Documentary captures vanishing life in Ohio’s Little Syria

Documentary captures vanishing life in Ohio’s Little Syria
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Arabs immigrated to many locations in America beginning sometime in the middle of the 19th Century. Why they chose different city locations depends on the industry and job opportunities at the time. Some of those stories have been documented, but most have been lost to time and the absence of a strong community-focused news media to serve as “newspaper” of record. A new documentary has been produced that explores one of the most fascinating stories, the rise and fall of Arabs in Toledo

By Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania covering Chicago City Hall (1976-1992)

Ray Hanania
covering Chicago
City Hall
(1976-1992)

How did Arabs first decide where to live when they left their families and homes in the Middle East and arrived on America’s shores sometime in the middle of the 19th Century?

For many, it was escaping the poverty of the Middle East. For others, it was for political and religious freedom. Yet, why did they chose the communities in America where they settled?

Each city has its own story, but only a few of those stories have been documented. The Arabs of Detroit was first documented by Anan Ameri, director of the Arab American National Museum and co-author Yvonne Lockwood in their book Arab Americans in Metro Detroit in 2001. I documented Chicago’s Arab community in my book, Arabs of Chicagoland, in 2005.

And now, two newspaper journalists, Hasan Dudar and Katie Rausch have produced a video documentary that expands on the story of the Arabs of Toledo, Ohio, one of the most unique American Arab communities in the country.

Dudar, a Palestinian-Lebanese American web editor for The Toledo Blade newspaper, was born and raised in Toledo, Ohio. Katie Rausch, is a staff photographer for The Toledo Blade newspaper.

LittleSyria Radi Cheaib, left, listens as his father Hassan, 81, center, talks with their neighbor Kenneth Berry, right, outside Bush Carry Out in Toledo’s North End. Hassan owns the carry out, where he often spends time talking with neighbors who come in to buy food and candy from his store. THE BLADE/KATIE RAUSCH

The first Arab, from Syria, settled in Toledo in 1881. By 1962, it had a vibrant Arab population and was dubbed “Little Syria.” One of Little Arabia’s most famous sons was Jamie Farr, the Lebanese American actor and one of the stars of the hit TV sitcoms M*A*S*H.

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Today, the population is down to only 37 American Arabs with most of the thousands who settled and grew up there moving on to Toledo’s economically vibrant suburbs including Sylvania, Oregon and Bedford.

The Dudar and Rausch documentary tells the story of that transition focusing on one of the last remaining Arab residents of “Little Syria,” located on Toledo’s North End, Hassan Cheaib, 81, who lived there more than 50 years and says he won’t leave.

Why should he move, he asks. Nobody bothers him, he says. Plus, he loves it there. It’s close to everything. Downtown, the Maumee River, and both interstates. And the convenience store that he and his wife Khadije own on Bush Street is only a two-block walk from their home.

“If you told me to go to Sylvania, maybe I’ll die next week,” he said. “I don’t like it. I like it here.”

The Old North End was a much different place when the 81-year-old father of six moved there in 1962. It was home to the bulk of Toledo’s Arab-American community, known then as Little Syria, a roughly square-mile district that ran from Cherry to Magnolia and Superior to Champlain streets.

The neighborhood was filled with families from Syria, Palestine, and Mr. Cheaib’s native Lebanon. It was like being in the Middle East.

Businesses and stores lined the streets, and the nearby downtown was beautiful day and night, he said. Today, the neighborhood suffers from poverty and blight.

Cheaib is credited with being the first to emigrate from Lebanon in 1961. According to Dudar and Rausch, Cheaib came to America as a Greco-Roman wrestler. His family sold a plot of land in their village in south Lebanon so that he would have enough money for a trip to the United States to compete.

Cheaib settled in the historic Arab-American neighborhood off of Dix Avenue in Dearborn, Michigan, according to the documentary overview. After dislocating his shoulder, he gave up the sport, and in 1962, he moved to Toledo, where he found an apartment in Little Syria and a job washing dishes at a Monroe Street bar.

The documentary captures the heart of the Toledo American Arab community through the eyes of one Arab immigrant who refuses to leave.

You can view the 24 minute documentary online and get more information on the community at www.littlesyriatoledo.com. The website also includes six short interview with other American Arabs who remember Toledo’s “Little Syria.”

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