President Trump’s two executive orders on travel have signaled his administration’s wariness about resettling more Syrian refugees in the U.S. If the orders prevail in court, he will end a chapter of migration history that dates back more than a century, and which has reshaped several communities across the country, including Bay Ridge, Brooklyn.
Syrians have been coming to America for years. The first wave of Syrian migrants came in the late 1800s. They were Christians fleeing persecution from the Islamic rule of the Ottoman Empire in the region. Almost a half-million people emigrated to the U.S. from Syria by the early twentieth century.
The Syrians who arrived in New York in the late nineteenth century settled in the southwestern corner of Manhattan, along Washington Street, where they opened sweet shops and artisanal bakeries and gave the area the nickname Little Syria. “There were no Arabs here when they first came, so everyone lived in Little Syria,” said Ghassan Keriaky, a historian and Syrian resident of Bay Ridge. “The Christians had time to build their lives here, so they educated themselves and became doctors and lawyers, and they got rich.”
With the coming of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel in the 1940s, the residents of Little Syria were given notice to clear out of their Manhattan stronghold. Many moved to Bay Ridge, which they identified as a “good” neighborhood, quiet and far from the city’s urban core, according to Keriaky.
Something was lost in the move, though. “They didn’t have their unique identity like on Washington Street anymore,” said Keriaky. The little artisanal bakeries and sweet shops had closed down. The neighborhood that had gained local and international renown was razed to the ground. And, the reputation that Little Syria had earned soon disappeared.
In Bay Ridge, the Syrian Christians settled in southern neighborhoods, the wealthier part of the community. Most of the Christians moved there because they could afford a higher quality of life after years of established resettlement in the U.S.
Syrian Muslims didn’t start arriving in noticeable numbers until the 1960s. They, too, moved to Bay Ridge—but to its more affordable northern neighborhoods. “People of the same religion stick together when they come from Syria,” said Keriaky. “But the divide between north and south is economic. The Christians were rich, so they were able to live on the south side, closer to the water.”
A Muslim Syrian resident in northern Bay Ridge, Hasan Al Husri, said that the divide also indicates a split in education: the Syrian Christians tend to be better educated than the Muslims, a divide that is also seen within Syria itself.
Though “Little Syria” didn’t become a nickname for either of the Brooklyn communities, the Syrian Christians remain a distinct community in the southern part of Bay Ridge. But they are only one flavor of a rich ethnic mix. They intermingle with the Irish and Italian communities that dominated the neighborhood in earlier generations.
In the north, just near the Bay Ridge avenue subway stop, shops display signs in Arabic, and Arabic is heard in most conversations on the streets. Inside many shops, clerks and managers greet customers in Arabic. Their shelves are stocked with goods unique to Syria and Lebanon, like date syrup or albums of popular Arabic singers. “When I go shopping I don’t need to speak English a lot,” said Issam Khoury, a Syrian Christian who arrived in 2014.
Walk ten blocks south, though, and the Arabic signs and street conversations disappear. Around 80th street and further south, all the signs are in English. This is the Christian part of Bay Ridge, home to Irish and Italian cultures that are evident in signs for Vinny’s Meat Market and O’Sullivan’s Grill. It is also home to the Syrian Christians.
“The Christians are more spread out in the south,” said Keriaky. “They are more comfortable spreading among the other communities in the area like American, Greek, or Irish that are still there.
“When I first moved to New York in 1990, I wanted to live in Bay Ridge because that’s where I can find the Arabic tradition and have them around me,” said Keriaky.
The vicious and drawn out Syrian conflict has brought new refugees and asylum seekers into the area, but not through the typical refugee resettlement pathway. Most of the Syrians arriving here in recent years have joined their families already settled here and willing to sponsor visas for their relatives, according to Ahmad Jaber, another Syrian resident and the founder of the Arab American Association in northern Bay Ridge.
And most of the newcomers are Muslims. “Christians usually don’t come as refugees,” said Keriaky. In the Syrian civil war, “the Christians were displaced, but they went to relatives in Lebanon, Europe, or America. The issue of refugees is an Islamic Sunni issue. They are the people who suffer the most because of the Syrian war.”
Jaber estimates that 100 Syrian individuals have moved into Bay Ridge since the Syrian conflict began six years ago. The neighborhood had about a thousand Syrian residents in 2016, according to Census Bureau data. Though relatively few Syrians refugees are resettled in the city, more Syrian families are resettling in Albany, Buffalo, and other cities upstate. One reason for moving refugees to smaller, less intense cities is the slower pace of life, said Flora Mejzinolli, a team leader at Amnesty International. After the trauma of war and the culture shock of a new homeland, many refugees find it difficult to cope.
“New York is already very dynamic and it’s very demanding, so the probability of somebody adapting so quickly to this lifestyle is not likely unless you have family here,” said Mejzinolli. “Agencies usually would resettle them in New Jersey or Texas or a state that is less intense.”
President Trump’s two executive orders on travel and refugees have targeted Syrians for at least a temporary ban on entering the U.S. Though the orders have been blocked so far by courts, they have unsettled Syrians in Bay Ridge.
The Arab American Association in North Bay Ridge offers English-language courses, immigration counseling, and community events for new arrivals in the Arab community. The Association is also pushing back against efforts like Trump’s executive travel orders, through representatives in the media like Linda Sarour, a Muslim activist, as well as marching in protests, like the Women’s March on Washington, to show solidarity.
Syria has greatly reduced its Christian population since the migration in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to approximately 10 percent. Most of modern Syria is Sunni Muslim and fleeing political persecution, war, and famine—just as most of Syria’s Christians in the 19th century fled religious persecution under the Ottomans.