Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, has an Arabic flavor, perhaps more than any other part of New York City. Streets there are lined with shops displaying abayas or advertising shawarma as people pass by, chatting away on their cell phones in fluent Arabic. This part of the city also has one of the largest Syrian concentrations.
So, it may come as no surprise that residents are concerned about President Trump’s executive order on January 27 barring immigration from seven Muslim majority countries. Iran, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Libya, and Yemen are on the list of countries banned from travelling to the U.S. for 90 days. Those countries include large refugee counts too, and all refugees are banned for 120 days.
The order is popularly known as the Muslim Ban, since all seven countries are majority Muslim. But Ghassan Keriaky, a resident of Bay Ridge and a historian on Syrians in New York, points out that the ban affects the entire Arab community in Bay Ridge, which he points out includes Christians and Jews too. In any event, many Bay Ridge residents are worried about their futures, and about their ability to sponsor family members still trying to escape Syria.
One of them is Issam Khoury, an asylum seeker living in Bay Ridge, who says he doesn’t feel safe, let alone welcome, anymore, despite being in the U.S. for two years. “Trump banned me and the rest of the Syrians,” said Khoury. “So, my story continues. Now I think, what is my next step? Maybe in your country you should dream, but over here you should only think about the next step.”
Like Khoury, about a 100 to 150 displaced Syrians have moved into Bay Ridge within the last few years, since the Syrian war began, mainly through family sponsorship, according to Dr. Ahmad Jaber, founder of the Arab American Association of New York. The Association is a non-profit set up to help empower the Arab immigrant and Arab American community through services like ESL training and immigration consultations.
Bay Ridge has many Arabs among its 125,000 people, but the strongest presence comes from the Lebanese community. The neighborhood also caters to Syrians, Palestinians, and Jordanians. The Syrians who have been arriving in Bay Ridge are coming from many of those neighboring Arab countries, too.
Trump’s executive order came at a time where Syrian migrants have greatly added to the world count of displaced people with numbers reaching tallies unseen since World War II. Syrians are arriving as refugees and asylum seekers, but many are also sponsored by family and come as immigrants. They have fled conditions of political persecution, war, and famine. And, according to a United Nations Refugee Agency news report, the most vulnerable populations among them will be affected by Trump’s order. The UN estimates that 20,000 refugees could be resettled in the U.S. within the 120 days in which the ban is active.
With 552 Syrian refugees resettled in New York in 2016, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement, the state was among the largest for Syrian resettlement. And Bay Ridge is the largest resettlement neighborhood in the city for Syrians. Across the nation, says Dr. Jaber, Bay Ridge is one of the largest Arab enclaves. “We are the second largest after Dearborn, Michigan. You could walk in the streets here and you don’t feel like you’re in the U.S. You can feel like you are somewhere in the Middle East. All the signs are in Arabic, all the restaurants are Arabic, the people are walking in the street in the hijab and long dress typical of Middle East. And, they speak the language, so immigrants don’t feel like they are in the typical American culture.”
Migrants and refugees tend to resettle where they have a known connection, whether it is family, friends, or a community. And Bay Ridge has a history of migration from the Levant, where Syrians are from, which makes it ideal for Syrian resettlement.
The first big Arab migration to New York took place in the 19th century, when the U.S. opened up to immigration from all over the world. The migrants who came from the Levant settled on Washington Street, the westernmost street on the lower west side of Manhattan today, and up until the 1940s it was known as Little Syria. Little Syria was broken up by the construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel and the original World Trade Center, which forced many of the Arabs who had settled and opened businesses there to move, according Keriaky. The Arab immigrant population started transitioning to Brooklyn: Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn Heights, and Bay Ridge, taking all their spice shops and oriental bakeries with them. This is included in Keriaky’s self-published article, ‘Little Syria,’ translated to English.
The move rooted the Arab community in Bay Ridge, where they’ve centralized. And, with recent immigration, a lot of Arabs—Syrians included—come to Bay Ridge, because it is known loosely as the Arab Central of New York. Many hear about the area from family and friends who’ve settled there.
Khoury said he, too, heard about Bay Ridge from family members. He’s been there two years, while his sister has been there for fifteen. “I think the life and culture in Manhattan is better for me,” Khoury said. “But, for my wife it would be better in Bay Ridge because it has the Syrian community. It would give anyone a good feeling because you are near your community.”
In Bay Ridge, though, many are fearful of Trump’s plans, and what may happen next, and they can only wait and hope for the best. “I’ve waited a long time, I can wait some more,” said Khoury. “But, I don’t know if I can wait all my life.”