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Arab Names Lost at Ellis Island

posted on: May 31, 2021

Arab Names Lost at Ellis Island
Ellis Island in New York City, NY. Photo: Ducksters

By: Lindsey Penn/Arab America Contributing Writer

Ellis Island, the major point of entry to the United States on the East Coast, saw more than 12 million immigrants from its opening in 1892 to closing in 1924. As millions of people walked through the doors, they signed their names and set out to start their new lives. There are so many stories to tell of walking through Ellis Island, stories of excitement, sadness, hope, and more. There are stories of families pursuing opportunities, escaping hardships, and reuniting. Then, there are the stories of people who took a different name. This concept is not unique to any one particular nationality or ethnicity, and the Arabs who landed in Ellis Island are no exception.

History of Arabs at Ellis Island

Arab Names Lost at Ellis Island
Algerian Arabs at Ellis Island. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The first wave of Arab immigrants to the United States started around 1880 and lasted until about 1914. At the time, the U.S. Immigration Office didn’t have a standard of how to “classify” the many different ethnicities of the Ottoman Empire. The labels included: Greek, Turk, Ottoman, Syrian, and Armenian. Then, starting in 1899, the Immigration Office just said all Arab immigrants are “Syrian” on their paperwork. By the beginning of World War I, some 110,000 Arabs immigrated to the United States, the majority of them from the Ottoman Empire’s province of Syria (modern-day Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, and Palestine). Many of the immigrants were also Christian.

Once World War I ended, there was a smaller “wave” of Arab immigrants coming through Ellis Island. In 1920, there was the peak of Arab immigrants coming to the U.S. in any single year during Ellis Island’s opening, with a total of about 4,200 Arab immigrants. After that, the number started to drop off to closer to 2,500 people per year. Then, in 1924, the U.S. government passed the Immigration Act of 1924 (also known as the Johnson-Reed Quota Act). The Act limited the number of immigrants mainly from Asia and the Middle East, only allowing 100 people per year from “Greater Syria” (Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Palestine).

After passing through Ellis Island, many of the Arab immigrants settled in or around New York City, with some making their new lives in New Jersey. In New York City, the neighborhood on the waterfront in Lower Manhattan became Little Syria. As people moved to other places to continue and build new lives, Little Syria started to disappear.

Ellis Island Arab Immigration Stories:

Arab Names Lost at Ellis Island
An ad for a ship going to New York/Ellis Island. Photo: North Carolina State University

The following are just a few stories of the many families who came to the United States through Ellis Island.

Interview Questions:

What is the story of your family immigrating to the United States? (Why did they come and when)

Ed: The story of my family immigrating to the us is that: mother’s side, grandparents came in 1895 through New York. They were from a region in Lebanon, Ras al Metn, town called Hasbaya. Grandfather is Bou Nassar (Father of). His name was Michael Moses Bou Nassar. Somehow, he ended up being Michael Moses. His mother, born in 1907, was Celia Moses. My father came directly with his father in 1910 to the US. He was 10 years old. His fathers name was John Bishelany. There are two versions of the story: one from the family, and other from records. When they got to Ellis Island, the family story is that his grandfather said his name was John Gabriel Bishelany, said he didn’t need Bishelany. His father became Michael John Gabriel. The BIshelany was lost. The records indicate when his father and grandfather came through France to switch boats (landed in Marseilles, then went to Havre, got on another boat). At some point, they registered as John Gabriel. His friend says his grandfather technically changed his name when he switched boats in France, when he dropped the name.

His grandfather was from the same region as his mother. The town his grandfather was from was called Salima. They all ended up in Olean, NY or near there. One friend would ell the other relatives “when you get there, go to Atlantic Ave because they’ll help you, they have a lot of Arabs there and they’ll help you get to Olean”.

What was your family’s (Arab) name? Do you go by the same name now?

Why (do you think) your family changed the name? What were the circumstances around it?

What does your name mean to you?

He is very proud to be from the Bishelany clan. He has had the chance for the last 30 years to go back and forth to Lebanon and really get in touch with the roots of his mother and father. He loves that they are from the Bishelany family. He has met a lot of Bishelany’s in his father’s town and visited the family grave in his mother’s town. He doesn’t resent at all that they knocked off Bishelany. For him, his name is Gabriel. He is proud to be a Bishelany. He has psent his life fighting for and blieveing in the causes in Lebanon and helping Lebanese people prosper. He is currently yhe head of the American task force in Lebanon. He has dedicated his lie to Arab American and Middle Eastern causes.

Are you comfortable sharing 1-3 pictures of yourself or your family? Do you have a picture of your family member who came to the United States?

Sure-in picture frames

Do you have any other thoughts that you have about names at Ellis Island/any stories from other people? He doesn’t, he needs to think about others. There are so many other Lebanese with first names for last names.

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