A Look at Jacksonville’s Arab American Community

With Syria and the ongoing refugee crisis in the news, Metro Jacksonville turns to the history and impact of Jacksonville’s Syrian and Arab community. The River City boasts the country’s fifth-largest Syrian population, and the tenth largest overall Arab American community. From politics to business to the culinary arts, Arabs have been making their mark in all areas of life in Jacksonville for 125 years.

Published December 1, 2015 in Culture - MetroJacksonville.com

A Brief History

Ottoman Syria. Most immigrants to Jacksonville came from the Mount Lebanon area around Beirut. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Fruit seller Farris Mansour, the first Arab immigrant to settle in Jacksonville, arrived around 1890. Over the next thirty years, hundreds more followed, most coming from the same province as Mansour: Ottoman Syria, which included modern Syria as well as Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and other territories.  A large majority of these pioneers originated in the rural Mount Lebanon area and around 90% were Christians. Typically, they acquainted themselves with American culture and business in Northeastern cities before seeking their fortunes in Jacksonville.

As most Syrian immigrants pursued commercial jobs rather than farming or factory work, they found an attractive environment in Jacksonville, a port and tourist town with a growing commercial sector and a reputation for hospitality toward immigrants. Early Syrians established themselves as grocers, peddlers, and small businesspeople, and dispersed throughout the city instead of forming ethnic enclaves. By immersing themselves in the dominant culture they gained an unusual level of acceptance compared to other cities. However, they did not abandon their culture, but instead carved out a double life: in public, they operated as largely assimilated white Americans, while maintaining their own traditions in private.

Wedding dancing at the Ramallah Club, 1985
Courtesy of Florida Memory

As Jacksonville became known as a friendly place for Syrians, more came every year. By 1920 Duval County’s Syrian community included 333 foreign-born immigrants and hundreds more American natives of Syrian descent. Another influx arrived after the Ottoman Empire’s collapse in the 1920s, many hailing from Ramallah, Palestine. A third wave started in the 1960s and continues today, bringing thousands of immigrants and refugees, Christians and Muslims of all denominations, from across the Middle East. Today 8,000 people of Arab descent call Jacksonville home.

The Salaam Club

Religious institutions and social clubs have helped generations of Arab Americans thrive and maintain their culture in Jacksonville. Early pioneers attended local churches, and some started their own. Today, a variety of Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches serve the community, as do seven mosques, including the large Islamic Center of Northeast Florida. Social organizations like the Salaam Club, founded in 1912 as the Syrian American Club, and the Ramallah Club, established by Palestinians in 1953, have provided organized community support for decades.

Faces of Jacksonville’s Arab American Community

Jacksonville’s Syrian and Arab Americans have fostered a culture that values community, personal success and public service. Their impact on Jacksonville has been enormous, if sometimes overlooked.

Virginia Atter Keys
Courtesy of news4jax.com

Lebanese American singer and media pioneer Virginia Atter Keys helped introduced Jacksonville to television. Beginning in 1949, when few families owned sets, Keys hosted TV and radio programs for over 40 years, often alongside co-host Dick Stratton.

Tommy Hazouri

Today, Jacksonville’s most recognizable Arab American is undoubtedly Tommy Hazouri, Mayor from 1987-1991. Growing up above his Lebanese family’s Liberty Street grocery, Hazouri has been a prolific public servant for over 40 years. He currently sits on the City Council after winning a landslide victory in 2015, and has also been a State Representative and a School Board Representative.

Sam Mousa

Palestinian American Sam Mousa is currently Jacksonville’s Chief Administrative Officer under Mayor Lenny Curry. Mousa has served in various capacities under five mayors, gaining a reputation as a hard-driving defender of the public trust. Others prominent in public service include Angela Corey, the first woman elected State Attorney in Jacksonville, and Rick Mullaney, a son of Syrian and Irish parents who served under the State Attorney and three mayors, and currently heads Jacksonville University’s Public Policy Institute. In the fields of business, law, and medicine, locally familiar names like Bateh, Bajalia, Farah, Sleiman, Salem, Solomon, Isaac, Demetree and Rukab all have Arab roots.

Cultural Contributions

A camel rider from Jacksonville chain The Sheik

Perhaps the Arab community’s most conspicuous contribution has been the city’s ubiquitous Middle Eastern restaurants, delis, sandwich shops, and bars found in nearly every neighborhood.

These restaurants have given Jacksonville its most distinctive food product, the camel rider. Also called the desert rider or simply rider, it was created here in the 1960s. A quick, flavorful lunchtime dish for working people, a traditional rider consists of ham, salami, bologna and sandwich fixings stuffed into a pita, and comes with a side of tabbouleh and a cherry limeade. Today over 50 local restaurants serve riders, and they’ve spread to a few other cities.

Syrians and other Arab Americans have contributed much to Jacksonville, and the city has benefited immensely by creating a welcoming environment for them. This is a tradition worth preserving: a Jacksonville without riders would be no Jacksonville at all.

Article by Bill Delaney

This article can be found at: https://www.metrojacksonville.com/article/2015-dec-a-look-at-jacksonvilles-arab-american-community

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