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A Syrian Immigrant’s Experience in 1930s America

Amid today’s restrictions on refugee resettlement in the United States, an American anthropologist describes his Syrian grandfather’s experience of becoming an ‘illegal immigrant’ in the U.S. due to a 1924 law that some lawmakers have recently praised.

Written by Jonathan Shannon Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
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The S.S. President Harding, on which Youssef Elias Tame arrived in the United States. www.ancestry.com

President Donald Trump’s executive order on refugees and travel from seven predominantly Muslim countries is largely on hold after court intervention. Yet it has provoked anxiety not only among immigrants currently in the United States but also among the many citizens who are descended from immigrant grandparents.

This was exacerbated by U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ laudatory remarks in 2015 about the 1924 Immigration Act, which limited immigration from southern and eastern Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Africa. These remarks, which are in tune with the white supremacist ethos pervading the White House today, have personal relevance for me and my family.

I am the grandson of an illegal immigrant from Syria. Barred entry because of the 1924 law, he came here through a more circuitous route.

That he made it and thrived speaks of his persistence – a quality found again and again in the stories that unite many millions of Americans today. It should serve as a cautionary tale to those who would once more attempt to restrict immigration.

What follows is my grandfather’s story, but to a degree it is also a very American one.

The passenger manifest for the S.S. President Harding, dated August 8, 1935, shows Youssef Elias Tame’s name. (www.ancestry.com)

Youssef Elias Tame was born in 1908 in a small village in what was then part of Syria but is today in Lebanon. As the Ottoman Empire collapsed in the aftermath of World War I, many of its Arab subjects emigrated to the New World.

My great-grandparents decided on the U.S. as a land of opportunity. In 1918, they headed overland toward France, where they had booked passage on a steamer from Marseille to New York. En route to France, my grandfather and his father fell ill and were turned away at the border. My great-grandmother, Najmeh, a striking and headstrong redhead from Aleppo, continued alone to Marseille and thence to Ellis Island, while her husband and young son returned to Syria.

Pneumonia took the life of the father. The boy – my grandfather – was raised by relatives, who sent him to a Jesuit school in Beirut. His mother made her way to New York, then Detroit, where there was a larger Arab community.

While her son went to school, Najmeh toiled in a coffee shop, saving money so that she could one day send for her son. The beautiful young widow soon caught the eye of the coffee shop owner – the powerful Romy Omar, or “Big Daddy,” as he was called. Tall, muscular and elegant, he wore his own Turkish ancestry with pride. A pillar of the growing Muslim community, he married Najmeh, who bore him a son, Hassan. My grandfather, a Maronite Christian, thereby acquired a Muslim brother.

In 1925, Najmeh paid the equivalent of more than $40,000 today to a lawyer to arrange for my grandfather Youssef to emigrate. The lawyer booked passage for him to Cuba; since the Immigration Act of 1924, Arabs were effectively banned from entering the U.S. and Cuba had a significant Syrian population, often called “Turcos.”

In 1926, he boarded a ship from Havana to New Orleans, the two ports connected by centuries of trade. The voyage would take four days and nights in open waters. My grandfather arrived exhausted and hungry – and disgusted by the stench and filth around him. (For all the years I knew him he was always fastidiously dressed and kept his home impeccably clean.) His stepfather met him at the wharf and they took the train to Detroit.

There he developed the swagger of a confident young man. In 1931, he proposed marriage to my grandmother, Mary Alice, an orphan from Kentucky being raised by her God-fearing sister. Not only was Mary Alice happy at the attention he paid but she was also thrilled by the chance of escaping her straitened circumstances in Depression-era Detroit, where many people lived in penury.

In 1932 she bore my uncle, “Sonny,” and an American life seemed to be in store for them. That is, until my grandfather’s papers turned out to be false, and a rival informed on him. In 1932, he was arrested and deported back to the “Old Country,” as older Lebanese and Syrians still refer to their homeland, leaving my grandmother in Detroit with an infant boy.

After three years of waiting and sending yet more hard-earned money to lawyers, she wrote a desperate letter, in pencil on lined paper, to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, explaining her plight. She had almost given up hope when she received a reply from the Department of State notifying her that it would attend to the matter. On August 8, 1935, my grandfather boarded the S.S. President Harding and sailed from Le Havre to New York, then returned to Detroit. Three years later my mother was born.

My grandfather went from being an orphan and illegal immigrant to becoming a successful businessman in “Arab Detroit,” counting among his children and grandchildren engineers, nurses, lawyers, doctors, professors, writers and artists.

His story may be unique in some ways, but it is also typical. A refugee of conflict, he made his way to these shores, acquiring in the process not just new languages but a sense of possibility and gratitude for what America could offer.

It is, in other words, a very American tale, one told in countless homes by generations of immigrants. His story of quotas and deportation should alert us that our own governing institutions often work in ways that counter the message of hope and opportunity enshrined in our mythos. It is also a cautionary tale as we enter another era of great economic uncertainty, political capriciousness and intolerance.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

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