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The Syrians Who Boarded the Titanic: New York’s Syrian Community Responded

posted on: Apr 10, 2019

The Syrians Who Boarded the Titanic: New York’s Syrian Community Responded

By: Leila Salloum Elias/Arab America Contributing Writer

It has been over a century that the RMS Titanic on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York collided with an iceberg.  News of the sinking of the ship in the icy waters of the Atlantic on April 15, 1912, reverberated around the world. There were stories and accounts of the last moments, stories of loss, heroism, and survival.  The names of John Jacob Astor, Archibald Butt, William T. Stead, Henry B. Harris among others reached the newspapers of the world and reports about them and other prominent first-cabin passengers made headlines in the American newspapers.  As the names from the wireless from the passenger steamship Carpathia that rescued the survivors were picked up at the newspaper offices, over the days, names of survivors and victims were corrected, corroborated and clarified. Almost immediately, newspapers around the country printed lists of first and second-class passengers as they came in, noting in some cases that clarification was still needed from the wireless names that were coming in.  The fate of steerage came a few days later when muddled names of passengers surfaced, especially those ‘foreign’ to early 20th century America.

From among those passengers of third-class or steerage was a group of Syrians, and according to the Syrian survivors, the number varying between 142 to 154.  They had left their towns and villages and setting their sites on Imrīka, boarded the Titanic as steerage passengers, the majority at Cherbourg, save for one couple who purchased tickets in second-class and boarded the ship at Southampton, and Egyptian passenger Hamad Hasab who traveled first-class with the Harpers serving as their dragoman.  Not too much coverage with given to this group of Arabic-speaking passengers in the American print media contemporary to the Titanic’s sinking.  Foreign people with foreign language and foreign names. It was left up to the Arabic newspapers published in New York to confirm, verify and correct the names of their countrymen who had sailed the same waters that they had sailed before them.

The tragedy hit everywhere and everyone hard.  Family, relatives, and friends of the Titanic’s passengers and crew awaited word of their loved ones.  American relief agencies were quick with their response, ready to house, clothe and donate what was needed to relieve the circumstances of those in need.  A number of New York’s hospitals cared for the survivors, many of whom were suffering from shock and exposure.

In the wake of the disaster, New York’s Syrian community came together to resolve and ameliorate the sudden circumstances of the Syrian passengers.  Al-Muntadà Al-Ittiḥād al-Sūrī al-Imrīkī and al-Naḥdah al-Lubnānīyah put aside any differences and joined forces quickly appointing a special emergency committee to solicit donations from the societies’ membership and from among the Syrian community in general, based on moral duty, humanitarianism, and patriotism.  Ḥabīb cĀṣī, a well-known Syrian community member took 15 survivors to his hotel (lawkānda(t)) Ḥabīb cĀṣī) on the corner of Rector and Washington Streets, while 8 were taken in by Jirjī al-Shāwī, owner of Shawi’s Restaurant, also on Washington Street.   As well, Syrian residences welcomed the survivors who were waiting to settle claims on their losses.   Jamcīyat al-Sayyīdāt al-Sūrīyāt al-Khayrīyah (The Syrian Ladies Aid Society of New York) was also involved and recognized for its assistance.  Six of its members took it upon themselves to visit and meet with the survivors and tend to their needs.  Miss Anastāsīyah Khūrī, as an example, was commended for accompanying the American Ladies Agencies and helping the Syrian survivors.

The Syrian clubs, the community as a whole and New York’s Arabic newspapers became an organized medium of assistance.  The sinking of the Titanic became a common denominator for all, working towards the same goals as the entire nation.

The Syrian community bound and organized together, cooperating to do what could be done to ease the suffering and shock of both the Syrian passengers and community members and to provide support to the victims’ families and to the survivors.   Survivors were alerted to give their information and details to the General Relief Committee as monetary relief was being disbursed to those who put in their claims for losses.

The Ittiḥād al-Sūrī began to work fervently.  It quickly called for a special meeting to help raise money and collect donations for the General Relief Fund which would go towards all victims of the disaster.  From its special fund account, it was the first from the community to donate $50.00 to the General Relief Fund, followed by Nahdah’s $50.00 donation the next day.  On the 23rd of April, Mayor William Jay Gaynor sent a letter to the special committee thanking the community for their donation of “$307.45 for the relief of survivors for both crew and passengers of the Titanic and to allay the hardships of the families of those who lost their lives in this disaster.”

From the hospitals, members of the Committee collected names of the survivors and any information about those who had perished.  Syrian survivor Fahīm Rūḥānā al-Zacinnī from Tūlā assisted Committee members with the identification of the Syrian passengers.  To further assist them, telegrams were sent to the villages from where many of the passengers had hailed and to relatives that needed to be contacted.

Passenger names were collected and given to the Arabic newspapers which were then published, confirming who passengers were, their town/village of origin, district in Syria, age, and in some cases, the amount of money they carried with them.  As well, the Arab-American newspapers published letters of condolence and also published queries from Syrians around the U.S. and Canada who remained uncertain as to whether a son, a daughter, a parent or a relative had indeed been on the Titanic.  

Coverage by these Arabic newspapers in New York in 1912 included a written and recorded account of what otherwise would have disappeared from history.  Their reporting proved valuable especially for those seeking information about family members and relatives. For instance, Mir’at al-Gharb’s May 10th article entitled “al-sā’ilīn man hīya maryam cassāf min kafr mishkī” clarified for those from Kafr Mishki the name of survivor Maryam cAssaf who had earlier confirmed the names of those she traveled with from her village. With her name unrecognizable to the immigrants from this village, readers learned she was Kafr Mishkian Zād cAssāf, wife of Quzmā Ḍāhir Naṣr Allāh.   Al-Hudà on the 27th of April included information from Shacnīnah (Jirjis) Shāhīn Yūsuf Wihbah, wife of Jirjis Yūsuf of Fighāl, who provided accurate information about fellow townsman, Ḥannā Tannus Mucawwad, whose name had only appeared in American newspapers as John Thomas, the name by which he bore in the U.S. She also confirmed the name of his son Ṭannūs, along with the names of Ṭannūs Dāhir and Jirjis Yūsuf Abī Ṣacb, the four all from Tuḥūm and who had perished.  

The Syrians Who Boarded the Titanic New York’s Syrian Community Responds

Details that could be confirmed about the Syrian passengers were published as soon as the information was confirmed and received.  The names of steerage passengers had not appeared in the initial English language lists reaching New York, and when they did, many were misspelled or corrupted beyond recognition.  It was necessary to get facts right. Sulṭanah Būlus’s husband, for example, had scanned the Canadian newspapers and their lists of survivors and victims for his wife and children’s names but failed to recognize them.  He was to learn later from a survivor from Sarcal that the three had been lost, their bodies never recovered or identified.   Titanic survivor Mubārik Ḥannā Sulaymān cĀṣī’s name appeared a number of times in various versions:  Bark Hannah, Hanna Moubarak, Moubarek Borak, Mr. Hanna, John, and Hanne Moubarch.  Knowing that his daughter was on her way to join him, Najīb Qiyāmah would find it difficult to discern the names Najib Hachini or Adele Jane Vagie as that of his daughter Adāl.   The names of married women also created confusion. For instance, Catherine Joseph’s surname was adopted from her husband’s first name.  The same with Hinnah “Darwich” whose husband’s first name, Darwīsh, was given as her family name on the Carpathia’s manifest.  Ṣāfīyah Ḥālūt does not appear as a passenger on the ship but was eventually identified as a survivor “Maryam Yusif” (Ibrāhīm) from Shwayhad.  With such inconsistencies in spelling and names making identification of passengers so uncertain, it was up to the Syria community in New York to determine the identities of their fellow countrymen who had boarded the Titanic.  

The Syrian community in New York was quick in its response and members of the community unconditionally came together to help those affected by this maritime disaster.  The Syrian clubs and organizations, the Arabic newspapers, and individual members of the community did all they could to provide for those who had suffered. The link to the homeland remained strong, these were their own countrymen who had boarded a ship to travel to a new land, the same journey that those here had taken.  

As for the Syrian passengers, they, like their fellow-passengers, whether in first-class or second or in steerage, form part of the history of not only the sinking of the Titanic but of the history of immigration, both of Syria and of the United States.