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Published: 3/25/2000

Toledo provided hope to settlers

BY BETSY HIEL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Michael Habib Nassr became - as far as anyone knows - the first Arab to settle in Toledo when he came with his family in 1881. Records show he emigrated to America in the 1870s from the village of Beshara in what is now Lebanon; eventually, he ended up coming to Toledo via New Orleans.

Arabs started arriving in the United States in the mid-1870s, largely in search of economic opportunities. America was celebrating its first century in 1876, when Arab merchants and artisans - primarily from present-day Lebanon and Syria with the blessing of the Ottoman Sultan Abdul Hamid II - came to exhibit Syrian wares from the Holy Land at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition.

They returned to their cities and villages with glowing tales of a land where streets were paved with gold. Their tales triggered a surge of migration, said Dr. Alixa Naff, author of several volumes on the Arab-American immigrant experience.

Others came to America to escape military conscription in the vast Ottoman Empire, which, after 1908, drafted Christians as well as Muslims. At the same time, steamship agents were recruiting labor from all over the globe to fill the thousands of jobs the fast-growing American industry was creating each year. The agents made their way to the Eastern Mediterranean and the word spread in the Levantine region of the need for workers, enticing some to make the long and difficult journey.

Beirut at that time did not have a port large enough to accommodate big ships, and so those who sought to immigrate took dinghies out to the ships. An agent or broker would meet them at the ships that would take them to a port in Europe.

Once there, other agents would sell them tickets on ships heading toward Ellis Island or other American ports. Others got on boats bound for Cuba, Haiti, Puerto Rico, or various ports in South America, says Dr. Naff, archivist of the Naff Arab American Collection at the Smithsonian Institution.

Those that came during the first wave of Arab immigration to the United States between 1870 and 1940 were largely Christian from modern-day Lebanon, then part of the Syrian province of the Ottoman Empire. Others came from different districts in the Syrian province - present-day Syria and pre-1948 Palestine, including today's state of Israel.

During this time very few Muslims made the journey to America, fearing that they would be unable to practice their Islamic traditions in a Christian-dominated country.

Not all of those who came were on the point of starvation, or intended to stay forever. Those from the Mount Lebanon region often came with the idea of earning fortunes and returning home. For in the early years of this century, that district of the Ottoman Empire was "the best governed, most prosperous, peaceful, and contented country in the Near East," according to historian Dr. Philip Hitti.

"They didn't come seeking freedom and democracy, but they did discover it here and stayed," Dr. Naff says.

They discovered America through peddling goods, from town to town, farm to farm, and city to city. They roamed their new nation, enjoying the freedom peddling offered, soaking up the accents, values, and American traditions of democracy.

Thomas Zraik of Tripoli came to Toledo via New York when he was in his mid-20s in 1893. He went on to peddle in towns around the Arab community in Spring Valley, Ill., for a short time to make a little money and settle down eventually in the north end of Toledo.

He carried the symbol of many young Syrians, the itinerant peddlers suitcase, a little Woolworth's counter, and sold notions - small useful items such as needles, scissors, ribbons, and thread - mostly to the farmer's wife isolated in the country, recalls his daughter Ethel Zarick of Toledo.

"He would spend the night at the farmhouses and would pay them in the morning with some of the notions. The woman of the house was happy to get those things, a ribbon or a pin," she said.

Others filled up their suitcases with rosaries from the Holy Land, bolts of calico, gingham, bed linens, and lace.

Syrian peddlers had to be tough and industrious to survive. They thrived through an entrepreneurial network based on a relationship between a supplier and a business leader. This would be someone who had opened their own shop, perhaps even founded a settlement.

Michael Habib Nassr was that man in Toledo.

He came to a Toledo that was a thriving, growing industrial boom town, said local historian Fred Folger. In 1880, the city's population was 50,137, nearly double what it was a decade before. Nationally and locally, it was a hospitable time for foreign immigrants, who came to work in the newly created industries.

By 1890, over one quarter of Toledo's population was foreign-born.

The immigrants came mostly by passenger trains. Toledo was on the main line between New York and Chicago.

Mr. Nassr, known as "Nakhli" to his contemporaries and Michael H. to his descendants, settled in Toledo's north end. Known as "Little Syria" for 50 years, the community was bounded by Champlain Street to the north, Bush Street to the east, Superior Street to the south, and Cherry Street to the west.

As the "dean of Toledo Syrians" the adventurous Mr. Nassr was seen as the founder of this new immigrant community. It was a close-knit neighborhood where everybody knew everyone else, and doors were never locked, Ms. Zarick said. Families popped in on neighbors and raised one another's children.

Mr. Nassr was known for his hospitality.

"When you first came to Toledo, you stayed with Michael Nassr. He didn't turn anybody away," Ms. Zarick recalled.

Mr. Nassr did well in his adopted land. He started several fruit and produce wholesale stores. He and his wife, Dablia, both Catholic Maronites, joined St. Francis de Sales parish and raised six children.

Migrants continued to come to the region from other places in the country. Henry Ford made his famous $5-a-day offer in 1914. This had a ripple effect on other factories, which helped lure Arabs and other immigrants to northern industrial cities such as Toledo.

Toledoans joined other Americans in marching off to World War I in 1914, and Arab immigrants in Toledo such as Fred Ghareeb fought as well.

Joseph Prephan, originally of Syria, came here and signed up for the army. He became a U.S. citizen when the officers at a training camp in Virginia lined up all the immigrants, swore them in as citizens, and shipped them off to the trenches the next day, says his son Mike Prephan.

"He couldn't speak very much English but learned enough to get by from his buddies in the trenches," he said.

In the years after the war ended, a whole new generation of Arab-Americans would come to America, many landing in Toledo.



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