Imagine getting off a boat and walking into a land that not only looks different from your homeland, but the language isn’t even close to your own. How do you answer the questions from the immigration officials? How do you let them know who is sponsoring you and where you are going? How do you tell them your name, your city of origin, your family?
For many Syrian immigrants who came into the United States this was the problem they faced. It was a frustrating process for all until Najib Arbeely, believed to be one of the first translators for Arabic speaking immigrants, was hired in New York City to translate for the new arrivals from the Middle East, in particular from the Greater Syria area.
His own family came to the United States, through New Orleans, in 1878 due to the persecution of Christians by the Ottoman Empire. His father was a doctor and Najib was 16 when the family settled in Tennessee, where Najib received a degree and became a professor of French at the college after graduation. Some of the family relocated to California in the 1890’s. His oldest brother, who became a Doctor, died in 1892 and their father Youssef died in 1894.
“Because of his love of learning and progress he left the homelands and departed from family and friends and rode the seas casting caution to the wind, and arrived in these lands with his family and children and thus attained the desires of his heart and his purpose [search for knowledge.
” Najib Arbeely eulogy of his father Youseff.
Retrieved on September 15, 2018 from https://lebanesestudies.news.chass.ncsu.edu/2016/11/30/arbeely-family-pioneers-to-america-and-founders-of-the-first-arabic-language-newspaper/
In 1885 Najib was appointed by Grover Cleveland as special counsel to Jerusalem. Due to political maneuvering he was removed after a year because he was not born in America. After his return to the US he managed exhibits at the Chicago World Fair in 1893, in Buffalo in 1901, and St. Louis in 1904. These fairs often began the migration of more families from Greater Syria as men would travel home and tell their families about “Amrika.”
In 1893, Najib, along with his brother Ibrahim, founded the first Arab American newspaper in New York, Kawhab Amrika (Star of America) Papers were essential to both immigrants settled in the US and to those who were about to immigrate. It provided information on what was needed to get through immigration in New York, the most difficult port of entry to enter for many Arabs. It also helped families keep in contact and find out news from Syria.
The Ottoman empire had placed an embargo on typesetting machines and letters to outside of the empire concerned it would incite a rebellion. However, Najib and Ibrahim were able to circumvent the embargo and provide news to families still living in Greater Syria.
In addition to the newspaper, Najib authored an English-Arab primer, used by many immigrants to learn the language.
One of his biggest contributions to the Syrian community in the United States was his assistance in the interview process for new arrivals. He was able to translate and also helped families reconnect and for those arrivals who could not find family, he got them to “Little Syria” in New York City where resettlement houses would help the individuals until they found their family or were ready to strike out on their own.
He later entered a career in law and was one of the founding members of the Syrian Society of New York, where he served as President. He died at work in 1904 and was mourned by many who attributed their success to his assistance.
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