This lesson examines the Arab immigrant communities that emerged in urban centers in the United States, such as New York, Boston, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, between 1870 and 1920. The settlers came from Greater Syria in the Ottoman Empire. Most were actually from the villages and towns that are located in modern-day Lebanon (see map in Lesson 2). Their neighborhoods came to be known as “Little Syrias”. The first and largest such enclave was at the tip of Manhattan, just a short boat ride from Ellis Island where the immigrants landed in the late 19th century. Little Syria stood just a short walk from the Twin Towers skyscrapers that were destroyed on September 11, 2001.

Like the Jewish, Italian, and Chinese neighborhoods nearby, Little Syria was a place where immigrants found people who spoke their language, ate their foods, and cherished their traditions. Like other immigrant quarters, there was one street that served as the heart of the community. Chinese immigrants congregated on Mott Street; for Jewish immigrants Hester Street was central; Mulberry Street was the heart of Little Italy; and Washington Street was the hub of Little Syria. These neighborhoods included both residential quarters in tenements (small walk-up apartments) and stores and businesses run by the immigrants. The majority of the Syrian immigrants were Christians who worshipped in the Eastern-rite churches, but there were also smaller numbers of Muslim and Druze immigrants from Syria and Lebanon who arrived at the turn of the 20th century.

A short time after landing in the United States, a significant number of the Arabic-speaking immigrants conversant in English hit the road and became peddler merchants. Businesses and vendors in Little Syria engaged in supplying the peddlers with the goods they sold. Many of the peddlers eventually settled in other areas of the country and formed additional new Syrian-Lebanese communities. These “cities within a city” were critical to adjusting to life in America. More than any other group, Lebanese and Syrian immigrants distinguished themselves in making a living as peddler merchants and entrepreneurs. As they spanned across the continent and improved their proficiency in English many Arabs intermarried, choosing spouses outside their community, and, over time, assimilated into American society. Still, there were those who stayed in their communities, started families with other Arabic-speaking immigrants, developed their businesses, and became established and successful. Students will be able to relate the Arab immigrant experience to groups discussed in their text and to groups they see in their own cities.

National Standards

History/Social Science

See Eras 6 and 7

California 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)


Identify the new sources of large-scale immigration and the contributions of immigrants to the building of cities and the economy; explain the ways in which new social and economic patterns encouraged assimilation of newcomers into the mainstream amidst growing cultural diversity; and discuss the new wave of nativism.

English Language Arts

8. 1.0

Students write clear, coherent, and focused essays. The writing exhibits students’ awareness of audience and purpose. Essays contain formal introductions, supporting evidence, and conclusions. Students progress through the stages of the writing process as needed.


• Students will be able to identify the institutions that were transplanted from the Middle East to New York City and other urban centers.
• Students will be able to describe the aspects of life in Arab immigrant communities that helped new arrivals adjust to life in America.
• Students will be able to describe the process of “Americanization” that helped Syrian immigrants feel more at home in the United States.
• Students will be able to list both the negative and positive reactions by other city dwellers to Arab immigrant communities.


1. Urban: Having to do with cities.
2. Tenement: Poorly built housing for immigrant families and workers.
3. Assimilate: To take on the characteristics of the majority culture.
4. Sweatshops: Places where people work in hazardous and crowded conditions.
5. Institutions: Organizations that serve the community.
6. Eastern-rite Christians: Christian congregations indigenous to the Middle East such as Maronite, Melkite, Antiochian and Syrian Orthodox Churches.
7. Fez: A type of common hat worn by Ottomans, including Arab men at the turn of the 20th century.
8. Quarter: An area of a city.
9. Salaam: An Arabic word that means “peace” and is used as a greeting.
10. Xenophobia: Fear of people who are different.


Activity #1

PDF  Handout #1

  • Ask students to read Handout #1: A Little Piece of Home: Life in Little Syria.
  • Have students make a list of the ways the immigrants tried to recreate their lives in Syria.
  • Ask students to write an essay comparing an ethnic community in their city to Little Syria.

Activity #2

PDF  Handout #2

  •  Ask students to read Handout #2: “New York’s Syrian Quarter,” The New York Times, August 20, 1899.
  •  Analysis: Ask the students to answer the following:
  •  What is the point of view of the author?
  •  In general, what is his attitude toward Little Syria?
  •  What does he think of the people who live there?
  •  What does the writer imply when he contrasts the future of the person who speaks no English compared to the person who speaks “pure English”?

Activity #3

PDF  Handout #3

  •  Have the students examine the street scene shown in Handout #3 : "The Foreign Elements in New York--The Syrian Colony, Washington Street" a drawing by W. Bengough in 1895.
  • Have the students describe the building and activities in this bustling main street of Little Syria. Can they identify the female peddler in the picture? (the one ascending the stoop of stairs and holding a kashi, or small suitcase)
  • Ask the students to list things in the painting that stand out. Compare this drawing with images from other immigrant neighborhoods and residential quarters in New York (or other big American city) of today.
  • Are there any non-immigrants in the painting? (discuss ambiguity and hybridity). What makes them stand out? What makes the immigrants stand out?
  • Using the article in Handout #2 and the painting in Handout #3 ask the students to make a Venn Diagram comparing the two. What is similar and what is different?
  • Do the artist and the writer have the same attitudes toward the community? Explain.
  • • Have students write a description of the main street in their neighborhood. Their composition should underscore what makes their neighborhood both unique and common.
  • View details of the drawing, which hangs in the Museum of the City of New York, in the videocast entitled The Last House on Washington Street (see Resources/Videos/Retrospectives).

Activity #4

PDF  Handout #4

  • Ask students to read Handout #4: “Sights and Character of New York’s ‘Little Syria,’” The New York Times, March 29, 1903.
  •  Discuss with the class the following questions:
  •  Why did many Arab immigrant parents send their children to a religious school?
  •  How did the school help to assimilate the students?
  •  Why do you think girls were more Americanized (acculturated) than their elders?
  •  What problems might arise as a result of children being more Americanized than their parents? Give examples.
  •  Have students write an essay on the following question: Were Arab immigrants able to interact with non-Arabs and still preserve their culture? How?

Activity #5

PDF  Handout #5

  • Using the information in Handouts #1 to 4 have the students fill in the chart on Handout #5: Little Syria: Helping Arab Immigrant Adjust.
  • When the students have their charts completed, have them contribute to a larger chart on which the class can agree.
  • With student input, make a list of the factors that allow an immigrant group to become successful; for example, level of education, access to capital and networks, institution building, assimilation or multiculturalism, including language.
  • Have the students write a report on the following topic: Were the descendants of Arab immigrants from the turn of the 20th century successful? Explain.

Activity # 6

Handout #6

  • Using the titles and subtitles of the New York Times articles and dates in Handout #6 describe the issues that made the news. What kind of images of Little Syria and Arabs are presented? Who are the readers, and why are these news items of interest?
  • Choose one story and elaborate on the perspective of the writer. What is fact and what is opinion? What are the sources? How do journalists form and write their newspaper stories, then and now?



Ameri, Anan and Dawn Ramey. Arab American Encyclopedia. Detroit, MI: The Gale Group, 2000.

Friedlander, Jonathan. “The Last House on Washington Street," Arabs in America (video documentary). Los Angeles: UCLA, 1982.

Naff, Alixa. Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrant Experience. Carbondale: Southern University Press, 1985.

Naff, Alixa. The Arab Americans. Philadelphia, PA: Chelsea House Publishers, 1999.

Childe, Cromwell. “New York’s Syrian Quarter,” The New York Times. August 20, 1899.

Orfalea, Gregory. The Arab Americans: A History. North Hampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2006.

“Sights and Character of New York’s ‘Little Syria’: A Quarter of City Where Uniform Politeness Goes Hand in Hand with a Determination Not to Allow Total Conquest by the Spirit of Rush and Bustle,” The New York Times New York, March 29, 1893, p 32.






♦ 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