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Lansing's Syrian Community

The Story of Syrian American Immigrants in Lansing

By Jake Arens 

In the Spring of 2018, a small group of students from the Residential College for the Arts and Humanities at Michigan State University began a semester long archival research project under the guidance of Professor John Aerni-Flessner. The mission was to uncover the stories of Lansing residents displaced by the construction of I-496, which began in 1963 and was completed in 1970. Students explored the Stebbins Real Estate collection located in the Forest Parke Library and Archives at the Capital Area District Libraries (CADL) in Downtown Lansing, and used information found there to create a website to showcase interesting findings. Upon close inspection several important narratives emerge that are relevant to the city of Lansing, both historically and in the present day. One such narrative is the story of the Syrian-American community found near what was then the Olds Auto Works, and now is the GM Lansing Grand River Assembly plant.

While the Stebbins Collection shows evidence of the Syrian-American community in that area as early as 1932, a master’s thesis written by a Mr. Yussef Waffa in 1928, reveals a well-entrenched and thriving Syrian community in that same area several years earlier.[1] Examining the information found within the Stebbins collection in conjunction with Waffa’s earlier findings reveals that the Syrian community continued to grow and thrive near the Olds Auto Works. This success was due in part to unification of this population through clubs, as well as the entrepreneurial spirit of several of its key members.

The main purpose of Waffa’s work was to analyze the level of successful integration of Syrian immigrants into American society both nationally and locally. In doing so he gives a very detailed account of the life of this immigrant population. It is important to note from Waffa’s work that at the time of its publication, and during the years on record in the Stebbins Collection, the nation of Syria was comprised of the land that today encompasses the countries of Syria and Lebanon.[2] As such, descendants of these immigrants may define themselves as Lebanese or Syrian Americans. Individuals emigrated from Syria for both economic and religious reasons. Christian Syrians, particularly numerous in Lebanon, enjoyed a high degree of economic privilege, and became targets of violence by several Muslim groups beginning in the 1860s. During the same period, economic instability and fierce competition in trades such as silk, resulted in further exodus, primarily from the largely Christian district of Lebanon.[3] After the First World War Syria fell under the governance of France, who, for the protection of Christians, made Lebanon a separately governed district (though still part of the Mandate of Syria) and required its governor to be a professed Christian. French bombings of Damascus in 1926 led to dissatisfaction among many Syrians and may have further spurred immigration to the United States[4]. In 1920, the U.S. census indicated 51,900 Syrians nationwide, with 207 living in Lansing.[5] By the time of his data collection, Waffa recorded 558, which demonstrates the rapid growth of the community, both from further immigration and births.[6]

While some of the relevant information in the Stebbins Collection was recorded decades after Waffa made his survey of the community, it does lead to possible interpretations of the housing data, assuming trends from 1928 continued for the next several decades. Syrians living in Lansing were likely to be Christian during the period studied, based on demographic observations made by Waffa.[7] While the vast majority were Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox, Waffa notes that on the whole, Syrian American Christians are very open to attending churches of other denominations if their original sect is not present in their new home. In Lansing in 1928, there were 301 Roman Catholics, 188 Greek Orthodox Christians and 66 Protestants.[8] It is possible that these proportions changed as Lansing’s population grew, but it is evident that nearly all Syrians in Lansing were of the Christian faith, despite, or perhaps because of the Muslim majority in their home country.

The occupational data in the thesis is also noteworthy. As would be expected in a Midwestern city in the early 20th century, a majority of Syrian men found their employment in manufacturing, which, in Lansing, often meant the automobile production plants. The largest of these plants, the Olds Motor Works, attracted the largest number of Syrian workers.[9] As a general rule Syrians lived near this plant, though they could also be found working at several other factories throughout the city. The second largest profession (though significantly less popular) was store keeping, a logical step for what was a primarily merchant class in their native country.[10] Business ownership was one of the main goals of factory work, which provided capital, carefully saved, for business endeavors, and a means of employment should those endeavors fail. While Syrian men owned several types of businesses, grocery stores were by far the most popular, and their owners were among the wealthiest in the community.[11]

Waffa’s survey indicated that many immigrant groups begin their lives in the U.S. by living in small, dense pockets of their own countrymen. The Syrian population nationwide tended to move on from these “colonies,” as Waffa labels them, rather quickly.[12] In Lansing, approximately 75% of Syrian immigrants lived in the neighborhood/streets adjacent to the Oldsmobile factory.[13] These immigrants formed formal and informal groups to support each other in their transition to American life. This is evident in the numerous references to the Syrian American Club in the Stebbins documents, which was another name for the Syrian American Unity Society, located at the intersection of St. Joseph and Logan Streets.

In some ways, the formation of these organizations may have provided some resistance to discrimination and a way to organize and advocate for the rights and protection of their countrymen. While Waffa’s research indicates that Syrians were generally well received by their employers, racial discrimination was endemic in American culture at the time. [14] The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) established by Franklin Roosevelt in 1934 provided mortgage insurance on loans made by certified lenders, allowing these loans to be given at much lower interest rates than non-certified loans. The FHA was openly preferential to white home-owners, which is evident in the language of the original underwriting manual. This manual stated that “incompatible racial groups should not be permitted to live in the same communities.”[15] The FHA used color coded maps to determine which areas were safe to receive insured loans. These areas were graded from blue at the highest to red at the lowest. Red zones would be completely ineligible for FHA lending, meaning homeowners in these areas had less access to low interest loans that could be used for property purchases and home maintenance. These red zones were not simply poor areas, but were usually minority neighborhoods. In many cases the FHA would not insure loans to minority buyers seeking to live outside of these zones because the presence of a minority within a white neighborhood would drive property values down. The lack of this insurance made it much riskier for banks to extend loans at low interest rates. Far from driving rates down, many minority buyers were forced by the lack of available housing to pay higher rates for substandard housing. The restriction of minorities to FHA “red zones” gave rise to the term “redlining.”

Restrictive covenants, imposed by homeowners and written into deeds, prohibited the sale of specific homes to “colored” buyers. While these covenants were deemed unenforceable by the Supreme Court in 1948 in the case of Shelley vs Kraemer, they were still present in many deeds and were often followed by individuals until discrimination in housing was outlawed in 1968 with the passage of the Fair Housing Act.[16] These housing policies are often associated with discrimination against African Americans, but Syrian Americans would have also been considered “colored,” and thus “incompatible” with whites from the viewpoint of the FHA and mortgage lenders, and unable to buy certain houses under restrictive covenant.

An examination of the real estate records from the Stebbins Collection, or the website site compiled by MSU students shows ample evidence of these policies. Given the racial basis of FHA lending zones it is not surprising to see that the area abutting the Olds Motor Works and its large Syrian community is designated as a red zone. Several of the documents found on William Street track the expansion of this red zone gradually west, as well as efforts by white homeowners to contain the expansion of minority communities, and the efforts by some real estate agents to cater to minority buyers.

Based on the real estate documents, the 900/1000 block of William housed a high concentration of Syrian Americans. 1024 William was purchased by a “colored club” in 1945. It is likely that this is a reference to the Syrian American Unity Society, or another Syrian American organization. 916 William sat adjacent to a church building and when it was listed for sale in 1932, realtors indicated it “would make a good colored boarding house,” likely catering to Syrian immigrants, among other minorities in the area. It was purchased and rented to the Christian Community Social Center, likely based out of the adjacent church. Given that Syrians in Lansing were overwhelmingly Christian, it is possible that the church, and those that it housed in this property were at least part Syrian. A few houses down, 906 William was owned by Joseph Farhat, a local grocer, and a prominent member of the Syrian community, who may have purchased the property for use by the Syrian American Unity Society, which rented it in 1939-40. The club likely rented it in order to house new immigrants or those in need. The property was then rented to a Mr. Waddie S. Kassouf, likely of Syrian descent. In an interesting twist on still-legal restrictive covenants, when Farhat sold the property in 1940, he stipulated that it “must be sold to colored buyers,” ensuring that the property remain Syrian owned.

One block east, 834 William was owned and listed for sale by the Union Building and Loan Company in 1939. The Building and Loan’s ownership indicates the property may have been repossessed from an owner unable to repay their loan. In the following years it became a rental property, but it was designated as a “Red Zone” property in 1940, indicating the area was now largely minority owned, perhaps due to the expansion of the nearby Syrian community. Further east, 524 William was owned by a Mr. James Zarka, another prominent Syrian business man, who, like Joseph Farhat, ran a grocery store. Zarka put the home up for sale in 1940, indicating that he had lived there prior to that time. His reason for sale was noted as “for liquidation” indicating the property had been a source of revenue, likely being rented to other Syrian immigrants. Several years after James Zarka left the 500 block, Margret Eddy listed 516 William. Real estate agents noted that it had potential as a rental property, likely considering the influx of minority and working-class residents in the area that created the need for low-cost housing. The home was purchased by the Simmons family who listed it 1947 under a restrictive covenant that was maintained by future owners. The 500 block was surrounded by a growing “colored” enclave as evidenced by the Stebbins documents. Prohibiting the sale of this property to minority buyers was likely an effort on the part of the Simmons’ and other local whites to halt the influx of minority buyers onto their block. This area had not yet been designated a “red zone” on the FHA maps, and these covenants may have been in place in order to prevent that eventuality, as well as potentially out of a sense of personal prejudice.

Despite these hinderances, and the bisection of their enclave by I-496 in 1970, the Syrian American community continued to grow and thrive. The names Farhat and Zarka remain prominent in Lansing to this day, thanks to the success of Joseph and James’s children and grandchildren. Joseph Farhat’s success as a grocer and landlord allowed him to help send his son Leo to law school. Leo Farhat would embody the hard-working spirit of his father and rise to become the prosecuting attorney for Ingham County and later president of the State Bar Association.[17] Throughout his career he held prestigious positions in both the state justice system, and various associations of legal professionals. His legacy was such that the Ingham Country Bar Association’s award for excellence bears his name. His son Leo Jr. owns and operates a local restaurant and has various Real Estate holdings throughout Lansing. Leo Jr.’s son Gregory serves as President and broker at Jameson Real Estate Services, and the Director of Workplace Strategies at Jackson National Life Insurance Company, both organizations based in Lansing.[18]

The descendants of James Zarka are also continuing to find success in Lansing. His son David was a long-time program director with the Michigan Department of Corrections and former owner of The Eagle Restaurant and Lounge. In an op-ed Zarka wrote for both the Lansing State Journal and the Detroit Free Press criticizing anti-Middle Eastern rhetoric by Republican candidates during the 2016 Presidential race, he expounds upon the impact of Syrian, Lebanese and Palestinian immigrants and their descendants.[19] He names immigrants such as the Shaheens, owners of the town’s most prominent car dealership, and former Lansing Mayor Louis Adado, for whom Adado Riverfront Park in Lansing is named. These names are visible in all parts of Lansing, and just below the surface, on deeds, titles and corporate documents of many of Lansing’s most iconic businesses. Most of these men and women can trace their origins in Lansing to a small Syrian “colony” next to the Olds Motor Works.

 

References

"1948–1968: Unenforceable Restrictive Covenants." Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston. Accessed April 19, 2019. https://www.bostonfairhousing.org/timeline/1948-1968-Unenforceable-Restrictive-Covenants.html.

HUD.gov / U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Accessed April 20, 2019. https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/fair_housing_act_overview.

"Housing Discrimination Under the Fair Housing Act." HUD.gov / U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Accessed April 25, 2019. https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/fair_housing_act_overview.

Gross, Terry. "A 'Forgotten History' Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America." NPR. May 03, 2017. Accessed April 19, 2019. https://www.npr.org/2017/05/03/526655831/a-forgotten-history-of-how-the-u-s-government-segregated-america.

"Jameson Real Estate Services." Jameson Real Estate Services. Accessed April 20, 2019. https://www.jamesonres.com/.

"Leo A. Farhat." Prabook.com. Accessed April 20, 2019. https://prabook.com/web/leo_a.farhat/2900805.  

Ross, Allan I. "KNIGHT CAP." City Pulse. Accessed April 20, 2019. http://lansingcitypulse.com/stories/knight-cap,1924.

Waffa, Yussef. "A Sociological Study of the Syrian Population of Lansing, Michigan." Master's thesis, Michigan State University, 1928.

Zarka, David. "Column: Syrian Man Says He's 'ashamed for America'." Detroit Free Press. December 16, 2015. Accessed April 19, 2019. https://www.freep.com/story/opinion/contributors/2015/12/16/syrian-man-lansing-ashamed-america/77416392/.



[1] Waffa, Yussef. "A Sociological Study of the Syrian Population of Lansing, Michigan." Master's thesis, Michigan State University, 1928.

[2] Waffa "Syrian Population of Lansing." Pg. 14

[3] Waffa "Syrian Population of Lansing." Pg. 18

[4] Waffa "Syrian Population of Lansing." Pg. 15

[5] Waffa "Syrian Population of Lansing." Pg. 24

[6] Waffa "Syrian Population of Lansing." Pg. 40

[7] Waffa "Syrian Population of Lansing." Pg. 86

[8] Waffa "Syrian Population of Lansing." Pg. 84-86

[9] Waffa "Syrian Population of Lansing." Pg. 70

[10] Waffa "Syrian Population of Lansing." Pg. 70

[11] Waffa "Syrian Population of Lansing." Pg. 70

[12] Waffa "Syrian Population of Lansing." Pg. 38

[13] Waffa "Syrian Population of Lansing." Pg. 38

[14] Waffa "Syrian Population of Lansing." Pg. 38

[15] Gross, Terry. "A 'Forgotten History' Of How The U.S. Government Segregated America." NPR. May 03, 2017. https://www.npr.org/2017/05/03/526655831/a-forgotten-history-of-how-the-u-s-government-segregated-america

[16] "1948–1968: Unenforceable Restrictive Covenants." Fair Housing Center of Greater Boston. https://www.bostonfairhousing.org/timeline/1948-1968-Unenforceable-Restrictive-Covenants.html. Fair Housing Act summary: https://www.hud.gov/program_offices/fair_housing_equal_opp/fair_housing_act_overview

[17] Zarka, David. "Column: Syrian Man Says He's 'ashamed for America'." Detroit Free Press. December 16, 2015. https://www.freep.com/story/opinion/contributors/2015/12/16/syrian-man-lansing-ashamed-america/77416392/

[18] "Jameson Real Estate Services." Jameson Real Estate Services. https://www.jamesonres.com/

[19] Zarka, David. "Syrian Man Says He's 'ashamed for America'." Detroit Free Press. December 16, 2015. https://www.freep.com/story/opinion/contributors/2015/12/16/syrian-man-lansing-ashamed-america/77416392/