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Published: Sunday, 3/26/2000

Little Syria thrives in Toledo as the world heads toward war

BY BETSY HIEL
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Strolling down Huron or Chestnut or Erie streets on a warm summer night in the 1920s, an outsider might have thought he had stumbled into the Middle East.

For this was "Little Syria," the bustling heart of Arab Toledo. And after a hard day's work, amid the various shops and confectioneries, families would meet to socialize. The passer-by would see, on certain porches, men playing the oud, an ancestor of the guitar, and dancing the popular Syrian dance dabka, a Middle Eastern version of a line dance.

Toledo's Arab community was comfortable celebrating its homeland's ethnic, cultural, and religious traditions. Many had arrived in the years before and just after World War I, when close to 100,000 mainly Christian Arabs fleeing the crumbling Ottoman Empire had poured into the United States.

The flow of Arab immigration slowed to a trickle by 1925, when immigration rules allowed no more than 100 Arabic-speaking people into the United States each year.

But the local community was already settled in. Anyone looking into the windows of some of those houses might have seen neighbors drinking Arabic coffee spiced with cardamom and smoking a fruit-flavored tobacco from a water pipe known as the narjilah, while a storyteller spun tales of Scheherazade from Arabian Nights. Others read letters from relatives in their former homeland.

And while family ties were strong and cultural norms strictly enforced, the younger generation felt the tug of the freedom that America offered.

Now 90, Josephine Geha Zraik remembers the excitement of coming of age in the Roaring Twenties. The Syrian boys would gather on Chestnut and Erie streets at Abe Haddad's confectionery store where he sold candy, ice cream, cigars, and cigarettes at the soda fountain.

"Sometimes the Syrian boys would go across the river to date the Hungarian girls on the east side," she says, smiling.

Syrian fathers were very protective of their daughters, and Syrian mothers wanted their sons to marry Syrian girls.

For entertainment, the Syrians would hold dances upstairs at Hanf's Drugstore on the corner of Bush and Erie streets. Ms. Zraik remembers her fringed flapper dresses and the beige shoes with a red stripe snaked around the ankle.

They were often entertained by the Jacob brothers, including the most famous of them, Amos Jacobs, who would go on to national fame as Danny Thomas. "But nobody played the Twelfth Street Rag like Bill Jacob," Ms. Zraik said.

Money was tight, and boys such as Mike Damas, who would go on to become mayor of Toledo (1959-62), and little Amos Jacobs found jobs. Both of them sold candy and fancy boxes of colored taffy kisses during intermission at the Empire Theatre.

The Great Depression was tough, and Toledo's Arab community did not escape the hardships. It was not unusual for someone to knock on a door in Little Syria asking for bread. Some who prospered in the 1920s suddenly were having lean years. The Damas family lost their home and were forced to move to a much smaller place. The Syrian Women's Welfare Club worked hard to help the needy.

Immigration of Arabic speakers to the United States remained a mere trickle until after World War II. But Arabs continued west to Ohio, coming from other parts of the nation.

Early immigrants from Syria took little part in politics, in large part because few were citizens. But their sons and daughters of immigrants became more steadily involved in American life. Those born here were automatically citizens, and many recall sitting in front of the radio and listening to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's fireside chats. In the late 1930s, the Syrian-American Rooseveltian Club was born.

The idea was not to help FDR, as much as it was to help other immigrants get a toehold in American society.

The founders included Paul Fakehany, the city's first Arab police officer and fingerprint expert, and Charlie Hider, Toledo's first Arab lawyer. They formed the club to help other Arab immigrants get ahead in American society. They helped local Arab immigrants find jobs in the fire and police department and helped them study for the entrance exams.

"Politically, they lobbied for everything that was Democratic and supported Mike Damas in his political ambitions," said lawyer Jimmy Shemas. In 1948, their hard work paid off with voters sending the Mr. Damas to the Ohio legislature.

Mr. Hider, the grandfather of Toledo lawyer Chuck Sallah, helped the newcomers obtain naturalization papers and, being well-versed in liquor laws and licensing regulations, helped them in setting up businesses, restaurants, and bars.

There was a time when you could not get a liquor license in Toledo without Charlie Hider's signature, locals say.

By the time Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, many of Toledo's "Syrians" felt they were as much American as Arab - and they were anxious to defend their nation.

During World War II, many local Arab-Americans joined the war effort.

Nick Shemas became a second lieutenant and flew twin-engine attack bombers for the U.S. Army Air Corps, while Capt. Eddie Haddad served on the intelligence staff of Gen. George Patton in North Africa where his Arabic came in handy.

Some Arab-American families paid the ultimate price. Carl Joseph, a paratrooper, was killed on the shores of Normandy during the D-Day invasion, and William Ellis, the son of a local Orthodox priest of Toledo, lost his life in the Pacific.

Muslim immigrants were striving too. They formed their first association in 1939. They were overwhelmingly outnumbered by Arab Christians - but not for long. When Israel was created in 1948, uprooted Palestinians, nearly all of them Muslim, began to join the group of Lebanese and Syrians here.



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