.  What kind of work was available to Arabs and other immigrants at the time?
Possible answers:

  • Working in shops, peddling, factory work.

  B. Comparing the Rihbany and Howar stories, have the students discuss this question:

  • What did the men have in common with each other and other Middle Eastern immigrants?

Possible answers:

  • They came to America at around the same time.
  • They both left their countries to get away from something; Rhibany, poverty and lack of opportunities, and Howar, conscription in the Turkish army.
  • They both had deep religious beliefs. Rihbani ended up as a Protestant minister and Howar eventually built an Islamic Center. They both took the name Abraham.
  • What differences between the men reflect differences within the Middle Eastern immigrant community?

Possible answers:

  • Rhibany was Christian and Howar was Muslim.
  • Rhibany went from the Middle East to a European port and then to America.
  • Howar stopped in more places-Jerusalem, Port Said, Egypt, India, and New York City.
  • Rhibany was more educated and able to get jobs that required a education.
  • Howar had little education and at first worked as a peddler.

V. Culminating Activities

A. Using the information in all the handouts, books or on the Internet, have the students complete the following assignment.

Create a pamphlet called “How to Succeed in America.”
This pamphlet will give advice to new Middle Eastern immigrants arriving in 1900. It should include:

  • How to learn English and the customs of America.
  • How to start your own business.
  • Things to watch out for.
  • Where to turn for help.
  • How to become a successful business person.

B. Have students write a persuasive essay on the following topic:
 The United States would not be the nation it is today if it had not taken in the immigrants who came at the turn of the 20th century.
Use the case of Middle Eastern Americans to make your points.

Handout #1: Arab Immigration in the Age of Industrialization

Arab immigrants began arriving in the United States in the 1870s. The first group mainly came from the regions of the Ottoman Empire that would become Syria and Lebanon. Most were Christians.  As with other immigrants at the time, the Middle Easterners were influenced by “push” and “pull” factors. Economics was a major “push” and “pull” factor in immigration from the Ottoman Empire to the United States. The opening of the Suez Canal led to the greater importation of silk from Asia. The Lebanese and Syrian silk producers could not compete with the new imports that were going from Japan and China to France. American missionaries had introduced the printed press to the region in the early 1800s, opened schools, universities, and hospitals, and spoken about the opportunities in the U.S.

Many Syrians and Lebanese looked to America, Amrika (in Arabic), for improving their economic prospects. One of the “pull” factors that encouraged immigrants to come to United States was the growing need for workers. Textile mills, garment sweatshops, steel mills, and other industries were seeking unskilled laborers who would be willing to work for low wages. Stories of religious freedom and economic opportunities also came from prior immigrants. This increased the desire to relocate. Some 212,825 immigrants from lands ruled by the Ottoman Empire came to America between 1892 and 1931.

As with other immigrants of the time, Arab immigrants’ first view of their new country was the Statue of Liberty. Landing at Elllis Island, the newcomers faced the ordeal of being allowed to enter the United States. Failure to pass physical examinations might lead to a trip back to the Middle East. Immigration officials unable to pronounce or spell Arabic names might randomly assign them English names. The new immigrants settled in their own ethnic community in Manhattan just across the water from Ellis Island. This area came to be known as Little Syria.

Many of the Arab immigrants became peddlers, selling their silk or jewelry, throughout the city. Later these “entrepreneurs” took their packs on the road and sold their goods in other parts of the United States such as South Dakota and Michigan. Others went to work for textile mills in places like Lowell, MA, and Patterson NJ. They formed Middle Eastern American communities in big cities. In the 1920s, immigrants were attracted to jobs in the automobile industry. An Arab American community developed in Detroit. Today, the largest concentrations of people of Arab descent in the United States live in Dearborn, MI. Most quickly assimilated and intermarried with non-Middle Eastern Christians. However, many of these ethnic communities still exist.

After World War I, there was a growing fear of immigrants. The targets of this fear were the immigrants who came from Eastern Europe and the Middle East. In 1924, the U.S. Congress passed the National Origins Act. This law set quotas that greatly restricted the number of immigrants from the Middle East who were allowed entry to the United States. This law was not changed until 1965.

When reading the famous Emma Lazarus poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty, one must remember that among the “huddled masses yearning to breath free,” there were Arab and other immigrants from the Middle East who also played an important role in the growth of this nation.

Handout #2: A Far Journey

The following excerpts are from a book called The Far Journey written by Abraham Mitrie Rihbany. He emigrated from Ottoman Syria in 1891. His village faced great hardships when farms were attacked by locusts. He was also afraid he might be forced to be a stone mason the rest of his life.After hearing stories about opportunities in America he decides to immigrate. He went from Syria to a European port and then took a ship to America. His book describes his experiences as an immigrant, and how he became a clergyman. His writings on religion and politics were widely published. Reading these excerpts, one learns a great deal about Arab American immigrant life at the turn of the 20th century.

It was no easy task for me on the morning of that 7th of October, 1891, to believe my senses when I first experienced that well-nigh over-whelming feeling that I was really in the great city of New York. As our little party proceeded on across Battery Park up toward Washington Street, I felt the need of new faculties to fit my new environment. A host of questions besieged my mind. Was I really in New York? Was I still my old self, or had some subtle, unconscious transformation already taken place in me? Could I utter my political and religious convictions freely, unafraid of either soldier or priest? What were the opportunities of the great New World into which I had just entered? What was awaiting me in America whose life, as I had been told, was so vast, so complex, and so enlightened? Whatever the future had "of wonder or surprise," it seemed that merely being in the United States was enough of a blessing to call forth my profoundest gratitude. Nor did I have to wait very long for tangible evidence to convince me that America was the land of liberty and opportunity. On that very evening my eyes beheld a scene so strange and so delightful that I could hardly believe it was real. Sitting in the restaurant early in the evening we heard, approaching from the direction of "uptown," band-music and the heavy tread of a marching multitude which filled the street from curb to curb. Someone, looking out of the window, shouted, "It is the laborers! They are on their way to Battery Park to hold a meeting and demand their rights." That was all that was needed for me to dash out with a few others and follow the procession to the near-by park. I had heard in a very fragmentary way of the "united laborers" in Europe and America, but, while in Syria, and as a Turkish subject, it was almost beyond me to conceive of workingmen in collective moral and political action.

My very recent friend, Moses, did not forget his promise to be on the lookout for a position for me in some Syrian store, for on my tenth day in New York he sought and found me in Battery Park, and, with a generous smile, told me of a merchant who needed a katiby — book-keeper — and Moses thought I was the man for the place. Realizing that I had never had any experience in bookkeeping, he instructed me not to be over conscientious in confessing my ignorance, for he was certain that I could do all the bookkeeping that the merchant needed. The customers of the store were peddlers of "jewelry and notions," who did business on very simple lines, and almost all the transactions were carried on in the Arabic language. If at long intervals some orders came to us in El-Angleezy (English) Moses promised to come and help me fill them in the proper manner.

Recalling the time when as a school-teacher in Syria my salary was three dollars a month and my board, twenty dollars seemed to me a species of "frenzied financiering." I had always known the position of katib to be most conducive to dignity and elegance, and an excellent opportunity for advancement in the commercial world; therefore I had every reason to imagine that my new position at 5 Carlisle Street was the gateway to riches and honor.

Notwithstanding my humble position as katiby I was not long in New York before I began to dream dreams and see visions. How to acquire the priceless privilege of being an American citizen was the first and foremost question in my mind. I was told that I did not need to be in such a hurry about this matter, but I thought differently, and on November 18, 1891, not quite six weeks after I landed at Ellis Island, I appeared in the Court of Common Pleas of the County of New York, accompanied by an interpreter, and asked to be "admitted into American citizenship." My heart never thrilled with holier emotion than when I assented to the oath of allegiance, "that it is bona fide my intention to become a citizen of the United States and to renounce forever all allegiance and fidelity to any foreign Prince, Potentate, State or Sovereignty, and particularly to the Sultan of Turkey of whom I am a subject." I felt such an inward sense of relief and exaltation that my countryman, the interpreter, appeared to me to be an alien. It seemed to me at the moment, although of course not so clearly as it does now, that by that act I had forever broken the shackles which had bound me and my forefathers for ages to the chariots of tyrants, and had become a citizen of a country whose chief function was to make free, enlightened, useful men.

To listen to those peddlers talk with gushing enthusiasm and satisfaction about how much money they had made on their trips, was really painful to me. Being in business for the sole purpose of making money appealed to me very faintly, even in my poverty. The ideal side of life gripped mightily at the strings of my heart. There was no idealism in the selling of hairbrushes, pipes, cuff-buttons, and the like, therefore I did not deem it the proper occupation for me.

While in such a frame of mind I was most naturally eager to accept another position which was offered to me early in the spring, and which seemed to me to combine both the commercial and the ideal aspects of life. About that time Mr. Arbeely, the president of our Scientific and Ethical Society (A group made of Syrian immigrant intellects), began the publication of "Kowkab America" (the "Star of America"), the first Arabic newspaper ever published in the Western hemisphere, and offered me the position of Literary editor.

The sum total of my year-and-a-half experience in New York convinced me that it was most difficult, if not impossible, for a foreigner to become really Americanized while living in a colony of his own kinsmen. Just as the birth of a new species can never take place without a radical break with the parent stock, so the thorough transformation of a foreigner into an American can never be accomplished with-out the complete departure, inwardly and outwardly, of that individual from his kindred.

The Syrian colony in New York rendered me all the service it could by providing me with a home for about eighteen months among those whose language was my language and whose habits were my habits. Its Oriental atmosphere with its slight Occidental tinge protected me from the dangers of an abrupt transition. Had I been thrust into American society upon my arrival in this country, penniless and without serviceable knowledge of the English language, the change in environment might have proved too violent for me to endure with any comfort. To me the colony was a habitat so much like the one I had left behind me in Syria that its home atmosphere enabled me to maintain a firm hold on life in the face of the many difficulties which confronted me in those days, and just different enough to awaken my curiosity to know more about the surrounding American influences.

Rihbany was contacted by a friend, who graduated from the Syrian Protestant College in Beirut, Lebanon [presently American University of Beirut], regarding an opportunity to become a missionary to the Syrian community in Pittsburgh. He had converted to the Presbyterian Church before leaving Syria. Silk merchants in New York gave him goods he could sell along the way. After some time he began to give lectures on religious topics all of the Midwest. He learned a great deal about Americans and about American history. He eventually attended college and was ordained a Presbyterian minister. His travels brought him into direct contact with small town America.  Toward the end of the book from which the next excerpts come, he sums up his experience in America.

Now, do you wish to know what riches I have gathered in the New World? I will tell you. These are my riches, which neither moth nor rust can corrupt. I have traveled from the primitive social life of a Syrian village to a great city which embodies the noblest traditions of the most enlightened country in the world. Though one of the least of her loyal citizens, I am rich in the sense that I am helping in my small way to solve America's great problems and to realize her wondrous possibilities.

Handout #3: Arabs in America

One Arab’s Immigration
Written by Philip Harsham
Photographed by Robert Azzi

Today A. Joseph Howar is 89 years old, or perhaps it's 90; he isn't sure. A retired contractor and builder, he is a wealthy man. He can boast that he built the first high-rise apartment house in Virginia—and many, many more in Washington, D.C., after that. He has provided a mosque, a school, and a cemetery for his native town on the Mount of Olives, just outside Jerusalem. But Joseph Howar takes greatest pride in the part he played in building Washington's striking Islamic Center, the focal point in North America of Islamic instruction and worship since its completion in 1949. It was Howar, a devout Muslim, who initially pushed for the Center and who took the lead in providing financing for it. It was he too who guided its construction. Now he can say: "I love this place. It is mother and father to me."
Howar's immigration to America is typical of the moves made by thousands of Arabs around the turn of the century. Here in greatly telescoped narrative is his own account of it:

It was around 1900 that I first started thinking of leaving the Mount of Olives. I was perhaps 15—certainly not older. Palestine was under the Ottoman Empire then, you know, and the Turks were taking all the young men into the army at about age 17; I was too young for conscription, thank God. And I was very small for my age—I've always had a slight build. Looking back, it probably was the Turkish army and my size that prompted me to leave home. I wanted to avoid conscription. And I was tired of being told that I was too small "to be worth the skin of an onion" as a worker in the fields. Very quietly I made my plans. And when I had saved the equivalent of two British pounds, I took a carriage to Jaffa and stowed away on a ship.

That ship went only to Port Said. I had no money left, so I found work as a servant in a wealthy family's home. A few weeks later I boarded another ship, thinking I would work my way to England or America. But that ship went the other way—I ended up in Bombay. Through the mosque there, though, I again found work as a servant. But that Indian family liked me too much; they wanted me to stay until I was old enough to marry their daughter. The ship on which I'd arrived returned to Bombay after about six months. This time it was headed for England, and this time the captain welcomed me aboard. I worked for my passage to Southampton, found work as a servant there and stayed on long enough to earn money for steerage passage to New York. I reached New York in 1903 with $65. I was a rich man!

My true name is Mohammed Asa Abu-Howah. But people I met on the boat told me I'd better change my name. They said it labeled me as a Muslim, and no immigration officer would allow a Muslim to enter the United States. I had two cousins who'd become American citizens. One had taken the name of Abraham and the other Joseph. So I took both those names, and since the British had pronounced Howah as if it were Howar, I made my American name A. Joseph Howar. That's how I was naturalized in 1908.

When I reached New York, one of the immigration officers asked me where I was going. I didn't know. So I asked him, "Where does your king live?" He laughed at me. "We don't have a king in America," he said; "we have a President, and Washington, D.C." "Then I'll go to Washington, D.C," I told him; "if it's good enough for the President, it's good enough for me."

I had to find work in Washington, of course. I saw a man peddling bananas from a pushcart and asked him to start me as a pushcart peddler. But he said I was too small to push the cart. I then found work in a hotel kitchen, cleaning silver and doing all kinds of jobs. One night, though, I walked outside the hotel and heard two men speaking Arabic. They told me they were back peddlers and agreed to let me join them on their trips into Virginia and Delaware. I began selling women's clothing, door-to-door. After a few months of peddling, though, I'd learned what the goods should cost and where I could get my own. I decided to go it alone. When summer came, I took my goods up to the New Jersey shore. The pretty ladies would be sitting on porches and I'd joke with them—tell them funny stories—and they'd buy from me. I was 17 or so, and very small and peppy and smiling, and they liked me. So I soon had many friends and many customers. I made enough money to open a store in Washington with another man. We sold only women's clothing, and soon we were earning $30,000 to $40,000 a year—and that was in the early 1900s.

About that time, an architect talked me into becoming his partner to build an apartment house. I had $27,000 to put into it. All he had were the plans he'd drawn, but he would supervise the building. We built two buildings, and made about $ 50,000 on them. But the architect took so long to build them that I told him I'd do any further building on my own. "How are you going to do that?" he asked. "You can't even read and write." I answered that I could sign my name, and my signature along with my reputation for honesty and hard work would get me just about everything else I needed. It did, too.

I began completing in three or four months the type of buildings that took others nine months. I'd build them quickly and sell them quickly. My secret was simple: the others used a foreman of laborers, a foreman of carpenters, a foreman of steelworkers, and so on; they were always at odds. I used one foreman—a contractor. And we both worked very hard. I made a $69,000 profit on the first big apartment house we built. When my banker saw that I could do that, he said, "Build all you want; my bank will provide the credit you need." I knew then that I was in the building business for good.

This article appeared on pages 14-15 of the March/April 1975 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.
Arabs in America, entire edition of the March/April 1975 print edition of Aramco World,
Islam in Iowa, pages 30-36 November/December 1976 print edition of Aramco World
The Arab Immigrants, entire edition of the September/October 1986 print edition of Aramco World.
Resources: National Arab American Museum, Detroit; Naff Collection: Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC; Immigration History Research Center/U of Minnesota






♦ Retrospectives

♦ Celebrating Ethnicity

The Last Harvest
The Last Harvest: The Yemenis of the San Joaquin

Voices from the Heartland
Voices From The heartland: Young Yemeni Americans Speak

Middle Eastern American Youth