Syrian immigrants included my grandparents; today those immigrants are accepted as Lebanese Christians, but 100 years ago we were not welcome, either.
If it had not been for these thing, I might have live out my life, talking at street corners to scorning men. I might have die, unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life can we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man, as we now do by dying. Our words, our lives, our pains—nothing! The taking of our lives—lives of a good shoemaker and a poor fish peddler—all! That last moment belongs to us—that agony is our triumph.” —Bartolomeo Vanzetti
My ancestors, and the ancestors of most of the Lebanese in this country, were dark, accented, smelly,1)Addendum 2015.12.18: I got some push-back about the word ‘smelly.’ It’s not the same as ‘stinking’, it simply suggests a smell that is different, i.e., exotic or foreign. My grandmother smelled faintly of onions, thyme, and sometimes of the pungent cheese she made. She was a very clean woman, she just smelled different from other Americans. If you are uncomfortable with the exotic, you might have found the smell offensive. Syrian immigrants. Granted, they were Christian; but many were Greek Orthodox at a time when Catholics and Protestants didn’t even speak to one another. And they were immigrants when immigrant anarchists—Christian anarchists—were committing acts of terror in the US.
I can’t imagine many people wanted Syrian immigrants around back then, any more than they do today.
Sacco & Vanzetti
The picture above is of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, immigrant anarchists who were executed for murder in 1927. In the early 20th century, the country was gripped with a fear of anarchism: in 1901, anarchist Leon Czolgosz assassinated President McKinley, and in 1919, the country suffered a series of anarchist bombings. In a fascinating parallel with today’s Muslims, overwhelmingly American anarchists were peaceful; but they were nevertheless persecuted for the crimes of a few radicals. On top of that, only a tiny minority of immigrants were anarchists. But many people lumped them all together.
There is still much controversy about the trial and guilt of Sacco & Vanzetti, and they were Italian immigrants, not Syrian. However, those anarchist bombings took place the year that my father was born, in my own childhood town of Sulphur, Louisiana. The Sacco & Vanzetti case began the next year.
I have often wondered how the fear of immigrant terrorists added to the problems of his childhood. My grandmother was an illiterate, penniless widow, struggling to raise 8 children through the Great Depression. The two oldest siblings, my father and his older sister, had to scramble to find whatever odd jobs they could outside of school hours. I have to believe that the fears of the day, both economic and political, only heightened discrimination against all of my relatives, in a period that was hardly tolerant.
Syrians Become Lebanese
After Danny Thomas became a star, most of us converted: We went from Syrian to Lebanese. But I think those original Syrian immigrants have turned out to be OK as Americans. Four of my uncles enlisted in WWII (my father tried to enlist, but because he had only one eye he was classified 4F), and returned to south Louisiana where they became successful entrepreneurs, and pillars of their communities.
As did a lot of those Syrian immigrants. People think there are a lot of Syrian/Lebanese in Acadiana and the Lake Charles area, but it’s not true. It’s just that so many of them are prosperous: doctors, lawyers, teachers, and successful merchants; and many of them are involved in philanthropy, public service, and civic leadership. All over the region there are prominent businesses and public buildings that carry Lebanese names, and two of our recent Congressmen are Lebanese. The south Louisiana Lebanese are even married into the Kennedy family. (It’s a fascinating story that starts with the 1956 Democratic National Convention. I may tell it some day.)
There is an irony to all of this, of course. Despite the struggles of our ancestors, I was surprised to find that some of the established Syrian/Lebanese Americans now say they don’t want the current Syrian Muslim refugees.
It seems unfair to discriminate against all Muslims, when a very tiny percent of the world’s 1.6B Muslims are involved in terrorism. It seems to be doubly unfair when almost all acts of terrorism in the US are perpetrated by Christians: Oklahoma City, Newtown, Austin, Littleton.
And oh yes, Lafayette. There is an unsettling irony in our comparatively small terrorist attack: a prominent Lebanese community leader, and a relative of those aforementioned Lebanese Congressmen, was seriously wounded by a white, and at least nominally Christian, terrorist.
A man once said that trees are named for their fruit. It is as much a mistake to automatically indict all Muslims as it would be to automatically absolve all Christians. We, each of us, deserve to be judged by our choices and our actions. We should all be measured by the content of our character.
We definitely need to be cautious who we let into the US. But how can we claim to be the leaders of the free world, and then close our doors to people who are asking for nothing but freedom?
Freedom from fear. Freedom from oppression.
Freedom from intolerance.
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Sacco & Vanzetti courtesy of Wikimedia.
NB: The illustration for this post was originally a Ben Shahn print of Sacco & Vanzetti that I have admired for years. I had obtained it from WikArt when this was originally published five years ago, but found that it has been removed, and is still under copyright. You can view it here.
|↑ 1.||Addendum 2015.12.18: I got some push-back about the word ‘smelly.’ It’s not the same as ‘stinking’, it simply suggests a smell that is different, i.e., exotic or foreign. My grandmother smelled faintly of onions, thyme, and sometimes of the pungent cheese she made. She was a very clean woman, she just smelled different from other Americans. If you are uncomfortable with the exotic, you might have found the smell offensive.|