Wisconsin History: Building a Community Among Early Arab Immigrants in Milwaukee

from an article in Wisconsin Magazine of History(summer 2013)

Like other immigrant groups that came to Wisconsin, most of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century Arab immigrants came to the United States for economic betterment, as well as political and religious freedom. Tom the start, most immigrants intended to work for a few years and then return to their villages and towns after accumulating some wealth, although that original goal evolved over time as many early immigrants found success in their new country. Most of the community originally settled in a tightly-knit community located in the Third Ward area. Over time, the settlement pattern of the Arab community changed as subsequent generations were Americanized.

The immigrants came from Greater Syria before World War I, which included today's Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, and Israel. After the war, the Arab community began to distinguish itself as Syrian Lebanese, and Milwaukee became the site of the largest Arab community in the state.' These immigrants established a thriving and energetic community that contributed to the social, economic, and religious diversity of Milwaukee society. 

Syrians belong to the Semitic ethnolinguistic group of peoples. Over the ages there has been assimilation with many other peoples through conquest, migration, and intermarriage. Today, the Arabs are the largest branch of Semitic people. They share language, customs, values, history, and geographical area, though they practice a variety of religions. While the vast majority of Greater Syria's population is Arab, several other minorities also live in the region, including Armenians, Circassians, Kurds, and Turks.

The story and the experience of one Syrian immigrant to Milwaukee, Najeeb Arrieh, exemplifies the hopes and determination many Arab immigrants carried with them to their new home in America. Arrieh was a twelve-year-old boy in 1906 when he immigrated from Ain al-Bardeh, a Syrian village in the Bekka valley located 55 miles west of Homs, Syria.  Arrieh chose to settle in Milwaukee to join his uncle from the Herro family. 

St. George Melkite Greek Catholic Church in Milwaukee today 
Pioneering Syrian immigrants like Arrieh were followed by their relatives and friends, either from similar villages and towns such as Zahleh and Baalbek in present-day Lebanon and surrounding areas, or from other parts of Greater SyriaJ including Jerusalem and Ramallah in the Palestine region. The World's Fairs in the United States introduced many Syrians to the land of the free, including the 1893 Chicago fair and the 1906 Saint Louis fair. In the late 1880s, American World's Fair agents traveled to Middle Eastern cities and villages, introducing the fair and encouraging many villagers to participate as performers, including folk dancers and horsemen. Those who decided to stay in the area wrote letters back to family and friends, telling them of the many opportunities in the United States. As Alixa Naff, author of Becoming (Opposite) Modern interior photo of Saint George Melkite Church, 2013 (Above) Najeeb Arrieh and his wife Helen Herro. Najeeb immigrated from Syria at age twelve and worked at his uncle's fruit stand initially. Like many Syrian immigrants, he Americanized his name and became James Arrieh. He ultimately became a successful business owner and moved to the suburbs. American: Fhe Early Arab Immigrant Experience, explains, "Peddlers then trekked northward and established a settlement in Milwaukee. From there, smaller settlements began to dot eastern Wisconsin, places like Oconomowoc, Watertown, Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, and Green Bay." 

The majority of early immigrants came without money or knowledge of the English language. They were usually peddlers by profession, which did not require much capital. Peddling and communicating with nonimmigrant Americans helped Syrian immigrants learn English and adapt to American society. 

In general, most of the peddlers in the Milwaukee area were Syrian Christians from the Melkite sect of Catholicism, which belongs to the Byzantine Eastern rite. They have been affiliated with Rome since 1724 and are known as Roman Catholics of Byzantine-Melkite rite or Greek Catholics.  The Maronites were another major Eastern Christian group that lived in Syria, but after the Arab-Islam spread in the area, they migrated to Mount Lebanon. They also stayed in communion with the Roman Catholic Church.  Another Eastern Christian group is the Copts of Egypt. The Copts are mainly Orthodox and Catholic and live in the cities and villages of Egypt. Many of them view themselves as true Egyptians of Pharaonic ethnic descent. Milwaukee began receiving a noticeable number of Egyptian Copts after World War II. 

There is also a small segment of Arab American Christians who are Protestants—mainly converts from the three major religious sects, the Maronite, Greek Orthodox, and Greek Catholic. Most came from Palestine, where English and American missionaries converted them, however, their number is relatively small.   During the nineteenth century, in all parts of Syria, the Christian Orthodox outnumbered other Christian sects, except in Mount Lebanon, where the Maronites are the majority and the Melkite sect is considered to be the smallest. Because Christians in the Arab world had minority status and suffered persecution along with Arab Muslims under Turkish rule, some decided to immigrate.

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