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tv   Syrian Immigrants During World War I  CSPAN  June 24, 2017 9:50am-10:01am EDT

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>> american history tv was at the organization of american historians' annual meeting in new orleans, where we spoke about why syrians immigrated to the u.s. during the first world war and what life was like after they arrived. this interview is about 10 minutes. >> when did immigration from the middle east to the u.s. began in large numbers? >> middle eastern immigration to the united states really began in mass numbers in the 1880's. the majority of these migrants were ottoman nationals coming from the ottoman empire. between 1880's and the first world war in 1914, about half a million ottoman subjects came to the americas. about 200,000 of those people were in the united states, and about half that number were syrian arab immigrants. before the 1890's, american immigration officials did not really disaggregate between various classes of ottoman subjects coming to the u.s. everyone was ottoman, but in 1897, they changed the
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classification scheme to allow for an understanding of ottomans. as turkish, as armenians, as supported jews, and as syrian arabs. one of the sticky notes was that each of these categories was understood as racial category in u.s. immigration law, so that sort of created a new hierarchy whereby syrians were understood to be fundamentally different from the rest of the ottoman subjects coming to the united states, and this meant that there were certain -- there was a certain hierarchy, and that guided access to united states citizenship or not. >> how did the start of world war i impact these groups? >> the united states did not into the war until april of 1917, and when the united states entered the war they declared , war on germany, but not on germany plus principal ally, the ottoman empire, so technically, the ottoman entire and united states were never in a state of war. they were in a state of neutrality, but that still meant
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that ottoman nationals were sort of marked as a potentially problematic or politically subversive population. there were two impulses. the was to sort of police and first surveying and restrict the movements of ottoman migrants moving around the united states or doing cross-border activities, and on the other side, we have america's mobilization efforts where we had u.s. policymakers talking about it middle east and migrants can be used as military labor. or even drafted in the selective service draft. >> how were they generally treated in the u.s.? >> it was this sort of dual regime of policing and restricting on one side and trying to draft as military labor on the other side. the bureau of investigation actually ramped up security at the u.s.-mexico border in an effort to try to stymie the cross-border migration of syrian -- mostly merchants. these itinerant peddlers would
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frequently, for the goal of conducting neutral trade. sort of prominent fears about syrians living in mexico who might be or might not be conducting pro-german activities against the u.s. >> how was the treatment similar or treatment different to that of germans in the u.s.? >> legally, because the ottoman empire in the united states whenever officially it were, german nationals were enemies. that meant they were supposed to be exempted from the draft, etc. ottomans were called neutral allies of the german enemy. this opened questions about if we could draft them. when you have 200,000 people,
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that is a pretty compelling people to try to expand desperate compelling reason to try to expand draft powers. there were ongoing conversations about if this group could be compelled to go to war for the united states. >> your researchers on syrian migrants. why did the syrians start being perceived as a separate group? >> i mentioned the 1890's, there is this sort of disaggregation of ottomans into turks, armenians, sephardic jews and syrian arabs. in the context of the war to be , called an ethnic turk in the context of the war was increasingly to be marked as sort of an other, and turk was simultaneously understood to be muslim. it was conflated with islam in a new way as a result of the politics of the war. this meant there were syrian arabs who were -- overwhelmingly, the syrian population in the u.s. was christian at this time. they actually went to court to try to get a legal distinction
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for themselves as syrians as opposed to turks. they got this, and he gave them access to u.s. citizenship. in 1917, that law was expanded in order to make it so we could draft large numbers of syrians and lebanese by calling them something other than ottomans, even though legally, they were still ottoman nationals. the result of this is that 10,000 ethnic syrians are listed isted in thed -- enl; u.s. army and were ultimately deployed. >> can you speak to how they were treated in the army or overseas once they were deployed? >> i could speak to what they felt or what they thought. many of the people, many of the syrians who fought in the u.s. army believed they were doing this as a new americans, and in 1918, many were given instantaneous u.s. citizenship as sort of -- in thanks for their efforts, right? they are new americans and are proud of being americans, but there is simultaneous emergence of being proud of being middle east and, where we have these syrian troops who are patriotic
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americans and that is why they are going to france, but they also believe this is the war that will liberate syria from the ottoman empire. they are invoking nationalism, in doing these things kind of side by side. we see an american patriotism and syrian patriotism existing in this sort of uneasy mixture during the war. >> how did you get into this topic? >> it's really easy, especially with our current political moment, to see middle eastern migration as something that is new, especially now with new migrants coming from the middle east and refugees coming on the middle east, so one of the things that sort of inspires my work is the desire to show that this is not only an old story, but that some of the ways that americans think about the region and its politics is also framed through this experience of middle eastern migration dating back to the first world war.
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>> how has it been as a historian to see a topic that you research so much in the news? >> this is a hard one. it's hard, and it's sad. i guess for me, there is an element of is there something i can do in my work as a historian to contribute to having a better conversation about syrian immigration in america or syrian refugees in america. i want to do that. that is part of it, but it's hard. >> what sort of sources do you use in this research? >> many of these syrian migrants were clandestine or some variation of clandestine. some were undocumented. for that reason, it is hard to get at them using normal government sources because they were explicitly trying to evade being detected in some cases, so
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i like to your sources that were written by syrian migrants, things like diaries, personal letters, personal papers. newspapers are a really great source. enlistment reports or passport documents. any ephemera or paperwork these syrian migrants carried on their person during the war, i try to collect those things and put them in conversation with one another. >> has it been difficult to find those sources? >> it is not easy. i actually got involved in this because i am a middle eastern rest. easternist. i was supposed to be doing dissertation research in syria when the war began, and it was sort of an approach i took in order to confront the reality that i could not do my research in the middle east at this present moment. i have had to sort of build my own archive by finding the rare books and rare manuscripts and sometimes speaking with , families to find out what kind of papers they have stashed in the attic, right? and it is very rewarding work, but it is work that has sort of
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developed out of the obstacles that come with working on this region during a period of war. >> thank you for speaking with us. >> thank you for having me. watching american history tv, all weekend every weekend on c-span3. to join the conversation, like us on facebook at c-span history. >> tonight on lectures of history, the university of notre dame professor on u.s. american oil interests. here's a preview. culturesare the two that really emerged and one worldviews.d two not just to corporate sectors, but two worldviews, which are in the 1940's will clash. you have major oil, civil religion of crude, which seized
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the virtue of the large, integrated, multinational company working with ultimate -- government to open up new foreign fields, and in the process promote face and modernity, and in the power of the spending to nurture economic development and democratic values on a global scale, and on the other hand you have independence, wildcat, religion which seized the virtue of the small, independent producer, to be integrated on the limited scale, working with local people and associations. the support of states to explore domestic fields. again, this would raise up and secure the privileges of the rugged, individualist -- rugged individualism amid this globalization of the 1940's. the entirewatch program at 8:00 p.m. eastern and again at midnight eastern on tonight


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