The last group of immigrants to venture to colonial Trinidad originated in the region previously known as Greater Syria, which comprises of present day Iraq, Syria, Palestine and Lebanon. Many of the Lebanese hailed from the villages of Buhandoun and Amyoun while the Syrians came from villages in the ‘Valley of the Christians.’ These Arabs emigrated to the Caribbean from as early as 1904 in an attempt to escape religious persecution and economic hardship in their native countries.
Trinidad’s thriving economy, political stability and pristine environment proved to be the ideal location where these displaced Arabs could establish new lives. They brought with them vestiges of their culture and a keen business acumen which proved to be the ideal tools for success in the colony. At their arrival they were “virtually penniless”; however, they have “managed to achieve phenomenal economic success”.
CIRCUMSTANCES OF ARRIVAL
Initially, the first Arab settlers in Trinidad were men. They resided in boarding houses along Marine Square and George, Duke, Duncan and Charlotte Streets. George Habib and Amin Abraham were among the first to land, arriving in 1904 and 1905 respectively. The Syrian-Lebanese men would then work to accumulate money to pay off their credit at business places; maintain families back home and provide for personal living expenses. Some money would be saved and some would also be used to pay the fares for relatives to travel to the colony. Albert Hadeed, an Arab-Trinidadian explains, “[First] A few men came because of the oppression and after they established themselves, they sent for their brothers or their cousins.”
Members of a family came to Trinidad following their relatives. The Nahous family is a fitting example. Joseph Nahous followed his elder sister Faridi to the colony, arriving in 1937, sixteen years after she (Faridi) left Greater Syria. Fourteen years after his arrival, Nahous sent for his wife and children. The men who had left their spouses behind would arrange for them to come to Trinidad and by the 1920s and 1930s many young women of Arabic descent had arrived in Port-of-Spain to raise families and lend support to their husbands. Usually the men who came did not envision a future for themselves in greater Syria. Most had operated wool and silk factories which were rendered obsolete with the creation of artificial silk. They travelled to the Americas fuelled with the hope that greater opportunities would be available to them there. These early immigrants usually remitted beautiful descriptions of the Caribbean which served to motivate their relatives to journey to the West Indies.
The eagerness and haste with which the early emigrants facilitated the immigration of their immediate and extended families is indicative of the great significance of the family unit in the Syrian-Lebanese community. Family seemed to be the nucleus of their society and is credited as being one of the contributing factors of their entrepreneurial success. Traditionally, the males assumed the tasks of founding businesses.
With the exception of Rahme Sabga and Susane Kousa (two female peddlers of the 1920s), it was only men who would peddle dry goods throughout the country sides of Trinidad to acquire an income to support their families. Women were expected to care for the children and perform household chores, in addition to providing merchandise for their husbands to peddle. Arabic women were competent seamstresses. Ramza Hadeed asserts that “Shirt making was the industry of the immigrant women. Anna Haddaway started her factory as did Miriam Sabga.” Furthermore, Arab women also made an assortment of lingerie. In the eighties, several Syrian-Lebanese women were entering the official work force, with most employed in the areas of banking and teaching.
The family was also central to Syrian social life which is maintained by regular and frequent family gatherings. Socialization is primarily restricted exclusively to the members of the community although recently, some Syrians, such as the ‘Mighty Trini’ (Robert Elias), are becoming more socially integrated with the wider society through participation in national cultural activities. Previously, Syrian-Lebanese children were prohibited from socializing outside of the community. Young women, particularly those of marriageable age, were very sheltered and whenever social excursions were necessary they were chaperoned by elder brothers.
In an attempt to shelter their youth, the Arabs established an exclusive club on Dundonald Hill in 1944. There, weekends and evening would be spent conducting theatre and concerts in addition to playing tennis, billiards and bingo. In the 1950s, charity and voluntary work became an important aspect of the social life of the Syrian- Lebanese women. Organizations such as the Syrian Lebanese Women’s Organization and TriSly (a youth group) have been actively involved in the preservation of Syrian-Lebanese culture in addition to raising funds to assist less fortunate Trinidadians.
The Arabs are very religious and quickly assimilated into the Roman Catholic Community. Although the Syrian-Lebanese were either Maronite, Antiochian Orthodox or Orthodox, they preferred to join the Catholic faith because, according to Rose Abraham, “[the Catholic Church] is the highest, the strongest church…the only church Arabs felt is a good church.” It can also be inferred that the similarity in rituals and teachings between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches would have been comforting to the Syrian-Lebanese immigrants.
In addition to Trinidad’s beauty and agreeable climate, the island at the turn of the century was “a wealthy, thriving British Colony.” The colony was in close touch with all parts of the globe. As a result, it was conducive to lucrative trade. This was encouraging for the Syrians and Lebanese since trade and commerce were ingrained in their culture.
In Trinidad, Syrian-Lebanese business usually took the form of a sole trader or partnership (with another member of their family). They are primarily involved in the haberdashery trade which is evident by the large number of Syrian owned fabric firms located throughout Trinidad. Syrian-Lebanese are also involved in real-estate development; the manufacturing sector and the fast food industry.