Recently, I’ve become fascinated with the history of Boston, Massachusetts, where I was born and educated. Boston is a very old city – for the US, at least: the birthplace of the American Revolution, a home to the Industrial Revolution, the city upon a hill.
Boston is also rich in immigration history. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Irish, Italian, Armenian, Jewish, Chinese, Portuguese and Arab (largely Syrian and Lebanese) groups all made Boston their American home.
Although I’d always known that Syrian and Lebanese families had settled in Boston at some point in the past century, there was very little media interest in it – Hollywood certainly wasn’t knocking on our door. For that reason, many people don’t realise how thoroughly Syrians are already woven into the fabric of America.
After President Donald Trump halted the resettlement of Syrian refugees and banned Syrians from entering the US, I was deeply upset. I started researching the history of Syrian immigration to the US to prove that Syrians have been here all along and that there’s nothing to fear from our community.
As I kept digging, I learned the following: Hudson Street was the centre of “Syriantown” or “Little Syria” in Boston. Staring in the 1880s, it had become a neighbourhood for Syrian immigrants in Boston. It was home to Syrian churches, grocery stores, civic associations and small businesses. The famous writer Khalil Gibran made his home in this neighbourhood when he first immigrated to the US.
At this point in my research, I was excited. I pitched the series to my boss as a multigenerational story of Syrian immigration to the US. The idea was to identify a descendant of early Syrian immigrants, a family of more recent Syrian immigrants like my parents, plus a family of Syrian refugees who have arrived since the Syrian conflict began in 2011. I came up with the idea of centring it around Boston and jokingly said we could interview my parents as part of the story, since they live in the area – not believing that my boss would actually be interested. She loved the idea.
After identifying characters for each of our pieces, we set off for Boston, landing during freezing temperatures in the middle of the New England Patriots’ Super Bowl victory.
The next day, we met Olivia Waishek at her home in West Roxbury, Boston. She has lived in the same house since 1963, when she was forced out of her original home in Boston’s Syriantown. Her parents had lived in Syriantown since the early 1900s. In their day, it was a thriving neighbourhood in the heart of Boston. Olivia described what it was like to grow up there and what had happened.
As I listened to her, I was taken to another time, another era. I could sense the immense pride she had in being a person of Arab and Syrian descent and how urgent she felt it was to share the story of her ancestry. I discovered the depth of the history of Arab-Americans in Boston.
As I walked up the steps to my parents’ house – cameras following behind me – I felt nervous. Would my mum say something to embarrass me? Would my dad be uncomfortable in front of a camera? Would the whole day be a disaster? My mother had jokingly tried to back out a few days before.
Growing up, you never really appreciate your parents enough. And it stems from not being fully aware of all they have done for you and all the sacrifices that came with bringing you into the world. All those times I poked fun at my mum and dad’s accent … I was completely unaware of how hard they’d struggled to learn a new language in a new country, far away from friends and family.