Before Hollywood, America came to the Middle East as Protestant missionaries. In 1820, the American Board of Commissioners and Foreign Missions sponsored many missionaries to the Middle East, and the Far East among other regions. This new evangelical approach was in great contrast to the predecessor European Crusades. For over thirty years, the dedicated missionaries encountered diseases, suspicions, and the challenges of being in a foreign country. Nevertheless, they established schools and hospitals wherever they went. Their burial sites testify to the work and love they shared with the Syrians.
When the Civil War ended America was in construction mode. The house that was once divided needed mending now. This was the era of reconstruction. Irish immigrants provided the muscle for building railroads and canals. Italians were noted for their diligence and sobriety as workmen. The Japanese migrated to Hawaii, and the Chinese, who had come for gold in California, wound up creating the Western leg of the railroads.
The image of America during the nineteenth/early twentieth centuries was primarily conveyed through missionaries to Christians in Syria. As a result, most of the first wave of Syrian immigrants were Christians. Another reason was that in order for Muslims to leave their Turk-governed homeland, they had to complete or become exempt from mandatory military service.
Syrians from Beirut, Damascus, Zahle, and Aleppo came to America because they saw America as the promised land for their marketing skills. They usually began their lives in America by seeking other Syrians – friendly faces in an unfamiliar land. They quickly learned how to greet, where to travel, and when to request help. They also learned the value of American currency. And then they hit the road carrying their peddling bags on their backs.
Traveling first on foot and later by a horse, a wagon, or an automobile, peddlers were welcomed into the homes of Americans. Men often did not like them because, after all, they were the earners of the money that their wives were spending. The wives, however, loved the convenience of home shopping. Peddlers usually sold items such as needles, ribbons, clothes, lace, scissors, underwear, stockings shoes, table cloths, bed linens… etc. If they didn’t have what a customer needed, they would go back to their suppliers and bring it on their next trip.
In June 1893, a Kansas City Times reporter visited a church at 128 Grand Avenue. By his account, there were 100 or so men and women gathered at Kineest Al-Saidi (the Church of Our Lady), an Arabic Church.
The reporter described the preacher as “an odd-looking man with bushy-faded whiskers and a peculiarly-shaped head… the long black gown which covers his form conveys the impression that he is a ‘Mohammedan’ priest, but the rosary and crucifix stamp him as a disciple of the Roman Catholic Church, and such he was.”
The congregation was formed in 1893 by Khouri Hanna, known as Hodi Hanna or John Yamin. He was unable to speak English and was often mistaken for a Jewish Rabbi. Father Yamin lived in the Argentine district in Kansas City, KS, with a nephew and a sister-in-law. His apartment was so small that it is said one had to stand outside to take off an overcoat. He rode the interurban streetcar to get to church.
The church was located on the second floor of a story and a half building. The front room downstairs housed dry goods peddling supply store operated by Joseph Moses Tannous.
Joseph Moses emigrated from Syria with his wife in 1888 and settled in Kansas City in 1890. He spoke English and therefore was the “go-to” man for most Syrian newcomers. He found them a place to stay, job training, and merchandise to sell. His wife, Nestas, was the Godmother to a dozen children of these newcomers. There is no record of whether they had any children of their own, or of where and when they passed away, but we know that he brought his Syrian friend, Father Yamin, from Mazraat Yachouh to Kansas City. They both grew up in that village which is now a suburb of Beirut, Lebanon.
They were called Syrians because Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan had yet to be created by the Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France in 1915. Prior to that agreement, everyone who hailed from that region was Syrian. The term “Arab” was too broad.
Most of the Syrian families lived and worked between 10th and 11th Streets. Some lived as far as Lexington, St. Joseph, and Leavenworth. Father Yamin kept all his church records in Arabic. His register contains 215 baptisms, 55 marriages, and 70 obituaries between 1893 and 1927. Father Yamin died in 1928 after serving the community here for 35 years. He is buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Kansas City, Missouri.
Moses and Yamin embodied the two reasons people come to Kansas City: opportunity and religion. This businessman and his priest friend were referred to as the “Leaders of the Arabic Colony in Kansas City.”
The Twentieth century came to Kansas City with the promise of a prosperous future. The city was taking its rank in the nation as a center for the cattle industry. Kansas City was named to host the 1900 Democratic National Convention in its newly built convention hall. Yet, when the hall was “burned to a crisp before the very eyes of the people”, The Kansas City Star reported on April 5, 1900, that Kansas City was in no mood to fail. In merely 90 days, the hall was rebuilt and the convention went on as scheduled, July 4, 1900. Syrians in the city and the whole nation were in awe of this “Kansas City Spirit.”
The 1920 census reported the “Arabic Speaking” Syrians in the city of Kansas City alone numbered 118, not including residents in St. Joseph, Leavenworth, Kansas City, KS, and other surrounding towns. They were involved in local politics, businesses, and entertainment. One of the prominent families was the Boutross Family (various spellings). Joseph Abdulla Boutross translated the church records of Father Yamin in 1943. Many of the Syrians who settled in Kansas City came from other US cities such as Wichita and St. Louis. Others arrived directly from Marj Eyoun, Saydnaya, and other Lebanese/Syrian towns.
The Swyden and Eddy families were involved in politics. Victor Swyden served on the city council of Kansas City during the building of the Kansas City International Airport. He named the main circular street at terminal C “Beirut Cir.” The Eddy Family built Plaza Bowl with 32 alleys at 430 Alameda (known now as JC Nichols Rd).
Many others were policemen, merchants, physicians, and laborers. Their stories are part of the making of Kansas City. For example, the Kansas City Star reported on March 5, 1945 that a total of 55 men from the Syrian family in the city are in the armed services.