My grandfather, Mohammed “Ed” Aryain, left Syria in1898 when he was fifteen years old seeking economic opportunity. He wanted to earn money to buy a watch like the one he had seen on another person. He then expected to return home to his village in Syria where he would be recognized as a wealthy man.
He walked from his village, Henna, near Damascus, 120 miles to the Mediterranean coast where he caught a freighter to France. It was an eight-day journey to LeHavre, France. He then booked passage on a ship, the Niagara, from LeHavre and sailed to the US. He could only afford a steerage ticket, so he made the Atlantic crossing in crowded and unsanitary conditions. It must have been difficult for a boy on his own.
He entered the U.S. through Ellis Island where he was detained when his adolescent acne outbreak was mistaken for an infectious disease. He waited, fearful that he would be returned to Syria after his long journey.
He was released, and when he left Ellis Island, he took the train to his sponsor in Pennsylvania. The sponsor was part of a network of Syrian merchants that Ed connected with in New York. The sponsor set Ed up as a peddler of linens and home goods. He worked many years, traveling through the Midwest, sleeping in barns, and finally made his way to the oil boom areas of Oklahoma and Texas. He established himself with several dry goods stores in the West Texas area, losing even those during the Great Depression. But he rebuilt and finally established a store in Seminole, Texas, where he felt welcomed and accepted. He married an American woman, and they had two sons. However, Ed would say that his key accomplishment was becoming an American citizen and being accepted as a respected man in Seminole. Late in his life, he did return to Henna to visit his family there. He was always grateful for the opportunities which America had afforded him.
I remain inspired by the courage that he showed by coming to the U.S. on his own. I know he suffered many deprivations and sorrows, yet he persevered. He always challenged me and my siblings to work hard and live an honorable life. I am forever grateful that I was born in America due to his sacrifices.
I am also happy that, late in his life, he decided to write his memoir for all his children and grandchildren to have in perpetuity. “From Syria to Seminole: Memoir of a High Plains Merchant” was published by the Texas Tech University Press in 2006 and continues to be one of our family’s most cherished possessions. It is believed to be the only first-person written account of the Arab immigrant peddler/merchant experience of the early 20th century.
Linda R. Santa Fe
Stories inspired by the When I Got Here podcast, hosted by Byron Harris.