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Alamatouri: Syrian Vermonters

Migration from Syria to Vermont is, in fact, nothing new.

Syrians began arriving in Vermont from Greater Syria in 1890. Yes, you heard that right: 1890. They came to work in the woolen mills and brought their language and culture with them. But they also assimilated fairly quickly into their new communities - including Barre, Winooski, and Burlington.

At that time, Greater Syria (now Syria and Lebanon) was under Ottoman occupation, and in 1860 the first Civil War in Syria led many Syrians to leave - mainly from the area of Mt Lebanon, now in the country of Lebanon.

One helpful resource is the book, ‘The Background and Causes of Lebanese/Syrian Immigration’ by Samir Khalaf. He mentions that it was very hard for Syrians - especially those from minority religious groups - to live under the Ottoman occupation, where nationalist and religious rhetoric dominated the empire. Ottoman rulers recruited Syrian youth (especially from minorities) to fight their wars, and placed them in the front lines.

Then, when the Suez Canal opened in 1869, silk coming from East Asia meant that the Syrian silk industry had to contend with a new – and fierce competitor. And Syrians who could no longer work in the silk industry were well prepared to work in the woolen industry in Vermont.

Information about the history of Syrians in Vermont in libraries and research centers is thin. And that may be partly because as they assimilated, many Syrian families changed their name to something similar in English – though it’s still fairly easy to see that quite a few names have Arabic language origins.

And in her book, ‘A Trace of Arabic in Granite,’ writer Amy E. Rowe reveals that Arabic script can be found carved into the granite of Vermont Cemeteries, including several gravestones in St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Burlington and St. Monica’s Cemetery in Barre.

It’s not hard to see why Syrians would choose Vermont. The weather here is very similar to that of the Mt Lebanon region - where it’s cold and snowy in winter and warm in summer. There’s even some similarity in trees and plants - like apple trees, which need cold weather to grow.

My wife and I are always fascinated to see wild dandelion in Vermont - which is used in a special Syrian Salad. And food writer, Melissa Pasanen, has written about the Syrian food traditions of a mill family in Winooski.

Ashraf Alamatouri is the English Language Learning Coordinator at VRRP/USCRI. He taught English at Kalamoon University and conducted teacher training courses in multiple regions in Syria. Previous to joining USCRI, Mr. Alamatouri was the Director of the Language Department at the International Center for Human Development. Mr. Alamatouri is a Fulbright alumnus and holds a Master’s Degree in teaching English as a Foreign Language from Albath University in Syria as well as a Master’s Degree in Teaching English for Speakers of Other Languages from Saint Michael’s College. He holds a B.A in English Literature from Damascus University. He is currently in a doctoral program in Educational Leadership and Policy at UVM. He lives with his wife Nagham and three kids Ryan, Adam and Naya in Colchester, VT. He likes to play music and to cook Syrian food in his free time.
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