On Syria: A Lesson from Toledo, Ohio

It rained the day after Thanksgiving in Toledo, Ohio, the city where I grew up and left over fifteen years ago.

I navigated puddles and avoided pellets of water as I carried my growing three year old daughter in my arms, headed for the entrance of The Original Pancake House. It is home of the famous apple pancake, an oven baked delicacy made of Granny Smith apples and a cinnamon glaze.

Our idea for post-holiday brunch was not unique. The place was packed with families of all kinds, a reminder that Thanksgiving is an occasion that gets celebrated across ethnicities, religions, and cultures.

Every time I visit Toledo, I am also reminded of the city’s subtle and humble diversity, an overlooked characteristic of a place that is often characterized as too homogenous. It is a label that has persisted, despite the large and varied immigrant population: Hungarian, Jewish, Polish, Indian, Pakistani, Arab.

I thought of Toledo’s diversity all the more last week, when numerous American politicians said they wouldn’t take Syrian refugees into their jurisdictions because of possible daesh infiltration.

The politicians could learn a thing or two from Toledo, which has a rich history of welcoming Syrian-Lebanese immigrants. They first arrived in Toledo in 1881, many of them leaving for greater economic opportunities but some also fleeing persecution by the Ottoman empire.

Decades of immigration created a community with major contributions to politics, entertainment, and the hospitality industry.

Arab-American actors Jamie Farr (formerly “Jameel Farah”) and Danny Thomas are from Toledo.

A drive through the city’s commercial areas reveals a vibrant Arab-American restaurant culture, with Lebanese food from The Beirut and the Italian-Lebanese restaurant Byblos among the best in town.

Toledo is lesser known for its humanitarian streak. But today, it is one of the few cities across the United States welcoming Syrian refugees with open arms. Lots of recent reporting has featured the experiences of newly arrived Syrians in the area.

An interesting detail is that the American Jewish Resettlement Agency HIAS is a major force in resettling these Syrian refugees – many of whom are Muslim – in Toledo. Other Jewish organizations also work to resettle Syrians in Toledo and elsewhere.

Muslim-Jewish ties in Toledo go back several decades. The America that I grew up in during the 1980s saw our minority communities link up with one another, both to be a stronger political voice but also to expose children to interfaith education, something both communities valued.

Surely the threads of this relationship have been tested and become worn at various political junctures, but at its seams, there remains a genuine commitment to learning and co-existence.

This is not to suggest that this experience is universal. Nor does it imply that the Syrian refugee crisis can be resolved through Muslim-Jewish bonds.

Rather, the problem is that the national-level political rhetoric coming from anti-refugee politicians does not reflect the true narrative of American diversity, which is so much more complex and nuanced than they would like to suggest or would ever understand.

Furthermore, political commentary that advocates keeping out Syrian refugees who are Muslim is offensive to many of us who know America to be so much more. We know because we came from places that offered much less.

The influx of Syrian refugees into the United States will inevitably slow down due to an increase in concern following the attacks in Paris. In reflection of that possibility, it is worth re-posting the official statement of Toledo’s newly elected mayor, Paula Hicks-Hudson, on the situation:

“As a compassionate city, we grieve for the people all over the world suffering loss for the acts of terrorism. We stand with those affected and offer our deepest sympathy.  

As our city has done so in the past, we will remain a place of refuge. Our stance is part of our overall makeup as a compassionate city and based on a philosophy of basic human rights. We do not support terrorists or terrorism. Many of these refugees are families who are, in fact, fleeing terrorism in their homeland. Just as Toledo was a haven for Hungarian refugees in 1950s, we must continue to be one for people seeking safe havens.

Toledo joins with the Welcome Toledo-Lucas County Initiative in providing opportunities for people to find a place of refuge. As part of the initiative, Homeland Security provides rigorous background checks that can take up to two years on émigrés to the United States that are seeking permanent residence here, such as the Syrian refugees. We will continue to work to be a welcoming and inclusive community.”

Amid the fear and rhetoric that has become an unfortunate feature of our national discussion on refugees and Muslims, the example of Toledo reminds us that it is our compassion, generosity, and strong sense of community that makes us American.

Read/Watch More: Planting the cedar tree: the history of the early Syrian Lebanese community in Toledo, OH, 1881-1960 by Hanady M. Awada

The Last of Little Syria, a documentary film on Syrian Americans in Toledo, OH, produced by The Blade

Arab Americans in Toledo, edited by Samir Abu Absi

Photo: Masjid Saad, Toledo, OH; by author

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21 thoughts

  1. We tend to forget that we really are a country of refugees. My family is a mixture of Irish and Hungarian’s who settled it the area for the reasons you have mentioned here. As a family who has hosted exchange students form all over the world, we have learned that we as humans are all looking for the same happiness and security for our families.The richness of the USA comes from the diversity of our cultures. Keep your hearts open, and love will find a way. Excellent article

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  2. Thank you for sharing your insights and experiences. When we moved to Toledo, I often referred to the people and general kindness that is omnipresent here as magic. Your essay and beautiful words are yet another example. God bless… (Oh, and I love the “OPH”, too!)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. We are a very welcoming city indeed! In fact Toledo is one of the only cities in Ohio that has a Social Service branch specifically for Arab Immigrants and Refugees! Social Services for the Arab Community has been serving families in Toledo Ohio for 5+ years. Currently there are 300+ families served in Toledo and another 16,000 refugees served by their affiliate branch SSFAC Jordan. http://www.toledolovesyou.com The organization my wife and I started called Without Borders hosts monthly welcoming community dinners for the last 2.5 years and a weekly men’s and biweekly woman’s group called Sawa that is a diverse intermingling of cultures and religious affiliations. Sawa (together in Arabic) welcomes refugees and immigrants into community. Sawa intentionally breaks down any barriers that might keep us from viewing one another as humans. Reconciliation, collaboration and community are what shapes Without Borders in our community. So many great impactful ways we welcome folks to Toledo.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent article. Makes me proud to be born and raised in Toledo. And being a Hungarian I am even more proud of the people of Toledo. Lets hope the rest of the United States can learn from us.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. As a co-founder of the largest Social Service organization for Arab immigrants & refugees in Greater Toledo, Social Services for the Arab Community (SSFAC), I thank you for this important article.
    Long after the “refugee issue” fades from the headlines, the families who come to our city (refugee, asylum seekers and new immigrants) will need assistance.
    These are people, not political tools or means for political aspirations or to make money…
    Real Toledoens and locally-driven Toledo organizations like SSFAC will be there to help and love these families when the headlines fade and the funds dry up…
    We are privileged to serve!
    Thank you again for your article.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Beautiful article! Proud of where I was born and raised to treat everyone equal and help those in need. Living in Detroit for the last 15 years now, also is a great place for those of all cultures across America. Just wish the rest of the US could learn from cities like like Toledo and Detroit! We all had our families come here for a better life, why are things any different now? Many of these people are willing and able to work hard for a better life… Why not support them in the process?

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  7. Great article, spoke personally to my up bringing in N Toledo. Grandpa, grandma Lebanese descendants. Grew up with many other cultures. Adapted to society, learned language never demanded others conform to their ways. Never demanded street signs or store signs in native language. I do believe that is what people today are afraid of. Freedom yes just don’t force idololgy on what we honor and respect. I do hope and pray Toledo stays open to others. We are very diverse.

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  8. Thank you for a thoughtful article. In Rossford (adjacentToledo, for those of you not from here) at an electrical substation on the Pilkington glass plant, there’s an ancient caution sign, in several different languages. We are a nation and particularly a region of immigrant.

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  9. Outstanding sentiments expressed here. Should be required reading. Particularly by the politicians and certainly by Republicans aspiring to be President.

    I was born and raised in Toledo. A Mexican-American family. Hispanics came to Toledo early on, too and have made great contributions to the City.

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  10. What a beautiful article and tribute to our community! I, too, am a life-long Toledoan who loves and appreciates what we have. As a Muslim Arab-American of Lebanese descent I have never encountered prejudice in my hometown and walked proudly proclaiming and explaining my roots and culture to those who ask.

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  11. Thank you sooo much for writing this article! I was having very similar thoughts to yours, after reading/seeing so much negative press about our country’s unwilligness and suspicions to welcome Syrian and other refugees here. This is so far from the truth about Toledo and Toledoans, who lead the country as one of the designated Cities of Compassion! I was born and raised in Toledo, and have worked a few years with the MultiFaith council of Northwestern Ohio. Although I now live in N. California, I am glad to acknowledge the solid and egalitarian foundation of my roots in the Toledo community. Keep up the good work!

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