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It’s lunchtime, and Salah Asfoura walks into Bahnan’s International Marketplace with the ease and familiarity of a regular.
“I shop here all the time,” he says. “I mean, not just here, but when we’re looking for Middle Eastern stuff, they have great pastry here, very fresh.”
Christmas music floats from the speakers as employees unpack goods and prepare fresh spinach pies. There’s authentic Middle Eastern fare on the shelves, piles of fresh Syrian bread from George’s bakery up the street, and homemade baklava glistening under glass display cases. Hookah pipes of varying sizes and designs sit atop a shelf, next to a sign displaying the store’s motto: “Come in as a customer, and leave as a friend.”
Henry Bahnan is the owner of the market, which he runs with help from his wife and two sons. With family from both Syria and Lebanon, he’s been living in Worcester since 1976.
“Who shops here? One aisle is all Middle Eastern from A to Z, from Saudis to Syrian, to you name it,” he says, pointing to narrow rows of groceries. “This side here, we got all the Persian and all kind of teas from all over.”
At a cafe tucked in the back corner, a Syrian chef cooks up authentic lunch items, just like he prepared in his home city of Damascus. Sitting over a lunch of shawarma, falafel and fattoush salad, Asfoura and his friend Camille Nasrah explain what it’s like to be Syrian nationals living in Worcester — a city they’ve each called home for decades.
“We’re Syrians before we were anything else,” Asfoura says. “We were Syrians before we were Muslims or Christians. We are Syrians before we became refugees and immigrants, and we’re proud people.”
Nasrah says for the Syrian community in Worcester, maintaining a connection to their homeland is a priority.
“The sense of unity is very important, [Syrians in Worcester] always are connected back to their home,” he says.
“You left a country you love, you left the land where you were born and where you grown [sic] up,” Asfoura says. “You don’t want to just come here to just become a number. You want to do something.”
Syrian Roots Run Deep In Worcester
Of course, the Syrian national identity today is complicated by the current political climate.
Asfoura heads the New England chapter of the Syrian American Forum, which works to build understanding between the two cultures. He says that part of that understanding includes recognizing the power of words.
“In general, people who don’t know Syrian people, who don’t know Middle Eastern people on a personal level,” he says, “I notice that … the phrase ‘Syrian,’ to some people it’s becoming equivalent to terrorist or some kind of medieval culture, and this is what hurts me mostly actually.”
The Syrian civil war and the resultant refugee crisis dominate much of the news today. While there have been fewer than 100 Syrian refugees arriving in Massachusetts since the beginning of the civil war in 2011, the largest share have been resettled in Worcester -- a total of 31 Syrian refugees, according to federal data.
Those new faces join a Syrian community with roots dating back to the 19th century.
Dr. Najib Saliba, a professor of Middle East history at Worcester State University who has researched the Syrian-Lebanese community in the city, says the first settlers from Syria made their home on Wall Street, on what became known as “Syrian Hill.”
The first Syrian immigrants bound for Worcester left pre-World War I Syria, a large territory that extended beyond the modern-day boundaries.
“In my research, the first immigrant who called himself Syrian settled in Worcester in 1890,” he says. “I got his name from city records; he was settled and paying taxes in 1890. And then more came.”
Saliba says many of those who followed were drawn to Worcester by the allure of jobs and community. The community grew so rapidly that by 1902, it had enough people -- and money -- to establish the St. George Syrian Orthodox Church -- only the third of its kind in the U.S.
“We’ve been here for over a hundred years,” says Father Milad Selim, dean of the St. George Orthodox Cathedral in Worcester, the only Antiochian Orthodox Cathedral in New England.
“This [church] community has originally come from Syria and Lebanon, so the majority of the people, their backgrounds, their ancestors are from Syria, Lebanon,” he says.
Born in Baghdad, Father Milad’s family fled Iraq in the mid-1990s during the Gulf War. He says his own immigrant experience helps him relate to his congregation and the city at large.
“Worcester is known for its multicultural background of the people,” Milad says. “I mean, you walk the streets and you’ll see the people are all different, different languages, you’ll hear it on the street. I think that’s what makes Worcester feel like home to many people.”
Worcester has long been regarded as a major gateway city in New England, boasting affordable housing, entry-level jobs and public transit. Today, 85 languages are spoken in the public schools and, according to a recent study, 37 percent of they city’s business owners are foreign born.
Mayor Joseph Petty says that diversity makes the city stronger.
“We’ve been an immigrant city since the 1800s, and I’m pretty proud to say Worcester is a very welcoming city," Petty says. "Immigrants here succeed. They’ve made Worcester what it is today by their hard work, and they’re making it a great city.”
Finding A Way To 'Coexist'
It’s a Friday at the Worcester Islamic Center, and around a thousand Muslims gather to pray. Women sell snacks and children play in the social hall following the service, their laughter echoing off the high ceilings.
Dr. Amjad Bahnassi, originally from Damascus, is a member of the Islamic center. He’s been practicing psychiatry in Worcester for more than 25 years and says he’s proud of the multicultural identity of the city.
“I always use this city as an example for people in the Middle East to find a way to coexist,” he says. “When you go to Syria and you see it’s [a] multi-ethnic community, I always tell people, ‘In Worcester here, we coexist, Catholic, Protestant, Jews, blacks, Korean, Muslims, Christians, Orthodox, and we all co-exist in a beautiful way.'”
And yet, despite that coexistence, when culture and religion are in the mix, differences are inevitable, including within the Syrian community.
Mona Ives, an administrator at the center, says that the Muslim community is, unfortunately, accustomed to absorbing political backlash in the wake of terror attacks like those in Paris and San Bernardino.
While she herself is not Syrian, Ives explains how some of that backlash might reverberate differently within the Syrian community in Worcester.
“Just because of the Islamaphobia truly the experience of a Syrian Muslim is going to be a little bit different than the experience of a Syrian Christian,” she says. “At the end of the day I think Syrians, they could have mixed experiences here.”
Dr. Bahnassi believes those differences are part of what makes the city strong, and he says it’s just a matter of finding common ground.
“I think most people don’t understand the Syrian crisis,” he says. “Once they have a better understanding, I think they will be able to appreciate it more.”
And after a quarter of a century in Worcester, Bahnassi has reason to hope that the community will get there.
This segment aired on December 16, 2015.
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