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Beyond Borders Diaspora Series Event “From 'Little Syria' to New Jersey and Beyond”
The Syrian Republic is still going through a civil war that is ravaging the country, destroying a culturally and historically significant area of the Middle East and forcing millions of Syrian refugees into exile. This grave situation served as the backdrop for Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Beyond Borders Diaspora Series on November 12, 2013 when the university welcomed Todd Fine, founder of Project Khalid, New York City’s "Save Washington Street" campaign, and the new Washington Street Historical Society. In his discussion, he spoke of "Little Syria", a flourishing neighborhood in lower Manhattan, during the late 19th century to mid-19th century that once was inhabited by Arab-Americans from the Levant region, which encompassed modern-day Syria. Fine also discussed how he seeks to preserve their legacy and contribution to American history.  




Introducing himself to the audience (many of whom were from Syria and Lebanon), Fine spoke of how his interest in the Little Syria began after reading The Book of Khalid by Amin Rihani, a prominent Arab-American writer from the Little Syria neighborhood, in college. The book inspired him to explore other literary works from Arab-Americans, citing Khalil Gibran as another notable contemporary writer. Although Fine himself is not of Arab descent, he wanted "To stay true to the truth" and express the impact that Arab-Americans had because of Little Syria. Most of Little Syria was destroyed by the construction of the Brooklyn-Battery Tunnel during the 1940s and, Fine acknowledged, most people probably do not know that it was even there. This is why he created the Washington Street Historical Society.

Through the "power of literature", he felt that the Society would be able to raise the profile of the Arab-American writers. By doing so, interest in Little Syria would grow and its preservation would be achieved.  He spoke of how he is currently trying to have St. George's Syrian Catholic Church, a remnant of the Syrian Maronite community located on Washington Street between Rector Street and Carlisle Street, designated a National Historic Landmark. It has been a city landmark since 2009. He said that most people did not know the church, which is not presently in use, was related to the neighborhood’s Syrian legacy, because the word "Syrian" in its name is blocked by a pole.
Throughout his discussion, he presented pictures of Little Syria that he found from people who had or had family who lived there. Many audiences member also shared memories of the neighborhood of their family members who had lived there, recognizing and remembering the places in the photographs.  

The audience was thoroughly engaged in the presentation, often adding information to complement Fine's research. Many of them wanted to know more, and wanted to support the Society's efforts, especially since for most of them were descendants from relatives who had lived there. Since 9/11, many Arab-American citizens have suffered from distrust, paranoia, and discrimination. According to Fine, recognizing Little Syria would show how much they have vested in America, and how important they are to America's past and present. Little Syria is part of the historic connection between the United States and the Syrian people, many of whom had left during the Ottoman Empire’s control over the area. Similar displacement is occurring now with the Syrian civil war. 

Just as Fine believes that preserving Little Syria is important for its historical value, the same goes for the country of Syria.




 

 

Date:
November 12, 2013
 
Author:
Jamal Jefferson