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Syrian Cultural Garden More Than 80 Years in the Making

posted on: Nov 19, 2010

It often takes years, even decades for an ethnic community to muster the money and the resources to build a cultural garden in Rockefeller Park. The Syrian-American community may have set a new example of perseverance.

Masons and landscapers are busily at work on a Syrian Cultural Garden — 81 years after the community was awarded its garden site.

“That’s probably some kind of record,” said Cleveland State University historian Mark Tebeau.

The coming garden, first proposed in 1929, is notable for more than its timetable. It will become the first Arab-American garden in the Cleveland Cultural Gardens, which represent the ethnic and cultural groups of Northeast Ohio in a two-mile garden chain following Doan Brook.

Designers promise pan-Arab features in the finished garden, scheduled to be dedicated in May.

A Syrian garden is further evidence of what observers call the “reflowering” of the cultural gardens. The landmark chain is enjoying renewed interest and investment after decades of inactivity.

In September, the Armenian community dedicated the 26th cultural garden, raising a distinctive representation of the Armenian alphabet at the north end of Martin Luther King Drive.

In the last five years, the gardens have welcomed the Indian, Latvian, Azerbaijan and Serbian communities. The Croatian and Albanian communities have garden plans in the works.

“We haven’t seen this volume of work and investment since the 1930s, easily,” said Tebeau, who is researching a book on the cultural gardens, which were founded in 1926 to promote peace and brotherhood in an immigrant city.

Tebeau said the revival has been aided by new, less ambitious garden designs that allow smaller ethnic communities to join the tradition. Others credit fresh immigrants, rising cultural pride, and the fact that joining the cultural gardens is still a mark of having made it in America.

That desire must have existed in the late 1920s, when Syrian immigrants hailed from a Greater Syria, which included today’s Lebanon.

No one is sure why the Syrian garden was never built, but the idea was resurrected in 2004. Leaders of AACCESS Ohio, an Arab-American social service agency, discovered the garden plot while researching Arab immigration to the area. They organized youth to clear the site of litter and debris and began building interest in the Syrian community, which numbers a few thousand people in Northeast Ohio.

Eventually, some of the community’s leading professionals took up the crusade, forming committees for fundraising and planning.

Four of the garden leaders were in Rockefeller Park Saturday morning, consulting with the contractor and surveying the vision taking shape beneath a shady hillside on MLK Drive just north of Superior Avenue.

“It’s just going to be beautiful,” said Dr. Adnan Mourany, the chief of surgery at St. John Medical Center and the president of the Syrian garden committee.

He and his fellow gardeners — Jamil Dayeh, Dr. Wael Khoury and Bassam Khawam — said they expect the garden to be as illuminating to Arab-Americans as it is to the larger community as it reflects Syrian history and culture.

For the design, they reached to the Middle East and held a contest among architecture students at the University of Damascus. Dayeh, a Westlake engineer from Syria, blended the top student proposals and shaped a $250,000 project.

Islamic, Christian and Roman designs course through a garden whose elements span Syrian history — no small feat.

“We have one of the oldest histories in the world,” Dayeh noted.

Entering the garden from the stone stairs descending from East Boulevard, visitors will walk through Syrian arches into a Roman-style amphitheater reminiscent of the ancient amphitheater of Basra. An Arabic-style fountain will bubble in the middle. Plantings will include Damascus roses and cedars of Lebanon.

From MLK, passing motorists will see water and stonework illuminated at night.

The gardeners envision a place for concerts, weddings, education — and celebration.

The region’s early Syrian-Americans possessed the pluck and pride to pitch a cultural garden. Eight decades later, a new immigrant generation is willing and able to finish the job.

Robert L. Smith