history

The Immigrants to Milwaukee from the Arab World:

Most of the immigration from the Arab world between 1890s and late 1930s came from Greater Syria and, in particular, from Mount Lebanon. In Milwaukee, most of the first Arab immigrants came from a village called Ayn Bairdeh to participate in the Chicago Fair, where they enchanted Fair visitors with their demonstration of Arabian horsemanship and folk dances.[1] After the fair ended some decided to stay and chose to settle in different Midwestern cities including Milwaukee. Others returned to their villages taking with them astonishing stories about the New World. Until the beginning of 1900s, most of the Arab residents living in Milwaukee were from Ain Bairdeh and surrounding villages in Mount Lebanon. However, by the first decade of the twentieth century, other immigrants arrived from different parts of Palestine including Ramallah, Haifa, and Jerusalem. Chain migration characterized this first wave of immigrants as many relatives and friends followed the pioneering immigrants.

This pattern of immigration was typical of the first wave of immigration from the Arab World. Families like: Adas, Arrieh, Azar, Barrock (Mubarak), Bethia (Bteeha), Charles, Frenn, Herro, Kashou, Matar, Metry, Meyer (Nmeyr), Nabkey, Nicholas, Saffoury, and Trad consisted of brothers and sisters, direct uncles and aunts, and indirect relatives. The number of the Arab population increased gradually and reached 100 Syrians living in Milwaukee in the 1890's. By 1910 the number reached 500 in the Milwaukee area from the total of 790 living in Wisconsin. By 1920, the census listed 575 Syrians living in Wisconsin. We should take into consideration when looking at these numbers that many Arabs coming from Greater Syria ( today’s’ Lebanon, Palestinian authority territories, Israel, and Syria) were listed as Turks or Greeks. Other sources such as Paul Stemm, the first to write a sketched history of the Syrians and their St George Melkite Church, estimated that by 1915, there were 800 Syrians living in Milwaukee, 90 percent of them were Melkite and the rest were Greek Orthodox.[2]

Most of these immigrants were illiterate upon arrival, and were not planning on staying in America for long. They thought of themselves as sojourners who came to America to gather as much fortune as they could and then return home. But soon they realized that they were here to stay. Before long they learned to speak the language through their contact with non-Arabs while earning a living. They also recognized that learning the English language would open the door for them to share the American dream and to become true Americans.

Arab-Women and Marriage Patterns among the First Wave Immigrants:

Marshal Arrieh, a second generation Syrian American born and lived most of his live in Milwaukee, confirmed that women during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century came to America to be wives for the Arab immigrants and/or to take care of the house of their men including brothers and fathers. A considerable number of women came as single women. In Milwaukee, the pioneering Arab-Christian males brought their wives or sisters to take care of the household. Such was the case in the Arrieh family and the Charles family. Najeeb (James)Arrieh, around 1916, married a Lebanese girl, Helen Herro, who had immigrated in the early part of the twentieth century to join her brothers to help take care of the domestic chores.[3] Also, George Charles a second generation Arab-American Christian who was born in Wisconsin in 1910, married Mathilda Shibli, a Lebanese immigrant girl who came to Milwaukee to marry him.[4] Some Syrian immigrants married Arab women they met in Milwaukee after their arrival. For example, Nicholas Mubarack immigrated to Milwaukee in 1893 to join his relatives. He married a Syrian girl who came to Milwaukee in 1895. The number of women in the first wave of immigration started to increase from 32 percent in 1910 to 44 percent in 1940.[5]

First wave immigrants tended to marry from the same religious sect and villages. Many men returned to their homeland to procure a bride especially because there were not many Arab women in Milwaukee at first. Some male immigrants stayed single for decades before they decided to marry. They were still unsure of how to manage their life as married men. Many married and left their wives behind such as George Kashou, who immigrated to Milwaukee in 1906. He returned to his hometown Ramallah, Palestine to marry one of his relatives in the 1920s. He left her behind with their daughter after he stayed with her a few years. His daughter immigrated to Milwaukee as a married woman in 1950 after her father’s death. She came to manage his business.[6] Also, Abraham Baho who came to Milwaukee in 1920 returned in 1941 to Damascus to marry. He stayed there for a few years and then returned to Milwaukee by himself. His son George Baho joined him only in 1961, after finishing high school in Damascus at age 21.[7] Most of the Arab-women until World War Two were labeled as housewives, however, some Arab women by 1920s worked as clerk such as Dorothy Negib Herro.[8]

Early Occupations for Early Arab immigrants between late 1890s and 1930s:

Peddling was one of the first Arab immigrants’ occupations upon arrival. Most of those who peddled in the Milwaukee area were Syrian Christians from the Melkite sect. These peddlers traveled outside Milwaukee and reached different distances in eastern Wisconsin such as Oconomowoc, Watertown, Fond du Lac, Oshkosh, and Green Bay where some of them decided to settle for good.[9] When Syrian immigrants in Milwaukee started to work as peddlers, they worked for Greek and Italian merchants in their first years, and then after they learned the trade, they peddled for themselves. Robert Delk reported that "it was not at all uncommon to open the door to a Syrian street merchant with his oil cloth shoulder sack stuffed full of notions and yardgoods.” The Arab women helped from home preparing the goods their husbands sold in their peddling trips. Richard Frenn, who came to Milwaukee at the end of nineteenth century, and George Kashou peddled as soon as they arrived to America. Kashou peddled oriental rugs and by 1910 became a successful oriental rug merchant. Today his descendants continue their rug trade which can be considered as one of the oldest and distinguished oriental rug business in Milwaukee.[10] The Milwaukee City directory of 1920 shows that members of the Syrian community working either as small business owners ( ice cream, fruit, souvenir, confection, and meat and grocery stores) or as clerks.[11]

Muslim immigrants peddled just like their Arab Christian countrymen. The Arab-Muslim immigrant, Othman Atta, came from Al-Beireh town in Palestine after the fall of the Turkish Empire after WWI. He came to Milwaukee where he peddled with other Arabs. His son, Mohmoud Atta, indicated that his father used to peddle on long trips, with a group of peddlers composed of two or more. Usually long trips were from six to twelve months. Peddlers who travel for two to three months did not go very far from their settlements. Children and old men peddled at the same day in nearby areas. Peddlers carried with them different kinds of goods such as oriental rugs, linens, combs, thread, needles and holy items like rosaries, crosses, and icons. Wives of Muslim peddlers used to prepare the goods for their husbands at home.[12]

Once they realized that they were living here permanently and not as sojourners, they started to change their jobs from traveling traders to more sedentary ones like industrial laborers. For example, Esa Saffori was employed at Allis-Chalmers as a molder in 1927. He lived at 701 West Walker Street with his wife and seven children. Elias Faris, who arrived in 1913 from Lebanon when he was thirteen years old worked as a day laborer. By the 1950s, he was a grinder worker and mill operator for International Harvester for $ 1.85 an hour.[13] Also other Syrian immigrants worked in factories or firms including Frank Ayoob, Mike Malik, and some members of the Herro family. There was a small number among them who were skilled laborers. Abrem Baho worked as a carpenter in Milwaukee when he first immigrated in the beginning of the twentieth century.

Other immigrants worked as dry-goods or fruit and candy store owners. James Arrieh, one of the pioneer Syrian immigrants in Milwaukee, came in 1907 when he was twelve years old. He joined his uncle who was from the Herro family. Arrieh worked in his first years with his uncle at a fruit stand for $15 a month and then opened his own store. Members of Herro 's family including Ayoob, Mike, and Malik were among the pioneer Syrians who quit peddling and established dry goods and food stores in the Milwaukee downtown area. Many Syrians who took to peddling or shopkeeping became successful merchants and real states owners. Sam Audi, who peddled when he first came in the late nineteenth century, became a respected linen merchant by the 1910s. James Arrieh opened his own grocery store in the 1920s and later owned many real estates. Charles Bab opened a grocery store on Wells Street in 1934.[14]

Education was a very important value in the Arab community. Even during the depression years the immigrants struggled to keep their second generation in colleges and universities. Marshall Arrieh, his brother and his two sisters finished their college degrees in the depression years. Their father worked hard to keep them in college and saved for their college money. Marshall got a degree in law from Harvard, while his brother and sisters obtained teaching degrees.

The survey that was conducted in 1998 on the Arab-Christian community in Milwaukee shows that 76 percent of the second and third generation Arab Christians have professional jobs. This means that Syrian immigrants succeeded in asserting to their children the value of education.[15]

Written By:
Dr. Enaya Othman



[1] Paul Stamm, A History of St. George Melkite Greek Catholic Church, 1911-1986, (Milwaukee: George Melkite Catholic Church, December, 1986), 6.

[2]Ibid., 10, 17, 23.

[3] Milwaukee City Directory, 1921; Robert C. Delk, “Early Arabic-Speaking Immigrants in Milwaukee,” in Milwaukee History, the Magazine of the Milwaukee County Historical Society, (autumn, 1984), 94

[4] Mary Charles Interview, Tape One, Side One

[5] Khalak, “ the Background and the Causes of Lebanese/Syrian Immigration to the United States before World War I,” 22-23.

[6] Aziza Kashou Interview, tape 1, side 1.

[7] George Baho Interview, Tape 1, side one

[8] Milwaukee City directory, 1920

[9] Naff, Alexia. Becoming American: The Early Arab Immigrants Experience. (Illinois: Southern Illinois University Press, 1985), 141.

[10] Aziza Kashou Interview, tape 1, side 1

[11] Milwaukee City directory, 1920

[12] Atta Othman interview, tape one, side one.

[13] Delk, “Early Arabic Speaking Immigrants in Milwaukee,” Milwaukee History (1985) vol.7, no. 3, 96.

[14]Arrieh Interview, tape one, side two

[15] Enaya Othman, “Arab-American in Milwaukee: history and assimilation,” master thesis, University of Milwaukee Wisconsin, 1998.