Ellis Island exhibit revives New York’s lost Little Syria

Shakifa Halal was a Syrian immigrant on a New York-bound ship, her dreams rolled up in a piece of embroidery she created in her homeland.

A square piece of flowered embroidery (© AP Images)
An embroidered picture handmade by Shakifa Halal can be seen at the “Little Syria” exhibition. (© AP Images)

“She rolled that up and brought it because she said she wanted to be able to prove that she had skills … This to her was like showing a diploma,” said Halal’s granddaughter, Vicki Tamoush, amid tears.

Halal’s embroidery, which she brought to America in 1910 at age 13, now hangs in the Ellis Island National Museum of Immigration, part of an exhibition called Little Syria, N.Y.: An Immigrant Community’s Life and Legacy.

A man standing in front of an old picture of a large family (© AP Images)
Philip Najjar Tamoush, 78, poses in front of his family’s photo at the “Little Syria” exhibition. His family emigrated from Syria in 1920. (© AP Images)

Through documents, artifacts and photos, the exhibition tells the story of a Middle Eastern community that once flourished in Lower Manhattan. The show is on view through January 9, 2017, in the building where 12 million immigrants first set foot in America.

Old passport showing a photo of five people (© AP Images)
This 1920 passport for the Najjar family, Syrian immigrants to the U.S., is displayed at the “Little Syria” exhibition. (© AP Images)

It documents the vanished neighborhood of Little Syria in ways that still resonate, at a time when Syrian refugees are making headlines.

From the 1880s to 1940s, Little Syria sprawled from the New York waterfront. The neighborhood was an incubator for other Arab enclaves, as residents moved to Brooklyn, New York; Detroit; Cleveland; Los Angeles and elsewhere.

A boat filled with people approaching New York City (© AP Images)
People take photos of Lower Manhattan where the Little Syria neighborhood was located. (© AP Images)

Shakifa Halal didn’t stay long. She joined relatives in California, becoming a seamstress.

But others remained in Manhattan, creating a community in the early 1900s that was home to some 3,000 Syrian immigrants.

Tall buildings in a downtown city setting (© AP Images)
The former St. George’s Syrian Catholic Church, which now houses two restaurants, was part of the Little Syria neighborhood. (© AP Images)

Most of the neighborhood was torn down in the 1940s. Just three original buildings survive.

Charlie Sahadi’s family came from Lebanon to Little Syria in the late 1800s and launched Sahadi Importing, selling Middle Eastern goods.

The Ellis Island exhibition features a 1920s-era picture of Sahadi’s great-uncle, Abrahim Sahadi, along with A. Sahadi & Co. tins. The Sahadi store moved to Brooklyn in the 1940s, remaining a popular gourmet grocery to this day.

The Sahadi story resonates with Devon Akmon, a fourth-generation Arab American and director of the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. The museum created the Little Syria exhibition, which debuted at its facility in 2012.

“You have to … commemorate” those early settlers, said Akmon, who attended the show’s Ellis Island opening.

Portrait of a woman with long dark hair (© AP Images)
Syrian-born Patricia Talisse, 28, visits the “Little Syria” exhibition in New York. (© AP Images)

Patricia Talisse, who emigrated in 2012 from Aleppo, Syria, said the exhibition elicited tears as she saw the “common values and experiences” between then and now.

“We’re here, and we have been for years,” said Talisse.