A Waking Dream: Syrian Migrants’ Journey to the Americas

This post was written by Randa Tawil, a PhD candidate in American Studies at Yale University. Tawil’s dissertation focuses on early 20th century migration routes from Syria to North and South America, and explores how constructs of gender and race impacted immigrant experiences.

Syrians traveling to the Americas in the late 19th and early 20th century faced a complicated, risky, and expensive journey that spanned multiple continents. Examining their itineraries can tell us a great deal about the barriers Syrians faced as they traveled, and the networks that kept them moving. More importantly, it shows us how migration is far from a one-way journey, and is a process controlled by many different actors and interests, all affecting where a migrant might end up. As author John Berger put it, when traveling, the migrant “appears in a waking dream dreamt by someone else.” Navigating their journey across many countries, encountering rules and people they perhaps did not understand, migrants’ mobility shows us how we make sense of a world they didn’t control.

Leaving Beirut

In the late 19th century, many people from the Ottoman Bilad al-Sham (which encompass today’s Lebanon, Syria, Palestine/Israel) migrated to the Americas in pursuit of work and money, to reunite with family, or to begin a new life.  Regardless of the many reasons a person chose to migrate, they first had to figure out how. Securing transit was a complicated process that involved smugglers, bribes, steamboat companies, hotels along the way, honest and unscrupulous middle men, and encounters with government agents trying to control the flow of people across tightening borders.

The first bureaucratic hurdle of leaving their homes and loved ones, were the restrictions the Ottoman government had placed on travel outside the empire. For example, disturbed by the exodus of Lebanese villagers out of Mount Lebanon and the drain that caused on the local economy, Sultan Abdul-Hamid II demanded that his Grand Vizier take every administrative and legal measure to stop this illegal emigration. Ottoman law required its subjects to acquire mürur tezkeresi  (laissez-passez) in order to travel between the provinces of the empire, and that was difficult to obtain. Travel outside the empire was even more complicated and required a passport and very rarely given out to residents of Mount Lebanon. Moreover, the fees for such a passport were made prohibitively high to limit emigration from the area. These legal barriers were circumvented by a network of traffickers that included local border officials and police. For example, on April 19, 1891 five local police officers in charge with the security of the Port of Beirut certified that no “single peasant” from Mount Lebanon was aboard French ship Foria that was sailing to Alexandria the following morning. In fact, subsequent Ottoman investigation of the incident revealed that there were 36 Armenians and 101 “Syrians” from Mount Lebanon on board that ship, and they were able to board without passport by paying the substantial sum of two and a half francs per person as bribes to the officers. What is even more revealing, is that the same investigation revealed that this was one of many networks that had been operating in the Port of Beirut for at least two decades, and that facilitated the migration of over 5000 villagers and townspeople to America. As Amin Rihani wrote in his auto-biographical Book of Khalid: “the boatmen and officials of the Ottoman Empire can better read a gold piece than a passport.”

But this was only the first step. Anyone seeking to leave had to also secure a ticker on one of the growing numbers of steamships that made regular stops in Beirut. Wannabe emigrants had to buy tickets through agents, who traveled from village to village looking for would-be migrants. These agents worked for individual shipping lines, and so did not always present all travel options equally for their customers. Furthermore, because these agents worked for big companies, they were protected from law enforcement if they swindled their customers. Hassan Khereiro, for example, was notorious for selling overpriced tickets to migrants and pocketing a large share for himself.[1] He rarely faced punishment, however, because he was employed by a powerful French shipping conglomerate that held more power than the migrants who launched complaints against him.

1) “Amerique du Sud” a newspaper advertising migration to South America. (4 M 2151 /Departmental Council 13/ Departmental Archives Marseille/All Rights Reserved).

Because most ships that operated out of Syria were French, the majority of passengers leaving the port of Beirut stopped in Marseille before continuing their journey to the Americas. The voyage in steerage class to Marseille was unpleasant, as most ships required migrants to bring their own food and only supplied each family with one bottle of water a day.[2] By the time migrants arrived in Marseille, they were usually tired, hungry, and in need of rest. Rihani describes the lost of those who chose this passage in pitiful terms. “They are huddled like sheep on deck from Beirut to Marseilles; and like cattle transported under hatches across the Atlantic; and bullied and browbeaten by rough disdainful stewards; and made to pay for a leathery gobbet of beef and a slice of black flint-like bread.” 

2) A business card J.S. Askar Brothers, advertising trips, goods, and information for ship passengers and emigrants. Men like Askar were middlemen in the migrant economy. (4 M 2151 /Departmental Council 13/ Departmental Archives/All Rights Reserved).

Before Syrian migrants entered the country, the French public health authorities forced them into quarantine on the Isle of Frioul, a small archipelago about a kilometer from the port of Marseille.[3] The French were terrified of cholera spreading into the city, and worried that Syrians might bring a new outbreak. But these migrants were more likely to get sick on Frioul than be cured of a disease they might have been carrying. The island was run with bedbugs and rats, and only contained one source of clean water. Migrants slept in close quarters and in the summer, it became so humid that people complained that parts of the ceiling and walls fell on them in their sleep.[4]

Entering Marseille

3) Business card of J. Zaffrany, advertising in French and Spanish (4 M 2151 /Departmental Council 13/ Departmental Archives/All Rights Reserved).

In the late 19th century, Marseille was an industrial city full of workers from across the Mediterranean. Syrian migrants arriving in the bustling port were greeted by Syrian hotel owners and ticketing agents, offering their services during their sojourn in the city.  Upon arrival, some migrants learned from these agents that the tickets they bought in Syria for the second half of their journey were fake. Out of money, many of these Syrians had to take the next ship back to Beirut, their journey cut short. For the rest of the migrants, these hotel owners and agents were the only source they had for information about ship schedules, medical exams, and ticket prices. Some were helpful, like Hakim Josef who translated for Syrians wishing to file a report to the Marseille Police; however, others took advantage of the power they had over the migrants.[5] Most just overcharged their customers, but some hotel owners set up complicated scams that affected the next steps of a migrant’s journey.

Sailing to “Amirka”

4) An unnamed man gets his photo taken in Marseille. (4 M 2151 /Departmental Council 13/ Departmental Archives/All Rights Reserved)

Like ticketing agents in Syria, some hotel owners had relationships with certain shipping lines. If a ship going to Argentina needed more passengers, a hotel owner might be paid to tell his customers that Ellis Island had stopped accepting immigrants, and to recommend Buenos Aires as a good alternative.[6] Additionally, each country in the Americas had its own health regulations and inspection system. Before leaving Marseille, Syrian migrants had to go through another round of medical tests in order to prove their good health. Because most migrants did not speak French, Spanish, or English, hotel owners were left to interpret to their clients the results of these tests. Some owners took advantage of this, and told their customers they tested positive for trachoma, regardless of the results. They would then tell the migrant that they had to travel to Liverpool or Antwerp in order to be treated. In reality, these hotel owners simply had partners in these cities, and once the migrant arrived, the partners demanded more money from the migrant if they were to continue their journey. In these new cities, a migrant might have to pick a new destination, or wait months until relatives could get enough money to send for them.[7]

Even though they did not have much power over their situation, many migrants helped each other along their journeys. Family members in the Americas traveled to Liverpool or Marseille to aid their relatives who were stuck without funds. Those without family sometimes made friends along the way. When Sara Elias was stranded in Marseille after finding out her ticket to New York was fake, she met some other Syrians traveling to Rio De Janeiro and accompanied them.[8] At the port in Marseille, Abdo Chaheen met some men who had set up a business in Mexico, and decided to change his route and try his luck there.[9] Encounters and friendships along the way also affected where someone might end up.

Entering the United States

Many people from Syria were as mobile in the Americas as on their trip, traveling between countries for work, trade opportunities, or to unite with family. Wadie Tawil, for example, initially migrated to Cuba, then moved to New York and Chile before returning to Palestine in the 1930s. The mobility of this population contrasted with the increasingly restrictive immigration laws passed across the Americas. This was particularly true in the United States, where white lawmakers reacted against what they perceived to be the changing racial makeup of the country. During the late 19th and early 20th century, the United States government passed a series of racially charged immigration laws prohibiting migration from East Asia, and restricting migration from Europe based on health inspection, employment, and literacy.  

5) Headline from the San Diego Union, February 3 1907.

The government was also particularly concerned about migrants who entered the United States through Mexico, convinced that they did this to circumvent immigration control at Ellis Island.  Many Syrians traveled through this border. Some had worked in Mexico and were moving on to the United States, or others like the peddler Cecilia Attal, had relatives already along the border and chose to travel through Mexico rather than to Ellis Island to reach them. Some migrants also reasoned that Mexico was a safer place to try to enter the United States: if they were rejected at the US-Mexico border, they could stay in Mexico, whereas at other ports along the Atlantic they would be deported all the way to Europe. Nevertheless, US immigration officials were suspicious of Syrian migrants who tried to enter the United States along the southern border. The US bureau of immigration sent multiple officers into Mexico to report on Syrians who lived and migrated there, and even set up the first cameras at the border in order to photograph Syrians who had been rejected at multiple stations.

Traveling to the Americas was by no means an easy trip. Crowded with the interests of corporations, state officials, and middlemen, Syrian migrants’ trips could be circuitous and unpredictable. While many never talked about their trips after they came to the United States, we can only imagine that memories of the pivotal experience stayed with them and had lasting effects on the rest of their lives.

[1] 4M 2153 “Rapport: Complainte Contre Herero” 1910 Archives Départementales Bouche-de-Rhône.

[2] Tamari, Salim, “A Miserable Year in Brooklyn: Khalil Sakakini in America, 1907 – 1908.” Jerusalem Quarterly 2003. 

[3] 4 M 142 “Report from the Special Commissioner” 21 May, 1896 AD BDR.

[4] “Nos Lazaret,” Le Matin 30 September 1901 AD BDR.


[5] 4M 2153 “Complainte contre Zakaria Zaila: Trafficker” August 1899.

[6]  Samuel Barberi to Byron Uhl, Acting Commissioner of Immigration. Ellis Island NYC. 19 January 1914

[7] “Annual Report of the Liverpool Emigration Protection Society.” 23 January 1913.

[8] 4M 2151, “Petition to Commissioner,” 17 January 1888, AD BDR.

[9] Committee of Special Inquiry, Interview with Abdo Chaheen. 25 October 1906, El Paso, TX.

5 responses on “A Waking Dream: Syrian Migrants’ Journey to the Americas

  1. Judy SABA says:

    Brilliant work. The context and stories are so valuable .Thank you for posting . I am too seeking to find my grandfathers resting place somewhere in New York, or New Hampshire . He passed as a relatively young man just before the love of his life my grandmother was to leave north Lebanon with my dad and uncle ( both small boys) to meet him in New York . Circa 1914-16?
    His name was Boutros SABA ( May have been recorded as being from the Chidiac clan !!!

    1. Frank Martello says:

      Hi Judy. I am related to the Sabas here in Massachusetts. My aunt married into the Saba family 60 years ago. Perhaps you are related? My uncle’s side comes from Duma, Syria.

  2. Cheryl Holtz-Gorman says:

    Interesting reading! My Jiddo, Alexander (Ayoub) Nader, immigrated to America from Shweir with his cousin in 1913. They went to be with family in Jackson, MS. A few years later my Jiddo moved to Dayton, OH where he met and married my grandmother. They both moved to Greenwood, MS where my Jiddo opened a grocery store, he was also the butcher.

  3. David Sowd says:

    And MY jiddo, Iskander Sa’oud, immigrated to America from Akka (Palestine) in 1906, at the age of 18. I had learned that he sailed on the “La Lorraine” from Le Havre, but I’ve long been curious about how he got to northern France from his family home on the Mediterranean. Shukran, Randa, for helping clear up that mystery!

    1. Mike Kukral says:

      David, my jiddo came the next year in 1907. He often told me the story of the journey. He was 19 and after arriving in Marseille he spent two weeks walking across France to Le Havre ( which sounded like “the heffer” when he did it). Sometimes with other migrants, sometimes stopping to help harvest crops in exchange for food. He marveled at things he saw in France including working dogs pulling carts. He settled in Akron, Ohio and died in 1981.

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